Over two days, speakers at the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. grappled with questions like: How do cities evolve? Why do they form in the first place? To what extent are they shaped by their place, and to what extent by their inhabitants?
Monica Smith, University of California at Los Angeles, made a claim that continued to surface and provoke throughout the symposium: “Rural places do not need cities,” she said. “After all, dispersed rural settlement is the ancestral condition of our species. For a million years, our species was grouped into configurations no larger than the number of people in this room.”
Smith studies the history of human settlement in the “monsoon belt” of the Indian subcontinent, where sweltering-hot summers end with long deluges of rain. Smith is interested in how dramatic climates and abundant water affect the form and lived experience of cities and how they define the relationship between cities and their rural hinterlands.
She described “landscapes of provisioning,” in which urban cores draw food, resources, and labor from their rural surroundings, and in which a variety of rural settlements, including small towns and monasteries, continue the flow of resources to cities, even in times of catastrophic flood or earthquake.
Despite the risks in relying on such an arrangement, Smith said, “in the relatively short archaeological time period of about 6,000 years, we went from a world that had no cities, to a world that is full of cities, and there must have been something in our cognitive makeup that made that possible, necessary, and compelling.”
Many speakers outlined ancient processes of urbanization that were organic and self-organizing. A dramatic exception was J. Cameron Monroe, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has been surveying urban settlement systems in tropical West Africa. He believes that 18th-century urban settlement and growth in Cana, a Dahomey city in present-day Benin, was the direct result of the Atlantic slave trade.
Monroe’s surveys and oral histories with local residents suggest that predatory slave raids depleted rural populations. As Cana emerged as a major player in the slave trade, other people migrated to the city in search of job opportunities created by the wealthy elite. The political, social, and economic dynamics of the slave trade “drove the process of urbanism itself.” (see image above).
Jason Ur, Harvard University, offered a different vision of urbanization, using the example of early Mesopotamian cities. He argued against previous archaeological theories that those cities, with their walls and geometric forms, must have been the result of top-down planning.
“These interpretations share the assumption that behind structured features, at the scale of the neighborhood or the entire city, one or a few powerful decision-makers must be lurking,” Ur said. “In some cases. these top-down processes are plausible. In most cases, however, such thinking limits agency to a subset of humanity and renders the rest as pliable non-actors.”
Ur instead suggested that Mesopotamian cities first emerged as informal settlements ringed by agricultural fields. Farmers and herders walked to the fields by the shortest paths possible without trampling crops. And as the population grew, settlement areas expanded into the closest possible farmland. Ur says these basic social and spatial principles established the earliest forms of roads and settlements, which were later formalized and walled-in as cities grew in size and sophistication.
A term uttered often at the symposium was palimpsest, or something that has taken multiple shapes over time but still bears traces of its earlier form. It’s an apt term to describe urban landscapes and cities’ accumulated layers of history, culture, significance and meaning. Hendrick Dey, a professor at Hunter College City University of New York, shared stories of the physical layers that shed light on 12th-century planning and development in Rome.
Dey described a history in Rome characterized by population decline and recovery; multiple new cities emerging within the structures of the old; and earthquakes and maintenance decisions that saw the crumbling of monuments that once lined the Via Triumphalis, the route for Roman imperial processions. As that route transformed into a commercial center and as flooding and maintenance backlogs left it regularly in poor shape, Dey argues that church leaders of the 12th century made the decision to move the papal procession route just north to the Via Papalis — and to elevate the entire length of that road by three meters to protect it from flooding.
“How do you increase ground levels by three meters? Rome provides you with the greatest store of rubble that any ancient city could possibly have,” Dey said. “We have this complex interaction between the surviving bones of the Roman city, the natural environment, and the priorities of the human actors who are animating it as it becomes this densely developed settlement in the 12th century. None of it would have been possible without the fact of the largest field of ruins that exist anywhere in the western world.”
Jordan Pickett, University of Michigan, focused on the farthest reaches of the Roman empire from the first to eighth centuries where massive aqueducts were constructed to carry coveted spring water to even the most arid urban areas. Pickett traces the empire from the first century — defined by elite and monumental cities, and the power conveyed by conspicuous consumption and advanced engineering — to the Byzantine world centuries later, when aqueducts were most often abandoned as impractical or adapted to serve new industrial or agricultural uses, providing “a flexible framework from which a new set of alternatives for low-density, ruralized cities, fragmented and decentralized, could emerge.”
Pickett emphasized that Byzantine administrations had retained the capacity to maintain and repair the aqueduct network; what changed was the cultural and political approach to water. “This system was walked back, there was in fact a withdrawal,” Pickett said. “There was a decision to walk it back and to say this is a system that shouldn’t exist everywhere.”
The fluidity of city forms was apparent across the presentations and the places and times explored. Urban populations could change dramatically across wet and dry seasons. Past infrastructures could be put to new use or rendered obsolete. In Cahokia, the entire settlement of monuments, waterways, and neighborhoods might have been intended as a temporary religious installation.
Even in the study of walled cities in early West Africa, Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor of African art and history at Harvard, rejected the idea that walls denote a static or fixed order, particularly within an aesthetic culture that often intentionally rejected symmetry and rigidity. Blier called the West African city walls “lines of multiplexity” that demonstrated “the ability of one form, one way of engagement, one kind of plan, to carry multiple meanings, like a telegraph wire.” She said the walls were adaptable, built in reaction to their context, and used to order interior spaces and reflect shifting social patterns, rather than to define hard boundaries.
Attempts to define or reject urban boundaries animated discussions throughout the symposium. Alan Kolata, University of Chicago, proposed that we can have it both ways, recognizing the physical and cultural demarcations of cities and urban centers, in addition to the physical and cultural networks that render them part of their regional surroundings.
Kolata applies the concept of autopoiesis to his work uncovering the political and physical makeups of indigenous cities in the Americas. In its earliest biological definition, autopoiesis refers to the ability of a living cell to maintain and reproduce itself. Kolata draws from the term’s later use in systems and communications theories, in which the focus is on a system’s ability to maintain and reproduce its distinct identity, even as it is connected to and interacts with larger surrounding systems.
He uses autopoiesis as a metaphor that describes not only the importance of cities as complex social and ecological systems, but also as the settings for complex individual lives — “macro sociological features and processes of urban life with the micro sociological realities of lived human experience.” Kolata proposed this idea: “Cities are inherently autopoietic phenomena, deploying multiple social networks of communication to sustain the material requirements of life as well as to create a sense of urban identity — that is to say, a culture of place.”
This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.