Cities Research Paper

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By 3000 BCE, the first system of cities, with Uruk at its center, emerged in Mesopotamia. Urban centers have played important roles in human history since, by exerting economic, political, and cultural influence over large populations. As the portion of the world population inhabiting cities has grown over the past several millennia, urban centers have become larger and more influential.

World history is sometimes viewed as the history of cities because urbanization has been coextensive with the portion of human experience commonly portrayed in world histories—that is, the past five or six millennia. Indeed, the study of world cities and their interrelationships can offer useful insights not just into the growth of a central form of human organization, but also into world history itself, especially in terms of these three questions: (1) How are world cities defined and identified? (2) Over the entire time span of world history, which cities were world cities, and can they meaningfully be regarded as the centers of the world system of their time? (3) What are the major outlines and trends in the system of world cities?

What Is a “World City”?

World cities can be defined as cities of world importance, actually and potentially. The source of that importance might be either a city’s size or its position in the functioning of the world system. Size can be reckoned principally in terms of population numbers (compared with other cities of that same era)—and with distinctions made among world cities of the ancient, classical, and modern periods—because over historical time cities have grown larger by orders of magnitude. The term world system position might, in the most obvious case, refer to a place in the global economy, either in a commercial role or a productive capacity. For instance, the capitals of powerful or strategically important states and the military garrisons they might harbor will be politically important, and religious centers will attract interest and visitors from afar. There have also been cities noted for their cultural assets and the excellence of the learning they afford. Large cities have often been multifunctional; large populations, in turn, provide fertile soil for innovative enterprises. It is hard to find a single, dominant world city over the past several millennia, but sets of urban centers can be identified and examined for their form and composition, and for the connections among them (for example, were they imperial or nonimperial?).

Identifying world cities primarily by size, both spatial and temporal, is useful because in a survey of this scale it’s not practicable to make an empirical, detailed, and documented assessment of world system position. The ancient era (about 3000 to 1000 BCE) takes into account cities with settlements whose population may be estimated (for instance, on the basis of archaeologists’ site reports) to be in excess of 10,000; the population of most such cities are in the range of 10,000 to 100,000. The classical era (1000 BCE to 1000 CE) considers urban centers with populations of 100,000 or more, most typically in the range of 100,000 to 1 million. For the modern era (since 1000 CE) the focus is principally on cities with populations in the range of 1 to 10 million.

Until quite recently the prevailing view held that a statistical description of urbanization prior to about 1800 was impossible. But new sources have opened up—for instance, in archaeology and social and economic history—that make that task less difficult. The pioneering effort in this regard has been Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth (1987), a product of decades of research that brought together a mass of material on cities between 2250 BCE and 1975 CE. Complementing and extending that work has been George Modelski’s World Cities: –3000 to 2000 (2003), which provides fuller coverage for the first four millennia but deals more lightly with the data from 1000 CE onward; it also reports on world trends in urbanization.

The Ancient World

The first city system emerged in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE in what the archeologist Vere Gordon Childe dubbed the “Urban Revolution.” This group of urban settlements centered on Uruk, clearly a major cult center; Uruk was probably also a focus of political activities and was almost certainly the center of regional exchanges whose reach extended from Iran in the east, to the upper Euphrates in the north, and to Egypt in the west. By 3000 BCE there existed in this area (and nowhere else) some half-dozen units that satisfy this survey’s criteria for an incipient world city system. Uruk was at that time the largest among them and the largest city in the world at that time, with a population possibly reaching forty thousand. And this is just one reason for calling it the first world city, because it is also known, from archaeological and literary evidence, that Uruk was the likely locus of the invention of writing and of calendars, innovations that proved to be of epochal significance.

This was the Uruk nucleus of an emerging system of world cities. The first basic, identifiable trend was the emergence, by the mid-third millennium BCE, of a viable and productive center in Sumer, the heartland of cities, which was then organized in the form of some two-dozen autonomous city-states. An increasingly costly competition for regional leadership animated those states (for example, by about 2300 BCE, the competition between Umma and Lagash), which made it possible for Sargon of Akkad, from outside the Land of Sumer, to step in and subdue them. The reign of Akkad and Sumer came and went, and was followed by a native dynasty based on Ur. As late as about 2000 BCE something of a numerical parity existed between Sumer and non-Sumer cities, but a short time later the former land of cities completely dropped out of sight. By contrast, important cities rose in Egypt (Memphis, Thebes, and Heliopolis), in north Mesopotamia (Mari), and in the Indus Valley (Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa).

The second basic trend was the experience of dispersal, or more precisely, the spread of urban practices throughout Eurasia that coincided with what in several areas were described as “Dark Ages”—for instance, in Sumer, in the Harappan region, and in post-Mycenean Greece. By the end of the ancient era (and the Bronze Age), three of the four major regions of the “Old World” had been fertilized by the Urban Revolution: West Asia (for instance, Babylon), the Mediterranean (Mycenae), and East Asia (Yin, near Anyang, a major Shang capital). The less-than-successful experiments in the Indus Valley, in the Ukraine, and even in Peru would ultimately bear fruit, too. This dispersal was in fact a form of redistribution, because while Sumer lost cities and was virtually deurbanized, urbanism rose elsewhere and the number of world cities remained about the same as it had been a millennium earlier (twenty-two in 2000 BCE became twenty-three in 1200 BCE). In other words, the ancient era witnessed rapid urban expansion at the center in its first half, followed by deceleration and dispersal in the second.

The Classical World

The principal tendency of the classical era was the rapid formation and subsequent consolidation of strongly regional but also interconnected urban systems in the four main regions of Eurasia: East Asia, South Asia, the Mediterranean, and West Asia. A separate development also occurred in the Americas. In the first three of these regions a thriving system of independent city-states developed, which then succumbed to imperial rule; but in West Asia, the sequence is reversed, and in Mesoamerica, the Mayan system of city-states collapsed by itself into incoherence.

In East Asia, virtually all the principal urban growth occurred in China. Haoqing (near Xi’an) was the Western Zhou (1045–771 BCE) capital and ceremonial center that bridged the ancient and classical periods. After its destruction in 771 BCE, the political center shifted to Luoyang, and in this Eastern Zhou era (770–221 BCE) that followed, urbanization took off with considerable flourish. One Chinese historical record credits ninety-one cities as likely founded before 771 BCE, the number rising to 466 in the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) of Eastern Zhou. City building was apparently part of state building, with the term for “state” (guo) denoting a walled city. While many of these cities were quite small, in no time a system of independent and flourishing states arose, each anchored in a major city with merely nominal and ceremonial links to Luoyang.

That, in turn, left the field open to immensely destructive wars, in what came to be known as the period of Warring States (475–221 BCE). The most ruthless and warlike of these states, Qin, conquered all the others and founded the first imperial dynasty 221–206 BCE). But that proved short-lived, and the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) that replaced it quickly built a great new capital, Chang’an (Xi’an), while continuing Luoyang in a secondary role. Chang’an and Luoyang each had their good and bad times (the former was largely destroyed in 189, sacked in 315, plundered in 756 and 763, and subjected to a bloodbath in 881; the latter was utterly destroyed in 189 and 190, sacked in 311, and declined after 907), but they continued to alternate as China’s leading cities right until the end of the classical era, when Kaifeng assumed a central place in the Northern Song (960–1126). By that time Kyoto (Japan) and Sorabol (in Silla, Korea) also joined the ranks of world cities in eastern Asia that accounted, in the classical era, for about one-third of the world’s major urban potential.

The South Asian experience paralleled that of East Asia, albeit on a smaller scale, in that the first millennium BCE saw a flourishing of cities in a context of autonomy, in north India in particular, a process that was then set back by the founding of imperial structures and by external incursions. Out of a cluster of tribal units an urban landscape emerged in the Ganges Valley that in turn coalesced into a system of independent polities that became the seedbed of Buddhism. However, a recent study of the sites of the capitals of sixteen of these early historic states showed them to be in the range of 50 to 200 hectares, suggesting populations smaller than their counterparts in China of that time and falling below our threshold.

Over time, one of these became the dominant power and formed the core of an empire centered on Pataliputra, on the Ganges, a large city that greatly impressed a Greek ambassador about 300 BCE. In the second half of the classical era the focus of north India shifted to Kanauji, which became the capital of the Guptas and continued as the centerpiece of regional politics until it was sacked by Muslim armies in 1018 and then destroyed. In the south, Buddhism gained an early foothold in Sri Lanka at Anuradhapura and came to radiate its influence throughout Southeast Asia, including Sri Ksetra in Burma (now Myanmar), Palembang in Srivijaja, and Angkor in Cambodia.

The Mediterranean was the focus of the other major urban network of the classical world, equal in weight to East Asian. The Mediterranean network began to form later in the ancient era but quickly expanded via three great waves of urbanization: the Phoenician, the Greek, and the Roman. In about 1000 BCE Tyre sent a first colony to Cyprus, and soon its settlers founded Carthage, which in short order became the powerhouse of the western Mediterranean. Pliny the Elder, the encyclopedist, put its population, prior to the start of the wars with Rome, at 700,000, probably too high but indicating its reputation. The second wave came from the Greek world, under the sponsorship of individual cities. For example, Corinth initiated the foundation of Syracuse, on Sicily, whose defeat of the Athenian expedition tipped the scales in the Peloponnesian war, and which may have been, about 400 BCE, the largest city in the Greek world.

But the greatest impetus to Hellenization came from the conquests of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great), the founder of numerous cities. The most important of these was Alexandria, which became the capital of the post-Alexandrine rulers of Egypt, the Ptolemies, who fashioned it not only into a center of political power, and of trade and shipping, but also equipped it with a great lighthouse on Pharos Island, a beacon to ship-farers and a symbol of enlightenment for a city boasting of a museion with its huge library. A city that was home to many nationalities, Alexandria became the first exemplar, in Stoic thought, of a cosmopolis, a city of the world, a higher formation than a mere polis.

The last wave was that of the Romans, builders of an empire, but also builders of cities. Rome annihilated Carthage (but within a century put a new city in its place) and conquered Alexandria, to become the imperial capital of this new Greco-Roman world. It grew to huge proportions, to become the world’s most populous city, its citizens, untaxed, living off free bread, slave labor, and other spoils of empire. The sack of Rome in 410 CE marked the start of the collapse of Western Rome and the definitive onset, in this part of the world, of the second Dark Age.

Which was the city whose population was the first to attain 1 million? The estimates for Alexandria, at about 100 BCE, tend to put it in the 500,000 range, but some scholars claim that it might have reached 1 million between 200 and 100 BCE, which would make it first. But a more conservative guess would be Rome about 1 CE. The next city to reach “millionaire” status was Tang era Chang’an, at between 700 and 800 CE.

Early in the classical era, powerful west Asian empires, in particular the Assyrian and the Persian, pressed upon the Mediterranean world, probably pushing the Phoenicians out to sea and impressing the Greek world. But the collapse of the Persian realm diminished the vitality of that region and reduced its urban potential, and it was not until the Muslim conquests of the seventh century that new political and urban space opened up to become what is now called the “Muslim world.” Arab cavalry armies overthrew the Sasanian Empire and overran large portions of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople.

Urbanization became one of the hallmarks of the Muslim world. Many cities were conquered, such as Alexandria and Antioch, others were destroyed, such as the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon, and yet others founded, among them Fustat, and later Cairo, al Kufah, and Basrah, as well as Baghdad and Rayy (later to become the seed of Tehran), together with Kairouan and Cordova (as a capital) in the west. By 900 CE, the Muslim world had the densest urban network; it was a principal precinct of the world system on the eve of the modern era.

Each of the four regional processes in Eurasia in the classical era had its own developmental trajectory, but these processes were not isolated phenomena but were entangled in several ways, though seldom in a complete fashion. They can be seen as a world city system with two chief lines of communication: the overland Silk Roads, via Central Asia, and the maritime Spice Roads, via the Indian Ocean. Both in effect bound east Asia to the Mediterranean. The world cities basically formed one system, with routes that served as links among the cities. These were not just trade routes but also the paths taken by new ideas and social innovations such as Buddhism.

The one area of significant urban development that stands apart was in the Americas, between 400 and 800 CE in particular, cities in Mexico (Teotihuacan), the Mayan lands (Tical, Caracol), and possibly even Peru, created a conceivable nucleus of a regional city system. But the system was shortlived and largely collapsed after 800. Anthropologist David Webster questions the urban character of the Mayan cities in particular, and suggests that they were actually “king-places” or “regal-ritual” cities whose single-functionality was one reason for the fragility of the system when it was exposed to environmental stress and persistent warfare.

The Modern World

For the modern era, this survey returns to a unitary vision because the threshold criterion rises to 1 million, in other words, to “millionaire cities” that, at least initially, were few in number.

The table depicts a process that over the course of one millennium raised the number of modern world cities from one, to 300, a rate of urban expansion never previously experienced. What is more, most of that expansion occurred in the last one or two centuries.

To start with, the urban landscape at the turn to the second millennium continued as it was in 900, with a central role for the Muslim world and strong Chinese participation. But then, soon after 1200, disaster struck. In a space of two or three generations, the Mongols captured all the “millionaire cities” and seized control of the Silk Roads, even while laying waste to north China and Central Asia, destroying and massacring the inhabitants of Beijing, Merv, Samarkand, Herat, and Baghdad. When they faded away, one century later, this was still the “Asian age,” but the spirit had gone out of it, and the Silk Roads withered.

Viewing the table of modern world cities, an “Asian age” might still be seen right up to 1800 because all the world’s major cities were then Asian, if not actually Chinese. But on closer inspection that is less of an indicator of wealth and power than a symptom of stagnation because the table shows, before 1800, no evidence of growth, only some form of musical chairs. The growth that mattered was happening at the other end of Eurasia, in Western Europe, but it was, for a while, still under the radar. The growth factor initially rose from the city-states, Genoa and Venice, and in the Low Countries, whose experience was by 1500 translated into that of nation-states. Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch Republic assumed increasingly important global roles spearheaded by their enterprising cities—Lisbon, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. These were experiments in new forms of global organization that reached maturity with the experience of Britain. By 1800 London broke through to the “millionaire city” league, which suggests that innovation is not just a product of city size.

The list for 1900 offers a clear picture of the urban structure that shaped the world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the strong British stake earned in the Industrial Revolution, with London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow; the then-new, and rising, United States’ challenge, with New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia; the traditional great powers of Europe, with Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, and somewhat marginally, Tokyo, Beijing, and Calcutta.

By 2000 the urban landscape was much changed. The figure reported in table 1, some three hundred cities for that year, means that the population of world cities became too numerous to be shown in that small table. In that year, all the world’s regions were now fully represented. The largest single share was that of east Asia which, at over one-third, was not really surprising, for this is about what its share was in the classical era. Overall, the world city system had moved into a new configuration and scholars are now at work to clarify the nature and composition of this new system.

Major Trends

Over the past several millennia cities have emerged and have grown bigger and better, and their weight in the social makeup of the human species has kept on rising. By the start of the twenty-first century, one half of the world’s population was living in cities, and 10 percent in world cities alone (compared to about 1 percent in the ancient and 2 percent in the classical worlds). What is more, because of the concurrent rise in the same time frame of the overall population of this planet, from maybe 6 million to over 6 billion, the absolute number of people living in cities is the highest ever.

The world cities have composed, over the millennia, the center of the emerging world system, but their story can never constitute the entire picture, for it neglects all those living outside the great urban centers, those in the peripheries and in the hinterlands of world history. In fact, the process of interaction between the centers and the peripheries has been a major and recurrent feature of the world system. Thousand-year-long sequences of concentration, which brought city building, may have alternated with periods of redistribution that show stable if not stagnant urban conditions, and these, in the past two instances, gave rise to Dark Ages. This raises the question of whether the urban expansion and concentration recently and prominently underway might not be heralding the onset of a new age of redistribution.

The world cities might be thought of as making up a complex, interlinked system in a condition that might be termed “urban entanglement.” In approaching this system, the useful starting point is the presumption of connectivity; in other words, what needs to be demonstrated is isolation and lack of contact rather than the reverse, which is currently the standard. If world cities have formed a system, then that system might be thought of as having emergent properties over and above the characteristics of its members, such as the alternation of phases of concentration and redistribution just mentioned.

More generally, the world city system might be viewed as a component of world system evolution. The eras of world history (ancient, classical, and modern) could be considered as phases of that process, and such eras display quantitative features (such as changes in magnitude) as well as qualitative changes (such as the scope of the network). Therefore, world urbanization, which is a key component of globalization, might also be usefully studied as an evolutionary process.


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