Friday, November 23, 2012

"Connecting Past and Present:" Cities and global environmental change

"Connecting Past and Present: Lessons in Urbanization and the Environment." This is the title of a special section of three articles in the new issue of UGEC-Viewpoints. This newsletter/magazine is put out by the project, "Urbanization and Global Environmental Change," which in turn is part of a larger research network called "International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change."

These three papers lay out some of the basic arguments for why ancient cities might be relevant for understanding contemporary urbanization and its environmental impact today. The phrase "might be relevant" is important; I will return to it below.

The section starts off with my paper, "The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization."
I ask, "Why should researchers in this area pay attention to ancient cities?" and I suggest two reasons. First, the long-term perspective of archaeological data lets us look at cities that rose and fell over period of centuries and millennia. Second, ancient cities add to our sample of urban possibilities, allowing a broader perspective on the diverse ways people have designed, built, and lived in cities over the ages. These are things I've discussed quite a bit in this blog. I go on to describe our transdisciplinary urban project at Arizona State University, and then discuss two topics: low-density tropical urbanism (the theme of the other 2 papers in the special section) and research on ancient urban sustainability (drawing on my paper, Smith 2010).

We were asked by UGEC Viewpoints to say something about the policy implications of research, so I give a few opinions on that matter. Briefly, planners and policy makers don't care about ancient cities, and they are not going to look at our archaeological findings to provide clues or guidance for contemporary urban issues. But enlightened planners and policy makers do care about research on cities and urbanism in general, and if archaeologists can provide data to broaden that more general body of research, then our results might have an indirect effect on policy or planning.

The second paper in the UGEC Viewpoints special section is: Scarborough, Vernon L., Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase  (2012)  Low-Density Urbanism, Sustainability, and IHOPE-Maya: Can the Past Provide More than History?
They talk about the project IHOPE-Maya, which involves a number of specialists in Maya archaeology and some formal modelers who are examining Classic Maya society in terms of concept or resilience and sustainability. This is an exciting endeavor. The Maya had fascinating cities and distinctive urban social and cultural expressions, but most fieldwork has been very particularistic. That is, archaeologists excavate Maya sites to learn about Maya sites, without much comparative analysis and without much concern with using their results to shed light on broader questions. The authors state,

"With respect to the ancient Maya, determining the degree to which they successfully altered their environs – or regionally damaged it – within the constraints of their technologies and innovations has great potential for assessing present-day societal adaptations." (p. 20)

This is an important new direction for Maya studies. I must admit that I find some of the article puzzling. I am not sure what the authors mean by this statement:

"Perhaps our Western technologies are now finally poised to revisit a notion of urbanism reclaimed from the past." (p.21)

They go on to make a comparison between Maya and modern urbanism that seems very abstract:

"the internet and the cultivation of market-driven co-operatives based in rural settings are the loose equivalent of the roads and calendars (the internet) and resource-specialized communities (the cooperatives) of the Maya."  (p.22)

Tikal, Guatemala, one of the largest of the Classic Maya cities
In the third paper, Christian Isendahl attacks the problem of "urban essentialism" ("Investigating Urban Experiences, Deconstructing Urban Essentialism"). Urban essentialism is one of the perspectives that holds back our understanding of general patterns of modern and ancient urbanism. Isendahl shows,

"how deep-rooted the modernist perception of urban essentialism has been over the last century, dominating and streamlining how we tend to think about urbanism as a largely uniform type of social formation, even in the pre-modern past."  (p.27)

In other words, many people--both the public and scholars--have this idea that there is a single kind of urbanism and a single kind of city, when in fact there is much variation around the world and through history. Isendahl focuses on the topic of urban agriculture, and how it goes against the standard western view that rural and urban and completely different and opposed settings:

"The body of evidence indicates that agricultural production cannot comfortably be regarded as ‘the antithesis of the city’ — as common essentialist-flavored understandings of urbanity seem to suggest — but is in many cases a fully integrated urban activity, viewed at the long-term and global scales." (p.28)

Above, I use the phrase "might be relevant" for the role of ancient cites in contributing to our knowledge of general patterns of urbanization today. Here is the problem. While archaeologists have lots of data on issues of cities and the environment, resilience, social patterns, and so on, we have yet to analyze those data in a framework that can be used by scholars working on contemporary urbanism. Right now, about all we can do is bring up some isolated examples. So while there are some urban scholars out there who think that past cities are relevant to contemporary concerns, archaeologists have yet to get our act together to produce reliable scientific findings that those scholars could use. This is the basic theme of Smith (2010). For a broader statement of the idea that archaeological can contribute to wider social-science research, see Smith et al. (2012).

For more discussion of these issues, look over my past posts, and check out some of these papers:

Barthel, Stephan and Christian Isendahl
2012    Urban Gardens, Agriculture, and Water Management: Sources of Resilience for Long-Term Food Security in Cities. Ecological Economics ( in press; published online).

Costanza, Robert, Sander van der Leeuw, Kathy Hibbard, Steve Aulenbach, Simon Brewer, Michael Burek, Sarah Cornell, Carole Crumley, John Dearing, Carl Folke, Lisa Graumlich, Michelle Hegmon, Scott Heckbert, Stephen T. Jackson, Ida Kubiszewski, Vernon Scarborough, Paul Sinclair, Sverker Sörlin and Will Steffen  (2012)  Developing an Integrated History and future of People on Earth (IHOPE). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 4(1):106-114.

Isendahl, Christian  2012    Investigating Urban Experiences, Deconstructing Urban Essentialism. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:25-28.

Isendahl, Christian and Michael E. Smith 2013    Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism: The Low-Density Cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 30 (in press; published online).

Scarborough, Vernon L., Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase  (2012)  Low-Density Urbanism, Sustainability, and IHOPE-Maya: Can the Past Provice More than History. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:20-24.

Scarborough, Vernon L., Nicholas P. Dunning, Kenneth B. Tankersley, Christopher Carr, Eric Weaver, Liwy Grazioso, Brian Lane, John G. Jones, Palma Buttles, Fred Valdez and David L. Lentz  (2012)  Water and sustainable land use at the ancient tropical city of Tikal, Guatemala. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:12408-12413.

Smith, Michael E.  2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

2012    The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:15-19.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris  2012    Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:7617-7621.

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