Read From the Deep Woods to Civilization by Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa). Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1916.
One of the things that astounded Ohiyesa (‘Always Wins’) when he moved east in the 1870s was the anxiety-inducing experience of entering an American city for the first time. If we consider for a moment the fact that Ohiyesa also lived to see the beginnings of World War II, we might get some sense of just how recent it has been that most people embraced the urban environment. Until the last century or so, city life remained the exception rather than the norm for the vast majority of people throughout the world. In fact it was only in 2012 that the world’s population registered at 51% urban (according to Henry J. Kaiser Foundation). If we also look at the list of countries that remain least urbanized, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sri Lanka (15%), Papua New Guinea (13%), Burundi (10%)we could also make some inferences concerning economy prosperity and city life.
Perhaps we should begin by stating some simple foundational principles concerning cities. I use here some of the general principles set forth by Spiro Kostof in The City Shaped (Bulfinch, 1991).
- Cities necessarily encourage and maintain crowds. This does not mean that we can simply count numbers. In fact, prior to the 19th century most cities supported populations of well under 10,000 which would barely constitute a town today. The important element here is population density rather than absolute numbers or absolute size. A population of a few thousand people packed into the hundred or so acres of medieval Winchester constitute a city, tens of thousands of people residing in commuter developments or scattered along one of the strip-mall corridors of northern Virginia do not, despite any legal designation to the contrary.
- Cities support specialized populations. Individuals have different jobs — soldier, priest, butcher, etc. — and wealth is not equally distributed. Distinctions of work and wealth lead to distinctions in power: the priest has more power than the butcher, the wealthy more power than the poor.
- Cities have defining boundaries, physical or symbolic, that separate the urbanite from the population that dwells beyond the city. Perimeters can be defensive, but they are important for delineating social hierarchies. Of course walls and moats serve this purpose, but so do rivers, roads, and even area codes (talk to a New Yorker).
- Cities possess a source of income and food, enough to support a large population. This can be because of a trade route, a local resource like iron, a geographic resource such as control of a mountain pass, or a human resource such as a governor or king (think of DC).
- Cities are intimately tied to their hinterlands, the surrounding territory that supports them.
- Cities are distinguished by monumental construction. Large buildings (not just housing) that create scale and provide citizens with common landmarks and identity. Some examples include the Colosseum in Rome, the Liuhe Pagoda in Hangzhou, and the Empire State Building in New York.
So where and when do cities appear for the first time? It used to be thought that man constructed cities as part of the development of the first civilization, Sumer, which would allow us to place them in Mesopotamia sometime around 3500 BCE. However, archeological evidence has overturned that theory and most historians now agree that the city preceded civilization by some three to four thousand years and that urbanization occurred independently in several places on earth at different times. (Kostof, p.30). Digging in modern Turkey, Jordan, and Israel has uncovered sizable towns that date to 7000 BCE and that may have housed from 2000 to 10,000 people. Though it also appears that men had destroyed and abandoned these settlements long before the cities of Mesopotamia were built. Cities appear for the first time in the Nile Valley around 3000 BCE, in the Indus Valley another thousand years after that. Urbanization in China, Europe, and America (the Maya) probably began at roughly the same time, i.e. sometime around 2000-1800 BCE.
And what of the form of cities themselves? Are there factors that dictate the layout and design of cities? What divisions were implied or built within the city? How much does culture and history play in shaping the form of a city? Consider the following excerpt from architectural historian Spiro Kostof:
Whatever the actual practices of urbanization may have been, ancient traditions insisted that making cities was an intentional act, approved and implemented at the highest level. The gods made the cities and took charge of them. The kings made cities, in order to set up microcosms of their rule. The city was a marvelous, inspired creation. An Egyptian document of the 7th century BCE says that Ptah, the creator god of fertility and the arts, ‘had formed the gods, he made the cities, he had put the gods in their shrines.’ An earlier poem hails Amun (the wind god) for his creation, Thebes, ‘the pattern of every city.’ And so it continued through the centuries. As far as people’s belief’s were concerned, cities were made, they did not happen. (The City Shaped, p.34)
Kostof wants you to understand that most cities had human hands and human minds guiding them, that there was certainly’ method in it’. All of the great cities of the world, arguably, were either planned by designers or developed under quite specific circumstances that had a hand in shaping design. Some cities, Beijing for example, were laid out as an interpretation of the universe in accordance to the will of the gods. Some, like the Persians’ Persepolis, were designed to house an earthly political figure, or, like St. Petersburg and London, to project military or commercial power. Think for a moment about Washington, DC. Why was it created? Does it fit into one of these categories?