Cities are the embodiment of human civilization. Our rise to civilization took tens of thousands of years, but ever since the first true cities arose in
Mesopotamia and in the Indus and
Nile valleys sometime around 3500 BCE, the influence of city-based cultures
urbanization – the steady spread and increase of urban populations around the world – have been central facts of human history.
As the pioneering urban demographer Kingsley Davis points out, “urbanization” and “the growth of cities” are not the same thing. “Urbanization,” as Davis defines it, is the increase in the proportion
of a population that is urban as opposed to rural. That such an increase could take place without the growth of cities per se
(for example, by the death of vast numbers of the rural population) or that city populations could grow without an increase in urbanization (as when the rural population increases as fast or faster than the urban population) are important concepts that underlie the history of urban life. Most importantly, this definition of urbanization helps to explain how
immigration from the countryside to the city has repeatedly been the key factor in the history of urban development, as it continues to be today.
The history of cities is characterized by both continuities – the slowly evolving pattern of urban functions common to all cities – and discontinuities or periods of dramatic change in urban structure and purpose. The first great discontinuity of urban history is what the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe called the “Urban Revolution,” the momentous shift from relatively simple, pre-urban tribal communities and village-based agricultural production to the complex social, economic, and political systems that characterized the
earliest cities of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the
Indus Valley. True, the earliest cities, in the ancient Near East and elsewhere, grew out of accumulated Neolithic knowledge, and certain extensive Neolithic communities such as
Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia predate the Mesopotamian cities by several millennia and may be regarded as at least proto-urban. For Childe, however, the development of writing was one of the crucial cultural elements of true urbanism, and the emergence of the cities of the ancient Near East, where writing and record-keeping began, constituted only the second of a series of massive transformations (the first being the
Neolithic revolution that established settled agriculture) that gave shape to the whole of human evolutionary development. Although the successive stages overlapped, each of Childe’s three “revolutions” (the agricultural, the urban, and the industrial) totally changed the world as it had been before. Arguably, the
information revolution and
globalism are changing the world in equally fundamental ways today.
In certain important respects, many of the ancient cities are remarkably similar. They are frequently walled – except in Egypt, where the surrounding deserts may have been regarded as sufficient defenses, and in places like
Peru, where secure empires surrounded individual cities, making urban defense unnecessary. In addition, almost all contain a distinct citadel precinct, often separately walled, encompassing a temple, a palace, and a central granary. Many of the earliest cities also boasted some sort of high tower or ziggurat. And, as political scientist Karl Wittfogel pointed out in Oriental Despotism
(1957), almost all were located along major rivers and based their power (and that of their rulers) on the control of massive
irrigation systems serving the surrounding agricultural countryside. In addition, most of these earliest cities were dominated by what Lewis Mumford calls the “monologue of power” by all-powerful religious and military rulers.
Thus, both the physical structure and socio-economic complexity of the earliest cities are unlike anything that had come before. Whereas the Neolithic village had been ruled by a council of elders, the cities were mostly ruled by totalitarian god-kings and their attendant priests who formed a class totally apart from the rest of the citizenry. And whereas Neolithic communities may have built earthen enclosures as ceremonial centers for ritual pageantry and hill forts for refuge and defense, the ancient cities – from
Babylon on the Euphrates to
Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico – transformed these institutions into elaborate structures so massive that their remains are still visible today.
Most of the ancient cities elsewhere – in China, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Meso-america, and the Andes – appear to have arisen quite independently of the cities of the ancient Near East. Still, what is remarkable is how similar ancient cities everywhere were in terms of social structure, economic function, political order, and architectural monumentality. Even today – and although all cities are in some ways unique – the basic
urban functions of citadel (mainly associated with government and the ruling order), marketplace (where the economic functions of production and exchange take place), and community (the place of homes, families, and the
local culture of neighborhoods) continue to define cities and urban life.
The cities of ancient Greece made a sharp break with the past and developed on a very different model from the citadel-dominated cities of the ancient Near East. Perhaps because they arose in narrow mountain valleys rather than on broad alluvial plains, the Greek cities that emerged around 1200 BCE and developed into an astonishing cultural efflorescence by 500 BCE were small (sometimes with a population of only a few thousand), economically self-contained, and almost village-like in some of their social and political institutions. It was the concept of urban citizenship and democratic
self-government that was the distinctive contribution of the Greeks to the evolution of urban civilization. Greek democracy was by no means perfect and hardly inclusive. Women, slaves, and foreigners were all excluded from the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But the cultural, artistic, and intellectual consequences of the democratic principle were extraordinary. “Within a couple of centuries,” writes Lewis Mumford in The City in History
(1961), “the Greeks discovered more about the nature and potentialities of man than the Egyptians or the
Sumerians seem to have discovered in as many millennia.”
If cities embody the idea of civilization, they are also the cultural
instrumentality by which humanity has attempted, since Neolithic times, to achieve a higher, more inclusive concept of community. At the core of the Greek contribution to the history of urban civilization was the concept of the “polis.” Sometimes translated as “city-state,” at other times identified as the collective citizenry of a Greek city, the
polis, as described by W. Warde Fowler in The City-States of the Greeks and Romans
, was both a community and a sense
of community that helped to define the Greek city-dweller’s relationship to his city and his fellow citizens, to the world at large, and to himself. In Politics
Aristotle called human beings the “zoon politikon
” (the “political animal” or, more properly, “the animal that belongs to a polis”) and described the ideal city-state as one small enough so that a single citizen’s voice could be heard by all his assembled fellow citizens. The Greek cities had
citadels such as the
Athens, to be sure, but for the Greek citizen, the citadels were places of public
ritual. Indeed, many aspects of life were lived daily in the agora or public marketplace, and contact with rural nature was within a short walk. In that sense, the polis was a reincarnation, in an urban context, of the face-to-face human relationships that characterized the pre-urban community of the Neolithic village.
Marking another discontinuity or sharp break in the history of urban life, the city of Rome began as a cluster of villages along the Tiber in central Italy, emerged as a powerful republic similar to the earlier Greek cities, but then exploded into a giant metropolis and a city of world empire – indeed, a “citadel city” for a far-flung urban community that presages, in a sense, the worldwide system of cities that dominates global society today. Rome’s contributions to civilization were considerable. Its roads, aqueducts, and sewers set new standards of engineering excellence. Its systems of military and colonial administration spread a common law, and established a common peace, throughout a large and populous area that extended from Persia to the borders of Scotland. Roman imperial expansion also spread Roman literature, philosophy, and art, establishing the basis for a widespread cultural hegemony. And Rome planted
colonial towns wherever its legions marched, often leaving traces of an original castrum
(military camp) laid out along the cardinal points of the compass at the center of later
But if the administrative and infrastructural accomplishments of the Romans were impressive, their record in the field of social development is more problematic. In the place of the Greek conception of community and participation in the life of the polis, the Romans erected a citizenship of imperial privilege rooted in a rigid social hierarchy of patricians, clients, and plebeians. Beginning with Augustus, the Roman emperors proclaimed themselves gods, staged extravagant spectacles to awe the cowed populace, and, it has been said, ruled by the provision of “bread and circuses” for the vast Roman populace. In the end, Rome, with a population of one million, became to be seen as a kind of imperial parasite on the entire Mediterranean world, and both city and empire eventually fell of their own weight.
For much of the medieval period that followed the fall of the
Roman Empire in the West, Europe was a cultural backwater. In the early Middle Ages, self-contained monastery communities kept the larger world at bay, some provincial towns retreated inside the walls of the Roman amphitheaters, and the population of Rome itself dwindled to a few thousand. Raided by Vikings, Goths, and Vandals from the north and invaded by Arabs from North Africa on its southern flank, much of Europe reverted to rural conditions, and
serfdom became widespread under a system of warlord feudalism. During this same period, impressive urban civilizations in China and India grew in influence and became the centers of imperial systems of their own.
cities of Islam –
Baghdad and Moorish
Córdoba in Spain – emerged as the real centers of power in what had been parts of the Roman Empire. And other urban centers – the Khmer civilization at
Angkor, and successive Chinese imperial capitals – often rivaled and sometimes surpassed Europe’s cities in wealth and power. After about the year 1000 CE, however, Europe’s wealth and power began to revive, and the late medieval cities became true centers of commerce, culture, and community. As historian Henri Pirenne argued in Medieval Cities
(1925), it was the wealth created by economic activity of the great trading towns that led inevitably to their growing power and political independence. Having used their wealth to win from the barons and the ecclesiastical authorities the right to self-government, the medieval towns became islands of freedom and innovation in a stagnant sea of feudal obligation.
The defensive walls of the medieval city in Europe provided a clear demarcation line between the urban and the rural, and the small size of most towns allowed for an easy reciprocity between urban industry and commerce, on the one hand, and agricultural pursuits, on the other. Within the town walls, a new corporate institution – the
guilds – provided for the organization of economic and social life, while the Church saw to the citizens’ spiritual needs and established a framework for social ritual and communal unity. Cathedrals, guildhouses, charitable institutions, universities, and colorful marketplaces were all characteristic medieval institutions. Together, they established the perfect stage for what Mumford called “the
urban drama” but as soon as “the unity of this social order was broken [with the advent of the nation-state and capitalist industrialization] everything about it was set in confusion … and the city became a battleground for conflicting cultures, dissonant ways of life.”
The cities of the period between the ancient world and the modern world were extraordinarily diverse, and the urban civilizations of Asia and the Americas often rendered European visitors awestruck. In Europe itself, the slow decay of medieval urban unity was hastened by the forces of the
Renaissance and the rise of absolutist monarchies. The powerful new national rulers often built their royal palaces, such as Louis XIV’s
Versailles, outside of the traditional urban centers. Their interventions into the existing urban fabric included building broad boulevards and open squares fit for the display of baroque pomp and power. The Enlightenment and the
Age of Revolutions brought down the divine right of
kings and reestablished the political power of the urban commercial interests, but in a new socio-political context. In the end, it was market capitalism and a new industrial economic order based on powerful new technologies that destroyed the last vestiges of the medieval city by separating the Church from its social role and focusing on the marketplace for its purely economic functions while at the same time creating a new social class, the bourgeoisie, and extending the economy worldwide. Thus, the capitalist city, especially the city of the
Industrial Revolution, made yet another sharp discontinuity in the history of cities. Capitalism and industrialization created an entirely new
urban paradigm – a city defined almost exclusively by market forces – and established the physical, social, economic, and political preconditions of all that was to follow. With the Industrial Revolution, we see the emergence of urban
While the political and economic consequences of the Renaissance had helped to spread European domination worldwide through extensive projects of exploration, discovery, and colonial expansion, the forces of industrialization helped to complete that process of world domination by dividing the world between the advanced industrialized nations (originally Europe and North America) and the underdeveloped, non-industrialized nations – what were once called “the Third World” but today often designated “the Global South.” Industrial modernism also created a new social order – some would say disorder – based on powerful property-owning capitalists, property-less proletarians, and a rising but often uneasy middle class. And the cities, especially the new industrial centers, became for a time dismal conurbations of factories and
slums such as the world had never seen.
One of the earliest and most acute observers of the new urban-industrial order was Friedrich Engels, himself the son of a major German industrialist. In The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844
(1845), Engels detailed the unrelenting squalor and misery that characterized the working-class districts of Manchester and the strategies employed by the capitalist bourgeoisie to protect themselves and the source of their wealth. There were many responses to the horrifying urban conditions such as the introduction of urban parks, systems of
water supply and public hygiene, agitation for poor relief and model housing, and a diverse variety of utopian visions of perfect societies. All of these contributed to the development of modern urban planning (see Part 5
: Urban planning history and visions).
The “shock cities” of the Industrial Revolution – for example, the Manchester of Engels or the Chicago of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
(1906) – are sometimes considered as though they were unique and discrete phenomena, but the first phase of industrial urbanism proved to be merely the beginning of a long process of
urban adaptation and transformation that historian Sam Bass Warner called a “parade of surprises.” Among those surprises were wholly new and unexpected developments in technology, in the economy, in urban social life, and in the very shape of the city. In the 1840s, industrial workers lived in squalid and environmentally polluted conditions close to the industrial enterprises where they worked. These were the “factory camps” of the early industrial period, and l...