The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History was published a few weeks ago. The Handbook of over 900 pages is edited by Peter Clark and published by Oxford University Press. It includes contributions by over fifty authors, of whom I am one. As to be expected, this essay accordingly is a positive presentation of the publication rather than a detached review of it.
The handbook covers a great deal in terms of chronology and geography. A considerable part of the book is devoted to examining cities from Ancient times to the present, and looks at examples from Asia and the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. For those interested in the evolution of cities during a specific period or in a certain part of the world, they will find chapters in the Handbook that address their interest. My contribution to the publication fits within this chronological / geographic coverage since I wrote about cities in the Middle East from 1950 to the present.
The book also has a good number of thematic chapters. Rather than emphasize a period or a region, these chapters look at overarching themes that link the evolution of cities across stretches of time and geographic expanses. I found myself particularly drawn to the thematic chapters on cities during the modern period, i.e. the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I will devote the upcoming part of this essay to the subjects they address.
These thematic chapters examine issues as diverse as industrialization, migration, poverty, inequality, social segregation, infrastructure, and even the portrayal of cities in cinema. They also address creative cities, the metropolitan cities that have brought preexisting cities, towns, and villages into interconnected urban conglomerates, and even colonial cities, suburbs, and port cities.
In these thematic chapters, we see how industrialization was initially enabled by the growth of agricultural surpluses that allowed for the movement of both investment and populations from rural areas to urban centers, where industrial production came to be based. This process began in England during the second half of the eighteenth century, and from there spread through much of Western Europe and North America. Industrialization initiated a large-scale process of migration into cities from rural areas, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Western Europe and North America had achieved the highest levels of urbanization in the world, even though they had lagged behind Japan and the Middle East before that. High levels of urbanization in the developing world did not take place until the second half of the twentieth century. This was related more to practices of centralizing economic and political activities in major urban centers, primarily national capitals, rather than merely to industrialization. In the final result, however, over half of the world’s population today lives in cities.
The thematic chapters also address issues of urban poverty, inequality and violence. These problems are widespread in cities today, particularly in the developing world. Even in the affluent cities of the West, problems of poverty and inequality have increased over the past three decades. The policies put in place in various countries in the West since World War I that aimed at achieving higher levels of social justice and at building safety nets for disadvantaged groups have been weakening. The emphasis instead has shifted towards implementing policies that encourage economic growth even though the benefits of such growth have been very unevenly distributed. Income disparities therefore are very high today in cities everywhere. Such disparities correspond to high levels of physical segregation in cities along socio-economic lines. In turn, these socio-economic disparities often correspond to racial, ethnic, and religious divisions. In spite of this grim situation, it is pointed out that even though the poor face very difficult condition in the cities of the developing world, cities still offer their residents some improvement in the quality of life over many rural areas. This is evident in a wide range of indicators relating to income, sanitation, and life expectancy, among others. This, however, is more an expression of a failure to achieve meaningful development in rural areas in poor countries rather than the success of urbanization as a force of socio-economic development.
One also should not underestimate the effects of the forces of globalization on the evolution of cities in recent times. Increased globalization has contributed to the movement of considerable populations from poorer countries to the cities of richer countries. About three percent of the world’s population today lives in countries other than the ones where they were born. Almost one in ten people in developed countries are now migrants. In Switzerland, the ration is one in six. These migrant populations for the most part take on low-paying jobs and live at the socio-economic margins of their host cities.
The thematic sections of the book also remind us of the nuts and bolts that allow cities to function and even prosper. Cities require decent infrastructure systems, i.e. physical networks that address the needs for providing water, electricity, transportation, sewage disposal, telecommunications, and solid waste management. If these systems do not exist at some basic level, life in the city deteriorates if not collapses. Such infrastructure provides the “hardware” for the city. Systems of urban governance provide the “software.” If existing national and municipal institutions do not function with a minimal level of competence, and if they are not subjected to a minimal level of accountability, life in the city suffers tremendously.
Although many of these thematic chapters address a variety of serious difficulties affecting cities – whether social, economic, or environmental, the chapter on creative cities presents a more uplifting view of the city. Creative cities are open to new ideas and new people. This of course depends on the city also having the necessary physical, administrative, and cultural infrastructure to support it. This chapter discusses two pioneering examples of the creative city: Berlin and New York as they emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Berlin was open to foreigners. It was one of the earlier cities to adopt the use of electricity. It developed an excellent public transportation system. The University of Berlin was a world leader in technology, the natural sciences, and medicine. It was a center for industrial innovation. Culturally, it had three opera houses and tens of theaters. It also was a world musical capital that attracted important musicians and composers, and it was a very important center for art and architecture. All this came to an end with the rise of the Nazis and the advent of World War II, which eventually resulted in the division of German and also Berlin. Since the city’s reunification in 1990, Berlin has been aggressively working on retaining its previous status as an international center of innovation.
As for New York, it had the fastest population growth rate of any city in the world between 1870 and 1900. Its port became the busiest in the world by 1900. It attracted the largest concentration of professionals and financial services anywhere. Its wealth allowed it to become a major cultural center with impressive accomplishments in architecture, painting, music, dance, and design. And of course, it developed a very impressive physical infrastructure including the most comprehensive transit system anywhere. In spite of the economic challenges New York experienced during the twentieth century, it remains the world’s primary center of creativity and innovation.
One chapter that I found fascinating is about port cities. This chapter discusses their historical importance as places of cross-border economic and cultural contact. The chapter, however, also shows the tremendous influence of specific technological developments over cities. It points out how many port cities were radically affected beginning in the 1960s as a result of the dramatic growth in the use of containers as the primary means for packaging and transporting goods on ships. Containers allow for the movement of much larger quantities of goods, but also require a much smaller workforce to load and unload cargo, since this now may be carried out mechanically. Traditional ports therefore lost large numbers of jobs. Moreover, many of them did not have enough space to store the large and increasing amounts of cargo moved through containers, so warehouse facilities moved inland, often to other cities located away from shorelines. Numerous port cities as a result lost their standing as centers of commerce. Some are trying, with limited success, to reinvent their waterfronts through redevelopments that concentrate on upscale housing, culture, tourism, and leisure activities.
What I have presented above of course is my own reading of a fraction of the wealth of information that The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History presents. This cursory presentation, however, should be enough to give an indication of the tremendous resilience, complexity, and overwhelming diverse human activities that cities have historically housed, something that the Handbook well presents.
June 13, 2013