Thursday, March 14, 2013

What are universal urban features?

1.Walled neighborhoods in Chang'an
What characteristics are shared by all cities, from the earliest to today, and around the world? Many of the features shared by all cities are not exclusive to cities or urban settlements. Things like housing, big buildings, wide streets, or social diversity are often found in villages and other non-urban settlements. Three features of cities seem to be true universals. By this I mean features that (1) are found in all known cities; (2) are often absent in non-urban settlements; and (3) have a major impact on life in cities. These three features are neighborhoods, urban services, and elites. There may be others that I haven't considered; let me know if you have ideas for non-trivial urban universals.

2. Neighborhoods (clusters) at La Joyanca

(1) Neighborhoods

For years I've been telling my classes that neighborhoods are one of the few urban universals. Figure 1 here shows the walled neighborhoods at the Chinese Tang city of Chang'an. Recent research of our urban group here at Arizona State University, has been targeting the neighborhood at cities through time. Archaeologists have woken up to the importance of urban neighborhoods, and this has become an active area of fieldwork and analysis; see the new book, The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial unit in Mesoamerican Cities. The clusters of houses at Classic Maya sites were neighborhoods; figure 2 here shows one example, the city of La Joyanca (from the chapter by Eva Lemmonier) Even semi-urban settlements have neighborhoods - see my post on this.
3. Bhaktapur neighborhood plaza

4. Model of a Bkaktapur shrine
Neighborhoods are often focused on key features such as a plaza, a water-source, or a temple. In the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur, for example, neighborhoods are formed around open plazas, often with water sources (fig.3). In addition, each neighborhood has one or more shrines. Our urban project has a small exhibit in the Museum of Anthropology at ASU, and the museum folks created a nice model of one of the Bhaktapur neighborhood shrines (fig. 4). Central features like this give neighborhoods a central focus for people to gather and interact on a daily basis.

(2) Urban Services

The next research project of our urban group is a study of urban services in premodern cities. In background reading for this project it occurred to me that urban services are another urban universal. When people live together in cities, they cannot take care of all of their basic social needs in the same way that rural people in villages can, and they also take on new needs that must be met in the city. Someone has to provide basic services, which include infrastructure (water, roads), education, commercial outlets, ritual, and places to gather. In modern cities, governments provide most of the urban services, but in medieval cities many services came from guilds, church groups, and private citizens. How does this work in premodern cities? And how are services affected by elites and inequalities? These are the basic questions we will be studying over the next few years. I will talk about our project in a future post (click here for some preliminary information). For now, I will just mention some basic services and how they intersect with neighborhoods.
5. Neighborhood temple in Calixtlahuaca

We are studying urban services through their facilities -- the places where they are provided. For the comparative study we have singled out three services that occur in most cities: markets/shops; temples; and assembly spaces. The small plazas and shrines of Bhaktapur are examples of neighborhood-level services in that city. Neighborhood-level service facilities can be widely distributed in cities, and typically there are many of them. But cities also have higher-level service facilities - that is, facilities that are larger and serve more people, and there are fewer of these features. Thus in Mesoamerican cities, there are often many small temples, distributed around the city (fig. 5), while there are only a few large central temples (fig. 6).
6. High-order temple at Palenque

7. Central plaza at Copan
Also, many cities have numerous small neighborhood plazas (fig. 3), but only one or two large, central plazas (fig. 7). For more information on our upcoming study of premodern urban services, click here.

(3) Elites

8. Medieval noble and beggar
My third candidate for an urban universal is elites. My claim is that in any society that has both cities and elites (that is, most complex, state-level societies), some or all of the elites will live in the city. There may also be rural-based elites, or elites who maintain multiple residences, but some elites will live in the city, and they will exert an influence over the lives of the non-elites. This is important, because in ancient societies, typically 5% or less of the population were in the elite class, and the small number of elite families had a disproportionate influence on urban life in cities. This claim also applies to modern cities, although the system of inequality and elites is radically different in contemporary western societies compared to premodern societies.

9. Elite and commoner house at Cuexcomate
Exactly how did urban elites influence city life in the past? There is probably variation among cities and areas, and this is one question we will investigate in our project. One very preliminary finding, from a small sample of cities, suggests that elite residences had better access to service facilities than commoner houses (surprise, surprise). But commoners living in the same neighborhoods as those elite residences had no advantages (in the distance they had to walk to get services).

While elites played important roles in ancient cities and societies, there has been surprisingly little comparative research on elites around the globe. Archaeologists usually identify elites by the size of their houses (fig. 9), and as the excavation and analysis of houses moves forward around the globe, we will learn more about ancient elites and their roles in cities.

Are there other urban universals beyond neighborhoods, urban services, and elites? Let me know if you have any suggestions. There is still a lot to learn about cities throughout history in the wide, urban world.

No comments:

Post a Comment