New Internationalist

A History Of Ideas

Issue 313

new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

Cities - A history of ideas

1 Symbols of order
From around 10,000 BC nomadic hunter gatherers began to create permanent settlements, whose shape tended to reflect ideas about the cosmic order. Circular designs predominated in societies living close to nature – in the traditional villages of African pastoralists, for example. Others favoured the stark artifice of the grid. The Chinese of the 1800-1200 BC Shang Dynasty, for example, had a perfect square as the ideal layout for their cities.

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2 Cities from heaven
By 3500 BC there were many prosperous walled city-states, with up to 30,000 people, in the fertile river delta of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). With their temples, ziggurats and towers these cities indicated the desire for a permanence transcending human mortality. Founding cities was part of the role of priest-kings, seen as mediators between heaven and earth. An Ancient Sumerian document records how five god-appointed kings were given five cities in ‘pure places’.

 

 

3. Built politics
Ideas of citizenship and democracy mattered most to fifth-century BC Athenians. For them the city was ‘built politics’ – the word ‘politics’ actually derives from the Greek for city. Living quarters in Athens were modest, with little distinction between rich and poor. Essential civic amenities – theatre and gymnasium, for example – were grander. Socrates saw the city as a place of ideas and he criticized those who had ‘filled [it] full of harbours and docks and walls and revenues... and.... left no room for justice and temperance’. Plato and Aristotle thought the city should be more socially segregated and exclusive. But many were already debarred from democracy and citizenship – women and slaves for a start.

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4. Parasitic city
With a population of a million, by AD 100 Rome was the world’s largest city. Unlike Athens, it did not sustain itself by cultivating surrounding areas but relied upon its colossal empire to provide it with food, raw materials and slaves. The culture of exploitation was mirrored within the city itself, the ruling class living in opulence while others dwelt in overcrowded, unsanitary tenements for which they paid inflated rents.

Public hygiene was abysmal – refuse, including human corpses, was dumped in vast piles. ‘Pathological’ and ‘parasitical’ is how one commentator described imperial Rome. But the Roman Empire also left towns and cities all over Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor.

 

 

 

 

 

5. Walls of freedom
In the early Middle Ages many flocked from the land to the new ‘free cities’ of Europe, controlled not by feudal lords but by citizens. By AD 1200 urbanization was taking hold across the continent. Although citizens gained freedom from taxes imposed by local lords, every able-bodied person was obliged to contribute to maintaining the city walls. These had defensive functions, but they also guaranteed self-determination. The medieval city walls symbolized the ‘free’ collaboration of merchants, priests scholars, craftspeople and warriors.

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6 Order and sacrifice
The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, on which modern Mexico now stands, was an explicit expression of the intertwining of state and religion. The city, of up to 200,000 people, consisted of a highly symmetrical arrangement of temples, administrative centres, plazas and military schools. Towering above were pyramids where humans were sacrificed to gods. But poet and engineer King Nezahualcoyotl, crowned in 1431, discouraged such cruelty and promoted instead the idea of the city as a cultural and intellectual centre.

 

7 Embodied humanism
In the 1450s Italian Renaissance architect Leone Battista Alberti initiated the classical city revival, restoring Rome’s aqueducts and rebuilding ruined ancient monuments. His vision was to give cities a magnificence that would instil pride. Renaissance cities became the embodiments of a humanistic world view in which people, rather than God or nature, took centre stage. Indeed, architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini saw the relation of the city to its parts as ‘similar to that of the human body... the streets are the veins’.

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8 Labyrinths of privacy
Traditional Islamic cities, from the ninth to the nineteenth century, reflected a concern for visual privacy. This determined the placing of doors and windows and the height of buildings. Houses were ‘introverted’, the appearance toward the street being unimportant.

Religious law prescribed that streets should be wide enough to allow two fully-laden camels to pass freely. Organic, labyrinthine medinas (old quarters) were the main characteristic of Islamic cities, to be found in Moorish Spain and Islamic India, as well as the Middle East.

 

9 Splendour and oppression
French Emperor Napoleon III wanted a capital worthy of a great imperial power and free from hiding places for anarchists and other ‘trouble-makers’. In the mid-1800s city Prefect Baron Haussmann was charged with rebuilding Paris, which he did by cutting through the maze of

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medieval streets and constructing magnificent straight boulevards. This model of social control was copied around the world. It was also imposed in Algeria and other French colonies, where medinas were ruthlessly ‘modernized’ by military engineers. The British empire, for its part, created 60 cities around the world as a means of securing trade routes and exercising colonial control.

10 Territories of poverty
During the industrial revolutions of Europe and the US in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cities mushroomed. Factories sprang up, providing jobs for the new urban working classes. Freidrich Engels noted that as factories grew, so did ‘those separate territories assigned to poverty’. In Liverpool population densities reached 3,000 people per hectare. People lived anywhere they could, even cellars were packed full. The new cities became blanketed with acrid smoke and were breeding grounds for bronchitis and tuberculosis.

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11 A city in the garden
In 1898 English architect Ebenezer Howard suggested a solution to pollution and overcrowding: create new ‘garden cities’ in the country. These moderately sized, self-contained, urban communities would also be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. Howard also proposed shared ownership of land. But the few garden cities built in Britain (Welwyn and Letchworth) and the US (Sunnyside Gardens, Chatham Village and Radburn) turned out to be leafy commuter-belt travesties, devoid of Howards’ social idealism.

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12 King of the sprawl
American Frank Lloyd Wright, proposed that cities would ‘disappear’: each family’s own home would function as a city centre. Cars would shrink distance, giant freeways forming an intrinsic part of the urban ‘architecture’. There was also a strong element of traditional American ‘homesteading’ in his 1930s vision, with each house set in an acre of land for growing food. Trimmed lawns materialized, food-growing did not. Nor did cities ‘disappear’ as he had predicted. But car-dependent suburban sprawl became the norm – minus the communal social benefits such as garden schools and farm units, that Lloyd Wright had also proposed.

 

13 Geometric assault
[image, unknown] Le Corbusier was the guru of the modernism that came to dominate twentieth-century cities. ‘Houses’, said the Swiss watchmaker’s son, ‘are machines for living in.’ ‘Pure geometry’ was the ideal and he praised the fact that cities were an ‘assault on nature’. His designs involved large blocks of flats towering over open, tree-dotted spaces, linked by highways. Le Corbusier planned only one real city, Chandigarh in newly- independent India. But he was the inspiration for Brasilia and other post-1945 cities in capitalist and communist countries alike. ‘The design of cities is too important to be left to citizens,’ he famously said. Such arrogance enraged critics who labelled Corbusian design as ‘ego-tripping’ for architects, who were sufficiently privileged not to have to live in the tower blocks or concrete-and-steel wastelands of their creation.

 

14 Do-it-yourself city
[image, unknown] During the 1950s and 1960s there was a wave of reaction against the ‘totalitarian’ approach epitomized by Le Corbusier. British architect John Turner was profoundly influenced by his work in the self-built barriadas of Lima, Peru. He expected slums. Instead he found orderly, well-functioning, self-managing settlements. As ‘the expert’ Turner had little to teach the barriada dwellers: ‘they knew perfectly well not only what to build but how to build it.’ He concluded that when people had control over the key decisions concerning their housing and their environments this produced social well-being. When they didn’t, their environments became ‘a barrier to personal fulfilment and a burden on the economy’.
15 Non-planning
Similar ideas were taking hold in the industrialized world. In Britain a highly iconoclastic 1969 manifesto – written by Reyner Banham, Paul Barker, Peter Hall and Cedric Price – proposed ‘non-planning’. In the US Jane Jacobs campaigned for a return to the density and variety of the traditional unplanned city, while Richard Sennett argued for the democratic benefits ‘in extricating the city from preplanned control’. Anarchists in Copenhagen put their politics into practice in 1971 by creating an autonomous free town, Christiana, which still exists today. In the decade that followed several small-scale ‘community architecture’ projects took off in other parts of the world.

 

16 Money, money, money
Marxist studies which explained urban growth in terms of circulation of capital were current in the 1970s. But as those theories became increasingly abstract, the practice of city development became more crude and pragmatic. The 1980s saw economic recession, industrial job losses and the rise of the radical Right; city authorities were under pressure to open doors to business, whatever the social cost. Planning again came under attack – this time from free-marketeers who felt it interfered with enterprise.

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17 Info-city
Information technologies, especially the Internet, have taken the world by storm. The fashionable view is that they will do away with the need for cities: anyone can perform any activity anywhere. But Spanish philosopher Manuel Castells detects an opposite trend: the new technologies have concentrated power in the most dominant metropoli – Los Angeles, New York, London – and boosted the capitalist system. The result, he says, is deepening social inequality and escalating urban violence.

Sources:
Lewis Mumford, The City in History.
Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.
Herbert Girardet, The Gaia Atlas of Cities.

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