(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘urban studies

“As long as we tell our urban ancestors’ stories, no city is ever lost. They live on, in our imaginations and on our public lands, as a promise that no matter how terrible things get, humans always try again.”*…

In the dusty plains of present-day Sindh in southern Pakistan lie the remains of one of the world’s most impressive ancient cities of which most people have never heard. Samantha Shea reports…

A slight breeze cut through the balmy heat as I surveyed the ancient city around me. Millions of red bricks formed walkways and wells, with entire neighbourhoods sprawled out in a grid-like fashion. An ancient Buddhist stupa towered over the time-worn streets, with a large communal pool complete with a wide staircase below. Somehow, only a handful of other people were here – I practically had the place all to myself.

I was about an hour outside of the dusty town of Larkana in southern Pakistan at the historical site of Mohenjo-daro. While today only ruins remain, 4,500 years ago this was not only one of the world’s earliest cities, but a thriving metropolis featuring highly advanced infrastructures.

Mohenjo-daro – which means “mound of the dead men” in Sindhi – was the largest city of the once-flourishing Indus Valley (also known as Harappan) Civilisation that ruled from north-east Afghanistan to north-west India during the Bronze Age. Believed to have been inhabited by at least 40,000 people, Mohenjo-daro prospered from 2500 to 1700 BCE.

“It was an urban centre that had social, cultural, economic and religious linkages with Mesopotamia and Egypt,” explained Irshad Ali Solangi, a local guide who is the third generation of his family to work at Mohenjo-daro.

But compared to the cities of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, which thrived around the same time, few have heard of Mohenjo-daro. By 1700 BCE, it was abandoned, and to this day, no-one is sure exactly why the inhabitants left or where they went…

The fascinating tale: “Pakistan’s lost city of 40,000 people,” from @IDtravelblog in @BBC_Travel.

* Annalee Newitz, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

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As we muse on mutability, we might send (semi-)adventurous birthday greetings to Thomas Cook; he was born on this date in 1808. An English businessman, he is best known for founding the travel agency Thomas Cook & Son— through which he pioneered the “package tour” and helped build tourism systems (vouchers, company agents/guides, purpose-built hotels, et al.) that fueled the growth of leisure travel first in Italy, then around the world.

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November 22, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand”*…

 

city

As transportation got faster, cities got bigger: The borders of Ancient Rome, Medieval Paris, Victorian London, early 20th century Chicago, and modern-day Atlanta

 

In 1994, Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist, described an idea that has come to be known as the Marchetti Constant. In general, he declared, people have always been willing to commute for about a half-hour, one way, from their homes each day.

This principle has profound implications for urban life. The value of land is governed by its accessibility—which is to say, by the reasonable speed of transport to reach it.

Even if there is a vast amount of land available in the country, that land has no value in an urban context, unless transportation makes it quickly accessible to the urban core. And that pattern has repeated itself, again and again, as new mobility modes have appeared. This means that the physical size of cities is a function of the speed of the transportation technologies that are available. And, as speed increases, cities can occupy more land, bringing down the price of land, and therefore of housing, in newly accessed territory.

Modern Atlanta may bear little resemblance to the cities of past millennia, but its current residents share something fundamental with urbanites of the distant past: The average one-way commute time in American metropolitan areas today is about 26 minutes. That figure varies from city to city, and from person to person: Some places have significant numbers of workers who enjoy or endure particularly short or long commutes; some people are willing to travel for much longer than 30 minutes. But the endurance of the Marchetti Constant has profound implications for urban life. It means that the average speed of our transportation technologies does more than anything to shape the physical structure of our cities…

From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes: “The One Weird Rule That Explains Urban Sprawl.”

* Italo Calvino

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As we whistle “Heigh Ho,” we might recall that in Britain on this date in 1752 absolutely nothing happened.  There was no “September 3” (nor September 4-13) in Britain that year, as 1752 was the year that Britain converted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which required an adjustment of 11 days.  Thus, that year British calendars went from Wednesday, September 2 directly to Thursday, September 14.

Most historians believe that persistent stories of riots in England at the time, demanding “give us our eleven days,” are an urban legend, fueled in part by an over-enthusiastic take on Hogarth’s 1755 painting “An Election Entertainment”:

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September 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…

 

Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).

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May 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule”*…

 

The American house is growing. These days, the average new home encompasses 2,500 square feet, about 50 percent more area than the average house in the late 1970s, according to Census data. Compared to the typical house of 40 years ago, today’s likely has another bathroom and an extra bedroom, making it about the same size as the Brady Bunch house, which famously fit two families.

This expansion has come at a cost: the American lawn…

As houses have gotten bigger, yard sizes have receded. What gives? “The Shrinking of the American Lawn.”

(Compare and contrast: “Who is the Tiny House revolution for?“)

* Michael Pollan

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As we eulogize our edgers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 that the first issue of The American Lawn Tennis Bulletin, the official organ of the American Lawn Tennis Association, was published.  Its name was subsequently changed to American Lawn Tennis Magazine, then to USTA Magazine, after its sponsoring organization– the sanctioning body for amateur tennis in the U.S. and host of the U.S. Open tournament–  dropped “Lawn” from its name.

1894 advertisement

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July 11, 2016 at 1:01 am

“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange”*…

 

How did cities emerge? Where were they located? How did they change over the course of human civilization? How did they change their surroundings?

The answers to these questions are available, but hard to access. The United Nations World Urbanization Prospects, for example, only tracks urban populations and their locations from 1950 on, and so offers only a small, relatively recent snapshot of urbanization. The work of the historian Tertius Chandler and the political scientist George Modelski is much more extensive. The two painstakingly gathered population and archeological records from as far back as 2250 B.C. The problem, however, is that their data exist in the form of tables that are stuffed with hard-to-decipher numbers and notes.

new paper published in Scientific Data takes a stab at mapping the information Chandler and Modelski gathered. Yale University researcher Meredith Reba and her colleagues digitized, transcribed, and geocoded over 6,000 years of urban data…

More at “Mapping 6,000 Years of Urban Settlements.”

* Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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As we take it downtown, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 CE that the Vandals completed their sack of Rome.  Three years earlier, the Vandal king Genseric and the Roman Emperor Valentinian III, had betrothed their children, Huneric and Eudocia, to strengthen their then-new peace treaty, but had delayed the wedding, as Eudocia was only 5 at the time. But on the 16th of March in 455, Valentinian was assassinated, and Petronius Maximus rose to the throne.  Petronius, more concerned to consolidate power than to observe the decencies, married Valentinian’s widow, Licinia Eudoxia, and had his son Palladius marry Eudocia. Genseric was not amused; he sailed immediately with his army to Rome.  The Vandals knocked down the city’s aqueducts on their way to the gates– which were opened to the invaders after Genseric agreed to Pope Leo I‘s request that he not raze the city nor murder it’s inhabits wholesale.  The Vandals satisfied themselves with treasure and with a group of “hostages” including Eudocia and her mother.  Petronius Maximus and Palladius had killed by an angry Roman mob before Genseric arrived.

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June 16, 2016 at 1:01 am

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