The European City in History

A Survey of Urban History and Introduction to Urban Planning


    Phenomenon of large numbers of people living in cities modern; in 1800, 2½% of the world's population lived in cities; by 1990, the figure was 45%; some scholars predict the figure in 2010 will be 55%.  In the US, the urban population in 1800 was 5%; by the 1990s, the figure is 75%; by 2015, it likely will be even higher.  Of course, US considers communities of 2500+ as urban; other definitions call for populations of 2500-10,000, while the UN uses a figure of 20,000.

    Attraction of cities?  Diverse activities, opportunities, and entertainments; rapid pace of life; number and variety of well-paying jobs.

    Course will attempt to explain why humans invented cities, explain their characteristics, and account for their growth and influence.

The Ancient City and the Invention of Civilization

    What we today often call Civilization (which coincides with the invention of cities) began to appear about 5,500 years ago in the river valleys of the Nile (North Africa) and the Tigris-Euphrates (the present-day Middle East); slightly later, Civilization appeared in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) and in the Yellow River Valley in China (ca 1600 BC).  Other early civilizations developed independently and considerably later in the Americas (ca. 200 BC).  From these original Cradles of Civilization, civilization spread outward in a series of stages over the course of the next 3,000 years.  This course on the history of the European city accordingly begins with an account of how man invented civilization and urban life.

    Following the end of the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) era, a great revolution occurred in human history.  It is called the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution, and it began in the ancient Near East [=West Asia] about 8,000BC, or 10,000 years ago, just at the end of the last Ice Age; not long afterwards, Neolithic settlements appeared in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.  During the Neolithic Revolution, a few humans exchanged their nomadic (hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which they were dependent upon nature) for a settled one.  Why?  Various theories:  Climatic warming may have produced a shortage of animals to hunt, thus forcing a growing population to seek alternative sources of food; at the same time, these changes produced a climate suitable for farming and the domestication of animals.  During the next 3,500 years, men and women all over the world radically transformed their relationship to nature, from a dependent one to more independent one.  Necessary:  1) a favorable environment (climate, water, and ease of food production; sources of transportation; raw materials); 2) ability and willingness to make and use technological innovation; 3) development of complex social arrangements; and 4) population growth.

    Human beings began learning to manipulate nature, they invented agriculture, which allowed production of a food surplus, they manufactured new types of tools, and they domesticated animals, like dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and so on.  And, once a food surplus was produced, human beings began to live in such fixed village settlements as Jericho, a walled village of 2,000 inhabitants living in sun-dried brick houses in Palestine, or Çatal Hüyük [=chuh-TUL hoo-YOOK], a village of 3,000-6,000 located in modern Turkey.  Innovations within these villages included a division and specialization of labor, the emergence of an artisan class, such as weavers or potters, the development of trade, the invention of private property, and the development of basic political and social institutions which regulated human behavior and punished violators.  Governments controlled surplus food; provided for internal order (police) and defense; provided services; regulated trade and the economy; and provided opportunities for religious worship.  Neolithic people also created impressive megalithic constructions, such as Stonehenge (c. 2,800-1,800BC) in England, some of which were for tombs, while others served religious or astronomical purposes.  Such monuments provide evidence that some form of authority and organizational structures existed and that these peoples possessed sophisticated technological abilities.  This change from hunting-gathering to agricultural production produced a population explosion.  By 5,000 BC, the world's population was 10 million; by 1,000 BC, it was between 50 and 100 million; and by the birth of Christ, it was 200 million.

The Urban Revolution, ca. 3500 BC.

    The next revolution was the Urban Revolution, which first took place in both Mesopotamia and Egypt about 3,500BC, and it merits our close attention.  It forms the symbolic boundary between pre-history and history and during it mankind invented civilization.  We of course know when and where it took place, but we do not know exactly why; accordingly, we can only guess, or, since we are scholars, we can advance a theory, which is a sophisticated guess.  Historians suggest that the Urban Revolution took place because of a favorable coincidence of factors, specifically a favorable geographical and ecological setting (i.e. a setting such as the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley, or the Yellow River Valley in China where the production of a substantial food surplus would be relatively easy) and a cultural factor, i.e. a people with the knowledge and drive to respond to the challenge presented by these environmental settings.  They had to, for example, make complex technological innovations, like the invention of irrigation or the wheel in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley about 3500BC or sophisticated boats.  The existence of the wheel and these boats then compelled to the development of roads and canals, setting in motion a process of challenge and innovation that has ever since characterized urban life, particularly in the West.  In short, what these peoples, the peoples of these valleys, had to learn to do was organize themselves to solve the basic problems of sustaining permanent settled human existence, most important, the production of a food surplus, and in the process they invented cities as well as civilization.

    I am not sure that we can easily define civilization, but we can list some of its main characteristics:  1) the creation of large, permanent, and complex urban and administrative centers; 2) the invention of basic political (a political system based on territory instead of kinship), social, and economic institutions (which then attempt to solve man's basic needs: food, shelter, and security); 3) a method of taxation; 4) the division and specialization of labor; 5) external trade; 6) a hierarchical system of classes (specialization); 7) the development of the arts and sciences; 8) the creation of a complex religious life; and 9) the invention of a written language for communication, record keeping, and the transmission of culture.  Civilization, as invented by man and described here, probably first appeared among the ancient Sumerians and shortly thereafter among the Egyptians.  Slowly more and more cities appeared, and they came into conflict, competing for water, land, and trade.  War and empire-building followed.

    Differences between the Neolithic village and the city?  1) size; 2) larger and more complex buildings; 3) larger and more diverse population; 4) smaller percentage engaged in agriculture; larger number with non-farm jobs; 5) increase in the number of merchants and craft workers and government/religious officials.

    Description of a typical ancient city:  1) Location:  usually on the coast or a navigable river, for water needed for drinking and sanitation, as well as transportation and commerce; also may have religious and/or spiritual significance; size = about 1 square mile; water supply at its core, for most people had to get and carry water home; most cities were walled or had some form of natural defense (hills in Athens or Rome); core of the city consisted of a place of worship, the ruler's palace, and warehouses for food storage; the central core could be walled; houses were crowed together; sanitation a major problem (garbage and waste tossed into the streets or the local river); streets were frequently unpaved (though Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley is an exception); diseases widespread.  2) Population:  many had 10,000 or fewer people; original population often homogeneous, but soon became heterogeneous through migration from the countryside, trade/commerce, and the importation of war captives/slaves; the growing population mix raised problems of discrimination and exploitation.  3) Social Structure usually a pyramid:  small upper class of government & military leaders & priests; then a larger group of craftsmen and merchants; then peasant farmers; then slaves and other outcasts.  4) Economies became increasingly complex:  farming improved and the good surpluses grew; fewer people farmed; number of craftsmen grew; merchants (local and foreign trade) as a mediating class also grew (largely dependent upon technological innovations in transportation).  5) Religion:  most early peoples, with the exception of the Hebrews, were polytheistic; religious buildings prominent within towns, and most cities had a patron deity, as Athens did in the goddess Athena;  6) Government:  earliest rulers were probably priests; then kings and military commanders, as conflicts between cities developed; most believed that the right to govern still came from the gods and hence rulers were accountable only to the gods; in other words, rulers governed by divine right and held the civil power necessary to enforce the laws and maintain order; larger bureaucracies developed; tax burden heavy; few if any political rights; law codes were developed and were often arbitrary and harsh; in Hammurabi’s Code, for example, punishments were harsh and they were relative to the social status of the convicted.  Moreover, many laws dealt with landholding; the renting of land; the division of produce between tenants and landlords; land use and irrigation; and commercial activity, including loans, interest, and wages.

Urban Planning

    Characteristics of a city: “The form of cities depends largely on the relationship between mass and space, with mass consisting of buildings, their ground coverage, bulk and height, and the space between buildings forming streets of different width, length and direction and open areas of different shape.  Urban buildings, streets and open areas provide for a variety of types and intensity of land uses and possess different degrees of permanence.  These combinations of mass and space constitute the built form of the city.” [The Dictionary of Art]

    Theorists like Kevin Lynch [The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA, 1960)] have identified “five essential categories of urban built form,” and they provide a common vocabulary for the description and comparison of cities.  1) Paths = corridors of movement, such as streets and canals; 2) edges = built or natural features forming barriers, such as waterfronts, rivers, or walls; 3) districts = distinctly identified areas, such as town centers or residential areas; 4) nodes = meeting places of paths; i.e. squares; and 5) landmarks = built form features with a high symbolic (churches) and/or visual identity.  “The combination of these features at any one time forms an urban pattern or structure.”

    Urban planning may be defined as: “The deliberate application of principles relating to the desirable form and nature of urban settlements.  As a distinctive component of the overall process of urban development, it is typically achieved through the use of regulatory policies and coordinating institutions.”  [The Dictionary of Art] “The principles guiding urban planning are grounded in cultural values, in power and the structure of authority, in economic and social interests, and in dominant technologies.  They are expressed through technical and professional competencies (notably those of architecture, engineering and, from the late 19th century, a separately identified discipline of urban planning) and in legal procedures and instruments.” [The Dictionary of Art]

    The degree of Urban planning varies greatly, but there are a number of common elements that cannot be ignored.  1) the key to the survival of any city is access to water; in most cases, water is considered community property, and its location and access (roads or paths) are common property; 2) the distinction between public and private land must be defined; which land was available for public use and functions and which was reserved for private use; early law codes like that of Hammurabi had much to say about land and the transfer of land; 3) trade and other economic activities must be encouraged and/or subsidized; 4) defense and protection must be guaranteed, both from internal and external enemies; 5) civic pride and the desire of rulers to immortalize themselves with monuments (evidence of their power and generosity); such structures are erected for utility and beauty:  plazas, forums for public meetings; businesses; temples; palaces; colonnades; basilicas; and 6) the layout of cities:  natural/organic (almost absence of planning) or grid cities (almost complete planning), or some combination of the two.

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown
Last Update:  09 January 2007

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