Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Periods of Western Urban History

Aidan Southall (The City in Time and Space, read a review) attempts to provide a comprehensive framework for urban history on the global scale. His periodization (Asiatic, Ancient, Feudal, and Capitalist) is based on Marxist theory: the form of cities is determined by creativity, production and wealth. More importantly, cities are sites of disparities and contradictions: intellectual freedom, the manufacturing of prosperity, and social divisions.

After discussing some early forms of urbanization (like Çatal Hüyük), which were more large settlements attached to agricultural endeavors, Southall looks at the settlements formed in Ancient Mesopotamia. These cities are more important than the ones that came before because they are a product of a rich economic milieu that leads to political organization, whereas earlier cities are isolated phenomena. In the Asiatic Mode, cities are ritual centers for agricultural regions (like Eridu). There was not clear difference between "town and country" at this point. Increasingly urban cults developed administration in order to organize agricultural production and income. As imperial expansion occurred, the cities became hierarchalized: settlements submitted to the authority of more powerful entities (like Uruk), but the indigenous political structures were not changed. Some form of political elite emerged, but society was mostly egalitarian.

The Ancient Mode is characterized by ruralization and the emergence of the polis. In the Greek city-states, rural elites withdrew from the countryside, maintaining agriculture as a source of wealth, and segregated themselves from the rest of the population. Within the city they developed freedoms that allowed genius and creativity to emerge. The shape of the city was determined by the politics of the city: the agora (public assembly), public temples, and walls. Political participation was encouraged through public venues in order to increase the loyalty of the citizenry. But the polis was exclusionary: it was based on the domination of the hinterland, the redefinition of non-owning producers as slaves, and limiting participation of women. Greece was particularly influential in that standards of urban planning appeared that were applied elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, making all cities familiar.

The Feudal Mode stands in relation to the ancient. Few new cities were built, and those Ancient cities that survived fought degeneration. Many were the targets for plundered. The buildings, for the most part, grew older: people were aware that they were living in the shells of Greek and Roman accomplishments. Gothic, of course, is one example of how cities were built up. The urban space started to become distinct from the rural. Political power was based on agricultural domination, but those forces were not located within the city but closer to the sites of production. Furthermore, feudal lords attempted to dominate the cities, but with little success. "Town and country" opposed one another. From within the walls the merchants ascended politically, laying the foundations for the next phase.

In the capitalist mode cities are centers of accumulation. They control productive regions and are even productive forces in their own right. The impulse of capitalist city is also imperial. The need to export leads to the creation of colony cities throughout the world.

Note: Southall explores differences of urbanization in other parts of the world, which are striking.

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