Friday, January 31, 2014

Cities without streets, cities without cars

Great Zimbabwe, a city without streets
Most cities today have streets. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a city not having any streets. If you have driven on some of the muddy tracks called streets in shantytowns in the developing world (as I have many times in Mexico), you may wonder whether "street" is an appropriate label for these lanes. But can there be cities that lack streets? In the ancient world, street-less cities are actually quite common. Most of the cities in ancient Mesoamerica, where I work, did not have streets. People walked on paths, and there were no wheeled vehicles. These were cities without streets, cities without cars.

A Maya city without streets. Map by Ed Barnhart
Some ancient Maya cities did have constructed roads or causeways between sectors of the sity, used for ceremonial processions (and probably mundane foot traffic as well). But no vehicles drove on these roads, that are called sacbes in Maya. Even cities built with an orthogonal layout, such as Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, had very few streets. Teotihuacan had ONE street, known informally as the Street of the Dead. The island city of Tenochtitlan had causeways to the shores of the lake, and these fed into streets that led to the center of town. Such streets followed canals, and the orthogonal layout of this city, "Venice of the New World," was due more to canals than to streets.
Vehicle ruts at Pompeii

While streets serve as place for walking,  and as connectors within the city, the main reason for the existence of streets in cities is to accommodate wheeled transport, whether ox-carts or automobiles. Chariot movement and other wheeled cart traffic in Pompeii was so extensive that the stone streets have deep wheel ruts. If wheeled transport was not important in a region, then the cities in that area don't have streets. This fits for ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes, and for much of sub-Saharan Africa. Inka cities are a partial exception. The Inka built an extensive road system for administration of their empire, and many of their cities had streets. But this is one of the few cases where urban streets developed prior to the introduction of wheeled transport.

But why didn't the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica have wheeled transport? They had a vibrant commercial economy, with lots of long-distance trade, periodic marketplaces, and professional merchants. They had two types of money. But they didn't use wheeled carts. The surprising thing is that the Mesoamericans DID invent the wheel. They made wheeled toys - mostly small clay animals with holes in the legs for an axle and wheels. These were most abundant in sites of the Toltec period (AD 900-1100), including Tula in central Mexico. I recovered some of these wheels and one of the legs in my fieldwork in the Yautepec Valley (see the photo).

If they knew the concept of the wheel, and they had lots of things worth transporting, why didn't the ancient Mesoamericans build carts? Two answers are usually given to this question. First, they lacked the appropriate draft animals. The major domesticated animals in Mesoamerica were the dog and the turkey. Turkeys don't make very good draft animals. And as anyone who ever tied up his or her dog to a wagon can attest, dogs aren't very good at pulling vehicles either. The second answer is that Mesoamerica consists mostly of rough, mountainous terrain. It would be costly and difficult to build the kinds of roads needed to move wheeled carts from one region to another. People carried burdens on their backs (using a tump-line that went across the forehead); indeed professional carriers were
Wheels and animal leg from Yautepec
common in and around Aztec cities.

Aztec merchants carrying loads
Since I deal quite a bit with cities without streets, this limits some of the concepts and methods commonly applied to cities in the modern world. I can't trace precise travel routes, and I can't apply space-syntax models of urban street layouts. Thus just goes to show that the wide urban world has a great diversity of cities and urban places, and we can't judge that whole urban world from the kinds of cities we happen to build today. 

Some sources on Toltec wheeled toys:

Diehl, Richard A. and Margaret Mandeville
1987    Tula and Wheeled Animal Effigies in Mesoamerica. Antiquity 61: 239-246.

Linné, Sigvald
1951    A Wheeled Toy from Guerrero, Mexico. Ethnos 16.

Stocker, Terry, Barbara Jackson, and Harold Riffell
1986    Wheeled Figurines from Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico. Mexicon 8 (4): 69-72.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How ancient cities can help us understand modern cities

Tropical sprawl at Angkor (Evans et al. 2013)
A growing number of archaeologists, including me, believe that the results of our excavations at
ancient cities can help us understand cities today. The problem is that the road from, say, a  map of an ancient Mesopotamian city or the trash heap next to one of the Aztec urban houses I've excavated, to information relevant to modern cities, can be long and difficult. The popular press and university public relations offices are quick to draw facile modern connections for research on ancient cities. Mapping the huge city of Angkor revealed low-density settlement, so this helps us understand urban sprawl. Tell Brak, a much earlier city in Mesopotamia, also had low-density settlement, and the Environmental News Network reports that "Researchers [at Tell Brak] rewrite the origins of ancient urban sprawl" (for these and other examples, see Smith 2010, p. 229).

The implication of these press reports seems to be that urban planners in southern California might read about Angkor or Brak, and this will help them deal with with urban sprawl and its consequences around Los Angeles. I don't think so. The actual situation is much more complex. I will discuss this with respect to four questions:
The earliest sprawl? Tell Brak (Ur et al. 2007)

1. How, exactly, are ancient cities be relevant to contemporary urbanization?

I gave my take on this question in an earlier post,"Why are premodern cities important today?" (2011). To summarize here, there are two main arguments, that I call the urban trajectory argument and the sample size argument.

The urban trajectory argument. This has two components, the long and the short perspective. The long perspective argument suggests that having a broad historical perspective, looking a cities from deep history to the present, helps us understanding cities and how they change through time. One statement of this argument is the quote from Winston Churchill at the top of this blog: "The farther back we look, the farther ahead we can see."

The short perspective argument says  that to understand cities today, we need to know how they developed historically. Richard Harris and Robert Lewis (1998) make this point for the value of (recent) urban history in understanding North American cities today. But if we go back earlier in time, then archaeological studies of, say, Aztec cities, can help reveal the forms and functions of early Spanish cities that were created as replacements for, or transformations of their Aztec antecedents. Setha Low (1995) discusses this issue. The fact that archaeology covers long periods of change through time is what gives it special insights into trajectories of urban change.

Coatetelco, an Aztec city (Smith 2008)
The sample size argument.  Again, there are two parts to this argument. First, adding ancient cities to the body of knowledge of contemporary and historical cities provides a broader base for generalization and explanation. By widening the comparative framework of cities, archaeological findings help scholars distinguish the unique from the universal, they provide additional insights on specific cities, and they help in uncovering the dynamics of change and causality. What forces shape urban development and how do they operate? The bigger and more diverse the sample, the better we can answer this and other questions.

The second part of the sample size argument is that by providing more and more diverse examples of cities, knowledge of ancient cities give modern planners and managers more case studies to draw on.

2. Do archaeologists have the data to illuminate urban trajectories and increase the sample of known cities?

The answer here is both yes and no. Archaeologists have excavated and mapped and analyzed many ancient cities from all over the world, and we have lots of data that bear on a wide variety of urban issues, from neighborhoods to sprawl to economic growth. The problem is that we haven't analyzed our data in ways that allow direct examination of these issues, or ways that allow comparison with modern cities. I published a paper in 2010 on precisely this issue: "Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues." For me, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to compare ancient and modern cities. Archaeological data can be messy and difficult to work with. The way we analyze and publish our data are rarely of direct relevance to contemporary social issues. We need to reanalyze our findings, using the concepts, methods, and data formats that relate to research on contemporary cities and society, and that takes time and effort. Will archaeologists do this?

3. Will archaeologists do the work to translate our data into usable formats?

I am optimistic that some archaeologists will make the effort to translate the results of our fieldwork into findings that can be used and understood by other urban scholars, by policy makers, and by the public. Indeed, an important new paper by a group of prominent archaeologists came out this week in the journal American Antiquity, with a summary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Kintigh et al. 2014). These authors identify 25 "grand challenges" for archaeology in the near future. (See my take on the list of challenges here). These are big questions, amenable to archaeological research, that relate to major intellectual and scientific issues today. One of these challenges concerns cities and urbanism, Challenge A6: "How can systematic investigations of prehistoric and historic urban landscapes shed new light on the social and demographic processes that drive urbanism and its consequences?" And several others overlap considerably with urbanism, including a challenge on social inequality (# A2) and two on the nature of human communities (# A4 and A5).

I am excited by this new list of grand challenges for archaeology, and the inclusion of cities and urbanism in several of them will help stimulate further archaeological research on ancient urbanism and its contemporary relevance. The authors cite my 2010 paper in their discussion of the urbanism challenge. More and more archaeologists are starting to realize the value of reanalyzing our data to address new and important research questions. Indeed, this is one of the explicit reasons for identifying research challenges: where should we concentrate our effort beyond our regular fieldwork?

I know this difficulty of translating archaeological findings first-hand. I am trying to get some of my own archaeological data into usable formats, and it is taking far too long. I can get grants for fieldwork and artifact analysis, but rarely for this kind of data analysis, so I have to work on this in my spare time (I have two grant-funded projects that take up most of my research time). Since I don't have funding to hire student Research Assistants for this kind of work, I have to go with the help of undergraduate interns and volunteers. I am fortunate in having a great group of undergraduates (and graduate students) in my university lab to help with these tasks, and we are moving ahead, slowly but surely.

4. Who needs to look at archaeological findings?

When you read the press releases about how Teotihuacan is valuable for understanding urban planning, or how Angkor illuminates sprawl, you sometimes get the impression that planners and politicians are going to read archaeological reports and this will help them with their jobs. Well, think again. The mayor of Phoenix is not going to give me a ring and ask my advice on how to improve the marginal neighborhoods in South Phoenix, on the basis of my archaeological research on ancient neighborhoods. But Phoenix planners are far more likely to consult the broader social science research on neighborhoods to help with ideas and plans. They may look at Robert Sampson's 2012 book, Great American City, or Sidney Brower's 2011 book, Neighbors and Neighborhoods. And I'd hope they wold also look at other neighborhood research, such as Emily Talen's (2010) paper on diverse neighborhoods.

Given this situation, my strategy has been to try to get ancient cities onto the radar of scholars and others interested in cities and urbanism from a broad perspective. I've been publishing in urban journals outside of archaeology, giving papers at conferences, and generally trying to make other urban scholars aware of the potential value of archaeological data on ancient cities (see Smith 2012). This is one of the reasons for writing this blog. I like to ask questions such as,"Why are Aztec cities interesting?" (2012); that is, why are they interesting in comparison to other known ancient and modern cities? These efforts are starting to pay off; Sampson has cited my work in several publications as supporting the notion that neighborhoods are enduring and long-lasting.

But the first step is to recognize that ancient and modern cities are both part of a single category--cities. Knowledge from one urban realm can be applied to another realm, for the improvement of our general understanding of urbanism. All cities, from ancient Uruk to contemporary Mumbai, are part of this wide urban world.

Dharavi slum in Mumbai

Brower, Sidney N.  (2011)  Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Elements of Successful Community Design. APA Planners Press, Chicago.

Evans, Damian H., Roland J. Fletcher, Christophe Pottier, Jean-Baptiste Chevance, Dominique Soutif, Boun Suy Tan, Sokrithy Im, Darith Ea, Tina Tin, Samnang Kim, Christopher Cromarty, Stéphane De Greef, Kasper Hanus, Pierre Bâty, Robert Kuszinger, Ichita Shimoda and Glenn Boornazian  (2013)  Uncovering archaeological landscapes at Angkor using lidar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:12595-12600.

Harris, Richard and Robert Lewis  (1998)  How the Past Matters: North American Cities in the Twentieth Century. Journal of Urban Affairs 20:159-174.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey Altschul, Mary Beaudry, Robert Drennan, Ann Kinzig, Timothy Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert Maschner, William Michener, Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy Sabloff, Tony Wilkinson, Henry Wright and Melinda Zeder  (2014)  Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79(1):5-24.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright and Melinda A. Zeder  (2014)  Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 122:879-880.

Low, Setha M.  (1995)  Indigenous Architecture and the Spanish American Plaza in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. American Anthropologist 97:748-762.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Smith, Michael E.  (2008)  Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

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

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

Talen, Emily  (2010)  The Context of  Diversity: A Study of Six Chicago Neighbourhoods`. Urban Studies 47:486-513.

Ur, Jason A., Philip Karsgaard and Joan Oates  (2007)  Early Urban Development in the Near East. Science 317:1188.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why are neighborhoods important?

Historical (Tokugawa) Japanese neighborhood
Why are neighborhoods important? There are many reasons, and many answers to this question. I recently read an interesting article by John McKnight, of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. The article is called "Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions that Only Effectivley Organized Neighborhoods can Provide" (McKnight 2013). McKnight begins with the observation that today many institutions that are used by people in cities are cutting back--government, not-for-profit organizations, schools, medical systems, human servic organizations, businesses. He says that "The functional space they no longer occupy creates either a crisis or an opportunity."

He continues, "The opportunity is there if we recognize that during recent generations, institutions have often taken over functions once performed by local communities, neighbors, and their collective groups and associations. Medicine has claimed our health. Police have claimed our safety. Schools have claimed the raising of our children. Social services have claimed the provision of care. And corporations have claimed that everything we need can be bought."

My (sprawling) neighborhood
McKnight wants neighborhoods to take back a greater share of these activities and functions, to return control of key aspects of life and society to neighborhoods and communities. This idea is developed at greater length in his book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, co-authored with Peter Block (McKnight and Block 2010). There is a nice website of the same name. I am reading the book now. While some of the arguments sound idealistic and even romantic, I think the authors have seized on key dimensions urban neighborhoods, and why they have been important from the earliest cities to the present.

Returning the McKnight's article, here are the "Seven functions that only effectively organized neighborhoods can provide":

  • Health. "Our neighborhoods are the primary source of our health." It is well known that longevity and many ailments are improved by strong social support networks, and neighborhoods can and should provide those networks.
    Neighborhood in Bungamati, Nepal
  • Safety. Safety is a local issue, and two of its major determinants are the number of neighbors one knows by name and the extent to which people are present and interacting in the public space near home. McKnight is drawing on both Jane Jacobs (her  stress on "eyes on the street") and Robert Sampson (whose relevant concept is "collective efficacy"), two of the top experts on urban neighborhoods. See Jacobs (1961) and Sampson (2012).
  • Environment and resources. Vibrant neighborhoods contribute to resource conservation in many ways.
  • A resilient economy. Most businesses begin locally, and neighbors are the most reliable source of jobs and information about jobs. Local economic activity contributes to successful neighborhoods, and active neighborhoods stimulate local economies.
  • Local food. The local food movement is just one manifestation of the positive association between neighborhoods and the production and distribution of food.
  • Socialization and raising children. McKnight invokes the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child" and encourages the involvement of neighbors in the collective raising and training of children.
  • Care-giving. "Our institutions can offer only service, not care. We cannot purchase care." True care is what neighbors and community members provide for one another, not what paid professional dispense from distant locations.
While I find the historical component of these arguments in McKnight and  Block (2010) less than fully convincing, I do think that the basic message is on-target. Neighborhoods are so important that they exist and have existed in every know city that has ever existed on the earth. Sometimes authorities plan and create neighborhoods, but more often neighborhoods are generated by the normal, everyday actions of ordinary people. The question of how and why neighborhoods are so important has occupied many of the top urban thinkers, yet there is still much to learn. I think John McKnight and Peter Block have identified some of the key reasons for the social importance of modern neighborhoods. Their work is well worth reading.
Modern and premodern neighborhoods

Jacobs, Jane  (1961)  The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York.

McKnight, John  (2013)  Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions that Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide. National Civic Review 102(3):22-24.

McKnight, John and Peter Block  (2010)  The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
One idea to improve neighborhoods