Saturday, March 19, 2016

Settlement Scaling: Continuities from Villages to Cities

I used to make a big deal about definitions of urbanism, and how to distinguish cities from other settlements. This is a worthwhile effort, useful for many purposes. But I now find that overemphasizing the distinction between, say, villages and cities can get in the way of understanding some of the major social dynamics of these settlements. Key dimensions of social life show remarkable similarities between villages and cities. For years I questioned the similar notion that major differences characterized rural and urban life, based on my excavations at Aztec sites (Smith 2008, 2016). In some settings around the world, rural and urban lifestyles and social conditions are radically different, but in others—such as Aztec-period Morelos, Mexico—they are quite similar. But my topic here is more general: what are some of the similarities or continuities between social life in villages and cities? This question relates closely to research on settlement scaling.

Our research group on settlement scaling (AKA “urban scaling”) now has a project name and a website—the Social Reactors Project: Human Settlements andNetworks in History. I have been thinking a lot lately about how the work in scaling relates to other research issues and themes in archaeology and the social sciences more generally. This is the first of several posts about the social and scientific context of this research. These are exploratory posts—me thinking aloud about connections between research domains—and not reports of well-established (and published) ideas. I welcome feedback, particularly if I say something dumb.

One of the remarkable empirical findings of the work on settlement scaling is that village settlement systems exhibit some of the same quantitative regularities as do contemporary (and historical/ancient) urban systems. See the project website or previous posts (here,  or here) on this. This finding is predicted from the “social reactors” perspective on scaling. The actions of large numbers of people gathered in specific places have predictable quantitative outcomes in key social domains. The foundation of the social reactors approach is a mathematical model based on the number of people who interact socially within a given built environment. This model is presented in Bettencourt (2013). But does the finding of continuities between village and urban systems make sense from other perspectives? My answer is yes. Here I will focus on two areas: neighborhood formation; and the process of settlement aggregation. Recent research in these areas supports the scaling results by showing how settlement size plays a similar role in both village and city settlement systems.

The universality of neighborhoods

I have claimed for a number of years now that the division of urban residents into neighborhoods is one of the few universals of cities around the world and through history (Smith 2010, 2012). A few years ago I got a bunch of undergraduates together to test this idea by investigating whether neighborhoods existed in what we called “semi-urban settlements” (Smith et al. 2015). These are settlements that are not true cities, but do have large numbers of people gathered together, often for a short period of time. The idea was that if semi-urban settlements exhibit neighborhood organization, this would support the claim that neighborhoods are universal traits of cities.

Each student took one or more types of semi-urban settlements, and looked at maps and read reports to look for the division of the settlement into spatial zones that had some social significance. We identified a total 17 types of semi-urban settlement, of which 11 had enough information to evaluate the presence or absence of neighborhoods. Ten of those eleven settlement types did indeed show neighborhood organization (only disaster camps lacked neighborhoods). Here is the total list of semi-urban settlements we looked at:

Sometimes of these settlements are created forcibly by authorities for their own purposes (“force” in the table), and in other cases the settlements are created by necessity. And in still other cases, the settlements are created by the individual actions of residents ("volunteer" in the table). The fact that ten out of the eleven settlement types we studied show clear neighborhood organization supports the contention that neighborhoods are a universal feature of urban, and urban-like settlements. In other words, when settlement reach a certain size, neighborhood organization—whether imposed or generated by residents—is inevitable.

But the universality of neighborhood organization goes beyond this. In reviewing my notes, I see that apart from some brief mentions here and there (Smith 2010, 2011), I never published my findings on rural neighborhoods. So, here is a brief summary. In many traditional settlement systems, neighborhood-like spatial clusters are found in rural areas. In my paper on Classic Maya neighborhoods, I show that these rural settlement clusters are functionally equivalent to urban neighborhoods, and that they are the kind of unit that serves as an urban neighborhood in low-density tropical cities, such as the Classic Maya or the Khmer (Smith 2011).

Here are two examples of named social groups that serve as neighborhoods in both urban and rural settings: the Aztec calpolli, and the north African darb. The calpolli was a group of Aztec households with common economic activities. In rural areas, nobles owned the farmland, but decisions on how to divide up plots was made by the calpolli, whose members lived together in a village. Only calpolli members had direct access to land. In urban areas, a calpolli was an urban neighborhood whose members often had similar economic specialization. Each calpolli had a temple and a school. For discussion, see: Smith and Novic (2012); for a non-technical account, see my new book (Smith 2016:chapter 7).

In traditional north African societies, the darb is a unit similar to the calpolli—a neighborhood in urban centers, and a village or village section in rural areas. In rural areas, the darb:

“functions as an intermediate structure between the family and the village. It was once described to me as the ‘middle branch’ (al-far’ al-wasat). It is primarily the place where events pertaining to the individual take on a public or communal significance. (Saad 1998:115).

In urban settlements, the darb is a neighborhood (typically called a “quarter” in English-language descriptions), a social division of a town or city (Eickelman 1974). For more examples of rural neighborhoods, see my discussion of highland Maya rural neighborhoods (Smith 2011). See also Anthony Kaye’s discussion of rural neighborhoods in the slave communities of the antebellum southern U.S. (Kaye 2002, 2007a, 2007b).

The implication of these cases is that when human settlements reach a certain size, the residents will create neighborhoods, whether they live in an urban center or in a rural area, in a city or in a village. Unless, of course, the neighborhoods have been pre-established by the builders or authorities. Two obvious questions—How large a population is required to trigger neighborhood formation? and, How big are neighborhoods?—cannot be answered with current information. Years ago, when I started working on neighborhoods, I tried to track neighborhood size, but the data are just too scattered and I gave up.

Settlement aggregation

When I first learned about Luis Bettencourt’s scaling model, and realized that it predicted similar quantitative patterns for village settlements as for cities, I was skeptical. One of my concerns focused on the nature of population movements in the two kinds of settings. The fact that people can move around, into and out of cities and regions, seemed important for the development of the scaling regularities. I don’t think such movement is an absolute requirement of the formal model, but for some settlements to grow larger than others, people have to be able to move around. Thus I was curious about two processes. First, did people in the past really move around very much? Or were farmers and peasants “tied to the land,” as in traditional models? Second, was the process of village aggregation—people moving into villages—similar to the process or urbanization (in the sense of people moving into cities)?

To answer these questions, I reviewed the published literature on spatial mobility and village aggregation in premodern societies. In brief, the evidence supports the scaling model, in that mobility and movement could be substantial in the past, and village aggregation was quite similar to rural-to-urban migration. The journal World Archaeology was just assembling a special issue on past migration and mobility, so I published the paper there (Smith 2014).

I was amazed at the extent of spatial mobility in late medieval and early modern European villages. Robin Osborne (1991) had reviewed the literature earlier, and I updated his analysis. In a famous example published by Peter Laslett, censuses were taken in two 17th century villages twelve years apart. In the second enumeration, only 38% of the original residents were still in the villages! While the mobility rate may have been particularly high in Britain for structural reasons, there are many examples of considerable social turnover in peasant settings around the world.

In looking at aggregation processes, studies of three different domains coincide in identifying defense as one of the key drivers of such movement. First, most archaeologists agree that the basic cause for the aggregation of population into early villages was the need for defense (Bandy and Fox 2010; Birch 2013). Second, the same factor is identified for the nucleation of settlement in rural parts of the developing world (Silberfein 1989). And third, defense was one of the predominant drivers of urbanization before the modern era in many regions (Adams 1981; Flannery and Marcus 2012). In other words, movement into town, or into the village, was in many cases caused by the same forces—the need for defense and protection.


These considerations of neighborhood formation and premodern settlement aggregation lend support to the social reactor model of settlement scaling. While the idea that village systems exhibit the same quantitative properties as urban systems may seem strange at first, it becomes more comprehensible when we focus on population size and its implications. If we get too hung up on defining urbanism and highlighting differences between urban and non-urban contexts (yes, guilty as charged…..), this can blind us to some remarkable similarities in these two kinds of settings. The key factor uniting them is the role of population size in generating certain kinds of processes and outputs.

While it is possible to claim that the data on neighborhoods and aggregation processes support the scaling model, it is also possible to turn this around and claim that the scaling results support the models from neighborhood and aggregation analysis. But I think the most productive approach is to point out that research in these three distinct domains (and probably others as well) all point to similar conclusions: Many social processes transcend the traditional urban / non-urban distinction; these all involve the consequences of the numbers of people who live or work (and interact) in a settlement; and, human settlement dynamics are remarkably similar around the world and through history.

Stay tuned for more exploration of the context of settlement scaling. Next topic: scaling and social science theory.


Adams, Robert McC.
1981 Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Bandy, Matthew S. and Jake R. Fox
2010 Becoming Villagers: The Evolution of Early Village Societies. In Becoming Villagers: Comparing Early Village Societies, edited by Matthew S. Bandy and Jake R. Fox, pp. 1-16. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A.
2013 The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Birch, Jennifer
2013 Between Villages and Cities: Settlement Aggregation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In From Prehistoric Villages to Cities: Settlement Aggregation and Community Transformation, edited by Jennifer Birch, pp. 1-22. Routledge, New York.

Eickelman, Dale F.
1974 Is there an Islamic City? The Making of A Quarter in a Moroccan Town. International Journal of Middle East Studies 5: 274-294.

Flannery, Kent V. and Joyce Marcus
2012 The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Kaye, Anthony E.
2002 Neighborhoods and Solidarity in the Natchez District of Mississippi: Rethinking the Antebellum Slave Community. Slavery and Abolition 23: 1-24.

2007a        Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

2007b        Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion. Journal of the Early Republic 27 (4): 705-720.

Osborne, Robin
1991 The Potential Mobility of Human Populations. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10 (2): 231-252.

Saad, Reem
1998 Hegemony in the Periphery: Community and Exclusion in an Upper Egyptian Village. In Directions of Change in Rural Egypt, edited by Nicholas S. Hopkins and Kirsten Westergaard, pp. 113-129. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo.

Silberfein, Marilyn
1989 Settlement Form and Rural Development: Scattered Versus Clustered Settlement. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 80 (5): 258-268.

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

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

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