Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Ancient History of Gated Communities

Fig 1 - Modern gated community
Gated communities are a hot topic of research and discussion in urban studies. As summarized in a recent encyclopedia entry:
 Although gated communities are eulogized by residents, developers, and real estate agents for providing safe family spaces and secure financial investments, they have received a largely negative press from academics and the media, who perceive them as private fortresses that destroy the vibrancy of the city through their exclusivity. (Lemanski 2008)
The dominant view -- both scholarly and popular -- emphasizes security and fear. People are shutting themselves away in gated communities to keep out crime and undesirables. The spread of gated communities is said to produce alienation and anomie among residents, and a socially divided or segregated urban landscape (Blakely and Sneider 1997; Low 2001). Some research, however, challenges the security/fear interpretation of modern gated communities. Andrew Kirby and colleagues (Kirby et al. 2006), for example, report that in a sample of Phoenix gated communities, "residents are not alienated" (p.29), and the communities are not responses to a "culture of fear."
Fig 2- Informal neighborhood gate, Lima

The fear/security factor may, in fact, be more prominent in gated communities in poor neighborhoods of cities in the developing world than in modern U.S. or European cities. In Peru, enclosed areas are being established long after initial construction, by the residents themselves. Jörg Plöger (2006) studied neighborhoods in Lima, Peru, and found that most neighborhoods are "enclosed" or sealed off (with barriers and fences) by their residents for reasons of security (figure 2). These gates are installed not by developers or municipal authorities, but by the residents; they are informal, not formal, urban features. And even Dharavi, the Mumbai slum (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) where people are living in extremely close quarters, is the setting for many fenced-off residential zones. Jan Nijman (2010) explores how Dharavi challenges a number of standard notions in urban studies, a field whose models are based overwhelmingly on modern western cities.

Fig. 3- Chinese walled compound

These studies of the developing world are important for establishing a broader comparative perspective for gated communities. When we consider the past, the diversity of forms and meanings of gated communities increases even more. It turns out that gated communities have been common in Chinese cities for more than a millennium (Xu and Yang 2009), and they have been prominent in Mexico from the time of Spanish conquest until the present (Scheinbaum 2008). Figure 3 shows a traditional Chinese walled compound (i.e., a gated community). Interestingly, these features  resemble Inka walled compounds (called kancha) in Peru (figure 4). There is no historical connection at all between the Chinese and Inka examples; these are independent adaptations to what were probably similar urban forces and conditions. My guess would attribute this similarity in form to the importance of kinship and lineage in Chinese and Inka society. Several generations of families live together,
Fig 4 - Inka Kancha
 and the compound wall served as a visible marker of the close-knit social unit.

As in most premodern cities, the Chinese compounds were probably designed by their residents, and built either by the residents or by builders contracted by the residents. We know less about the construction of Inka compounds. The Inka state was strongly bureaucratic, and officials supervised and carried out many activities that were left to individual families in most early societies. Maps of Inka settlements show that these kancha units are highly standardized, perhaps because of central planning (Hyslop 1990).

Fig 5- Walled compounds in Chang'an
In some ancient cities, there is clear evidence for state planning in the construction of walled residential compounds. In Tang period Chang'an China, more than a millennium ago, the more than one million residents lived in walled-in neighborhoods. Gates closed off these neighborhoods at night, and guards made sure people stayed in their walled compounds and off the streets. A stone map from A.D. 1080 (figure 5) shows these ancient gated communities. In the following Song period, the state's power declined with a dramatic rise in commerce. In place of two enclosed markets, shops and stalls proliferated along the streets, gates were no longer guarded, and a real urban street life was generated. In this case, the gated communities were part of a state policy of control of the population, and when the policies changed to allow more freedom and self-determination, the gates came down (Heng 1999)

Fig 6- Old neighborhood gate, Jerusalem
Just the opposite process occurred in the Islamic cities of the Ottoman period in the Near East -- the neighborhood walls came down not from a loosening of state control, but from the imposition of strong control. These traditional cities had enclosed neighborhoods whose walls and gates were built by the residents (figure 6) to protect their neighborhood from outsiders; municipal and state authorities did not concern themselves with regulating life at the neighborhood or household level. But when these cities were conquered by European empires, one of the first tasks of the imperial overlords was to tear down the neighborhood gates. The new rulers were worried that people might be planning resistance in these closed neighborhoods, and the streets were opened up so that officials could begin to see what was going on in these areas (Abu-Lughod 1987).

Fig 7 - Hohokam walled compound
If there is this much variation in the social contexts of gated communities in premodern (and modern) cities, how can archaeologists begin to interpret ancient gated communities at sites where there are no written records? The Hohohkam of southern Arizona, in the final period prior to collapse and abandonment of their towns (ca 12th-15th centuries), started building walls around their neighborhoods (figure 7). Previously, their houses had been built in groups or clusters, with without walls. What does this signal? Or consider the Iron Age oppida towns in Europe (these are the towns defeated by Julius Caesar in his conquest of Gaul). Some of them had gated communities (figure 8). The walls in this reconstruction are not very high. Do they signal social exclusion, or perhaps just a way to keep the farm animals from wandering?
Fig 8 - Iron Age walled compound

These comparisons have intrigued me for a number of years. What is needed is a comprehensive comparative study of walled compounds / gated communities in the premodern world. Synthetic studies like Grant and Mittelstaedt (2004) are a good place to start. Perhaps we can figure out some of the social parameters of these features, and allow archaeologists to link the spatial layouts to social processes. Or perhaps the situation is just too messy and diverse. But until someone attacks this problem, we will never know.


Abu-Lughod, Janet L.
1987    The Islamic City: Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance. International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19:155-176.

Blakely, Edward J. and Mary G. Snyder
1997    Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Grant, Jill and Lindsey Mittelsteadt
2004    Types of Gated Communities. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 31:913-930.

Heng, Chye Kiang
1999    Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats: The Development of Medieval Chinese Cityscapes. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu.

Hyslop, John
1990    Inka Settlement Planning. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Kirby, Andrew, Sharon L. Harlan, Larissa Larsen, Edward J. Hackett, Bob Bolin, Amy Nelson, Tom Rex, and Shapard Wolf
2006    Examining the Significance of Housing Enclaves in the Metropolitan United States of America. Housing, Theory, and Society 23:19-33.

Lemanski, Charlotte
2009    Gated Communities. In Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, edited by Ray Hutchison, pp. Article 109. Sage, New York.

Low, Setha M.
2001    The Edge and the Center: Gated Communities and the Discourse of Urban Fear. American Anthropologist 103:45-68.

Nijman, Jan
2010    A Study of Space in Mumbai's Slums. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 101:4-17.

Plöger, Jörg
2006    Practices of Socio-Spatial Control in the Marginal Neighbourhoods of Lima, Peru. Trialog: A Journal for Planning and Building in the Third World 89(2):32-36.

Scheinbaum, Diana
2008    Gated Communities in Mexico City: An Historical Perspective. Urban Design International 13:241-252.

Xu, Miao and Zhen Yang
2009    Design History of China's Gated Cities and Neighbourhoods: Prototype and Evolution. Urban Design International 14:99-117.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Arrival City

Teotihuacan, Mexico
Ever since the first cities, people have been moving into town from the countryside. The earliest cities in southern Mesopotamia (Uruk) and central Mexico (Teotihuacan) grew from rural-to-urban migration. These two settlements got their start as small political capitals. Then they went through a period of explosive growth, while at the same time their hinterlands were depopulated. Although archaeologists cannot trace specific migrants from the village to the city, it's pretty clear that the people who abandoned the small rural settlements were the ones who swelled the capitals with their numbers.

Prior to the twentieth century, the level of urban disease was so high that cities were demographic sinks. That is, mortality was high, with more people dying than being born. I first read about this situation in William McNeill's 1976 book, Plagues and Peoples, a very readable book that is still valuable and fascinating today. The only way that premodern cities could maintain their population (or grow) was through migration from the countryside. Thus migration was the lifeline of premodern cities--without it, they would shrink and die.

Although urban migration has always been with us, it first came to world attention in the mid-twentieth century. Throughout the developing world, a combination of global and local economic forces led to population growth and increasing poverty in the countryside. Peasant families moved into cities in large numbers. This led to the creation of large shantytowns around most of the big cities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. At first, governments, the media, and even scholars decried these places as settings for crime, violence, poverty, and the breakdown of families and social values. But ethnographic fieldwork by urban anthropologists (pioneered by Oscar Lewis and William Mangin) showed that these shantytowns were full of hard-working poor people who hustled to make a living while maintaining the family structure and value system (see Mangin 1970; Turner 1991).

This massive exodus from rural to urban never ceased. Now more than half of the human species lives in cities, and all over the world rural peoples continue to migrate to shantytowns and other urban settlements. In his new book, Arrival City, journalist Doug Saunders (2011) describes this migration process around the world, from Africa to China to the United States. His findings echo the results of the urban anthropologists from fifty years ago: most migrants work hard to make a living, creating vibrant and dynamic urban neighborhoods in the process. Like their cousins two generations ago, these migrants maintain contact with their villages of origin, regularly sending money back home. Like premodern cities all over the world, people can live, work and relax in their own neighborhood. If the authorities provide key services (buses most of all, but also street lighting and other infrastructural features like paved roads, sewage systems and water), these urban villages become successful and sustainable neighborhoods.

Doug Saunders has a website on the book, "Arrival City" and a nice photo essay in the magazine Foreign Policy.  There are excellent and insightful reviews in  The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.  In the latter review, Fred Pearce says,

This may be the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago. Certainly it shares the same optimism about human aspiration amid overcrowded buildings and unplanned urban jungles, and the same plea for planners to help rather than stifle those dreams.

The picture painted by Saunders is vivid and contemporary, but the phenomenon of Arrival Cities -- those places where the migrants end up -- is quite ancient. If the ancient Sumerian scribes had been inclined to inscribe their cuneiform tablets with stories of urban migrants rather than accounts of the temple's herds of sheep or stories of the great deeds of kings and gods, this book might have been written five thousand years ago. Migration is absolutely crucial to urban dynamics, a regular pattern in the wide urban world.

Early Sumerian cuneiform text.

Mangin, William (editor)
1970    Peasants in Cities: Readings in the Anthropology of Urbanization. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

 McNeill, William H.
1976    Plagues and Peoples. Academic Press, New York.

Saunders, Doug
2011    Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping our World.  Pantheon, New York.

Turner, John F. C.
1991    Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. Marion Boyars, London.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cosmograms, Sociograms, and Cities Built as Images

Idealized Chinese Cosmogram Capital
Ten years ago a group of archaeologists published a collection of papers titled "Were Cities Built as Images?" (Carl et al. 2000). They discussed the notion that ancient urban planners laid out cities as pictorial diagrams. In some urban traditions, such as Imperial China and ancient Khmer Angkor, cities were designed explicitly as models of the cosmos ("cosmograms"). For many ancient urban traditions, however, there is little or no evidence for urban cosmograms, but this has not stopped many writers from asserting a cosmological source for urban design principles. A concept used much less frequently is the "microcosm" or "sociogram," referring to an urban design that encodes not cosmology, but features of social organization. I think this latter category may have been more common than is typically appreciated.

Imperial China: Capital Cities were Cosmograms

Feng shui masters pick new capital site
The best examples of ancient cities laid out in imitation of the cosmos are the imperial capitals of ancient Chinia (see figure above). Written sources describe a belief that the emperor had to act in harmony with heaven or else his luck would run out and the kingdom would suffer. One aspect of this belief was the idea that the emperor should build a new capital in a propitious place and that it should be built as a model of the cosmos: a symmetrical rectangle with nine gates, crossing avenues, and a royal compound in the center. The figure at left shows the imperial feng shui masters selecting the site for a new capital. For these Chinese cities, see Wheatley (1971) and Steinhardt (1990).

Ancient Mesoamerica: Cities were Not Cosmograms

There is a common "cartoon view" of ancient societies which holds that ancient peoples were obsessed with religion, death, and the afterlife, thinking about these things more than they thought about daily life. Everyone has heard this about ancient Egypt, but the belief is much more common. "Those people were not logical people like us," the cartoon view holds, "They were irrational prisoners of their religion." This view is nonsense. Ancient people were very much like you and I. Although they lived under very different cultural and social conditions, ancient people were logical and rational. Religion was important to them, but they were generally not fanatical or obsessive about it.

One expression of this cartoon view is the idea that all ancient cities were like the Chinese capitals in being cosmograms. The extent to which some writers are willing to speculate in the absence of evidence in order to uphold the cosmogram view is impressive (and depressing). I have debunked this view for the Classic Maya cities in Smith (2005). To put it simply, there is no evidence that the Maya, or the Aztecs or any other ancient Mesoamerican peoples, viewed their cities as cosmograms. Spanish writers recorded thousands of pages about the religious beliefs of the Aztecs and Mayas, providing great detail about the gods, rituals, and myths, but there is not a word about cosmograms.

The central district of Moundville
Microcosms and Sociograms

The absence of cosmograms does not mean that for form and design of ancient cities were arbitrary or devoid of social meaning. Vernon Knight (1998) used the concept of "sociogram" to describe a model in which aspects of social organization were expressed in the arrangement of public platforms at Mississippian chiefdom capital Moundville (see figure). A series of temple mounds and residential mounds were arranged around a plaza in a form similar to the way that clan buildings were arranged around plazas in Chickasaw villages as described by European observers. Kate Spielmann (2008) adds several archaeological examples of such sociograms, mostly for the village and town layouts of small-scale societies.
Monte Alban, main plaza
Although Knight limited his definition of sociogram to ranked clans in pre-state societies, it can be generalized to urban state societies. For example, three decades ago Richard Blanton (1978) made a similar interpretation of the structures that line the plaza at the Classic-period capital Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico (see map at left). Blanton argued that Monte Alban was created by a series of formerly competing chiefdoms in the Valley of Oaxaca who came together to built the impressive mountaintop city. If correct, then the main plaza at Monte Alban was a sociogram in which each of the structures lining the east and west sides of the plaza represented one of the original chiefdoms. In 1988, Olivier de Montmollin provided a parallel interpretation of the highland Maya city of Tenam Rosario, arguing that rural social groups were represented in the arrangements of plazas and structures in the capital city.

Cosmograms Today?

Burley's plan of Canberra
Urban cosmograms like the ancient Chinese capitals no longer exist in the modern world. Although some specialized religious compounds may be designed as cosmograms, whole cities are not. In the account of Amos Rapoport (1993), modern capital (and other) cities have lost the high-level symbolism and meaning of many ancient cities.Cities are more secular in layout today. But this has not stopped conspiracy enthusiasts from claiming that esoteric knowledge has been used to create secret cosmograms of some modern cities and buildings. Peter Proudfoot (1994), for example, claims that planner Walter Burley Griffin used esoteric symbols from the field of Theosophy to design the layout of Canberra in the early twentieth century. Burley's wife was a follower of Theosophy, and according to Proudfoot this led Burley to design Canberra as a secret Theosophical cosmogram. It is a fascinating book that reveals far more about the author than about the city of Canberra.

The basic message of this discussion is that not all ancient cities in the wide urban world were alike. Chinese and Khmer capitals were built as cosmograms, but Aztec and Maya capitals were not. Smaller Chinese cities were probably not cosmograms either. But the idea of encoding social meaning in city layout may have been broader and more widespread than the cosmogram concept. Are modern cities, or perhaps parts of them, laid out as sociograms? I'll have to think more about that; if you have examples or suggestions, please pass them on.


Blanton, Richard E.
1978    Monte Alban: Settlement Patterns at the Ancient Zapotec Capitol. Academic Press, New York.

Carl, Peter, Barry Kemp, Ray Laurance, Robin Coningham, Charles Highan, and George L. Cowgill
2000    Viewpoint: Were Cities Built as Images? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:327-365.

de Montmollin, Olivier
1988    Tenam Rosario: A Political Microcosm. American Antiquity 53:351-370.

Knight, Vernon J., Jr.
1998    Moundville as a Diagrammatic Ceremonial Center. In Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, edited by Vernon J. Knight, Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, pp. 44-62. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Proudfoot, Peter R.
1994    The Secret Plan of Canberra. University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, NSW, Australia.

Rapoport, Amos
1993    On the Nature of Capitals and Their Physical Expression. In Capital Cities, Les Capitales: Perspectives Internationales, International Perspectives, edited by John Taylor, Jean G. Lengellé, and Caroline Andrew, pp. 31-67. Carleton University Press, Ottawa.

Smith, Michael E.
2005    Did the Maya Build Architectural Cosmograms? Latin American Antiquity 16:217-224.

Spielmann, Katherine A.
2008    Crafting the Sacred: Ritual Places and Paraphernalia in Small-Scale Societies. In Dimensions of Ritual Economy, edited by E. Christian Wells and Patricia A. McAnany, pp. 37-72. Research in Economic Anthropology, vol. 27. Greenwich, CT, JAI Press.

Steinhardt, Nancy S.
1990    Chinese Imperial City Planning. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Wheatley, Paul
1971    The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and the Character of the Ancient Chinese City. Aldine, Chicago.