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Urbanisation

The History and Future of Places: Part 2 – Cities, city-states and empires

Edward Relph is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Place and Placelessness (Pion 1975), along with numerous other books, articles and chapters on place, sense of place and landscape. This week in The History and Future of Places, he charts the evolution of the city from its Bronze Age origins to the nerve centre of the classical world.

Professor Edward Relph
26 March 2020

A placemaking leap from small settlements and ceremonial sites to cities happened about 3,500 BCE in several locations around the world – most notably in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia.

These ancient cities were distinct from all previous settlements because of their relatively large and dense populations, planned streets laid out in a grid pattern, tall buildings, marketplaces and grand temples.

They were also centres of administration, where writing on stone tablets was invented, perhaps to keep records of food supplies. This, presumably, resulted in a class distinction between the literate few and everybody else. Although the great majority of people continued to live in small villages for the next three millennia, these early cities were a “place invention” that endured, steadily grew, and now prevails.

The earliest cities were centres of administration, where writing on stone tablets was invented. This, presumably, resulted in a class distinction between the literate few and everybody else.

The first city in Mesopotamia is thought to have been Uruk, not far from what is now Baghdad. At its peak, c. 2,000 BCE, it may have had a population of 50,000 but eventually declined for various environmental and political reasons and was abandoned before 300 CE. What is often considered the first work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written there about 1800 BCE in cuneiform on stone tablets. It begins with what is probably the first written description of a place:

“The massive wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equalled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.”[1]

Greek city-states and knowledge of other places

The practice of building urban places slowly spread from Mesopotamia east to India and westwards to the Mediterranean. In Ancient Greece, in the first millennium BCE, the practice began to take on a distinctive character that is notable in part because such good archaeological and written records have survived. 

An important part of this distinctiveness was the development of city-states: essentially politically defined urban regions, each with a city supported by an agricultural economy, and with its own deity revered and honoured in temples such as those on the Acropolis for Athena, the goddess of Athens.

Each city-state also had its own form of government to direct the everyday life of its citizens. The most notable was the democratic system invented in Athens, which redefined how people related to place, because citizens (adult males, not women or slaves) could meet in a public space, the Agora, to debate and vote on matters that would affect life in the places where they lived.

Some Greek cities, such as Athens, had inherited irregular or organic plans from earlier settlements, but where possible considerable attention was paid to creating a carefully arranged layout of spaces. In cities that had to be rebuilt – for instance, after a war – these public spaces were incorporated into a system of rectangular city blocks in what can be considered the first systematic instances of placemaking and town planning. The aesthetically meticulous architecture of Greek temples set a standard for western architecture that has been repeatedly revived and is still admired. In this respect, ancient Greek placemaking has echoed through the centuries.

The aesthetically meticulous architecture of Greek temples set a standard for western architecture that has been repeatedly revived and is still admired. In this respect, ancient Greek placemaking has echoed through the centuries.

In Hellenic Greece, people were often identified by their birthplace: Hiproman attitpodamus of Miletus (considered to be the first town planner), Eratosthenes of Cyrene, etc., and the intellectual culture included a desire to understand the world and its places.

Eratosthenes, the person who is attributed with the invention of the word ‘geography,’ was for some years around 225 BCE the librarian at Alexandria, and his books, though all lost, are known to have included both a map and a set of descriptions of known countries.

While Ancient Greece did not have an empire, its citizens explored and migrated to various places in their known world, in effect creating what in retrospect appears to have been a geographically open and extended sense of place.

Standardized places of the Roman Empire

Around 150 BCE, the city-states of Ancient Greece were assimilated into the expanding empire of the Romans, who then borrowed and adapted many aspects of Greek thought and placemaking, including architectural styles and aspects of town planning. But whereas the Greek attitude to place tended to be cerebral, democratic, spiritual and aesthetic, the Roman attitude was mostly administrative and practical.

The Roman attitude to place was described by the geographer Strabo about 10 CE: ‘A knowledge of places,’ he wrote at the beginning of his Geography, ‘is conducive of virtue.

The Romans added innovations such as aqueducts, communal baths, and tenement buildings; amphitheatres for mass entertainment were substituted for theatres; monuments were built to honour emperors; and religion was domesticated – every dwelling had its gods. 

Perhaps most notably in terms of impacts on place, the Romans developed a continent-wide network of roads that facilitated both communication and rapid deployment of troops. This network allowed the imperial centre of Rome to command an empire that came to include territory all around the Mediterranean, far into the Middle East and northwards as far as Britain.

Wherever those roads and trade routes led, new settlements were created along lines specified in the first century BCE by the architect Vitruvius. Vitruvius’s books precisely detailed site selection, grid street patterns, street widths and orientation, the location and character of colonnades, and the size of city blocks. The roads and settlements offered both security and comfort to local peoples and their places, who were assimilated into the Roman way of life.

The Roman attitude to place was described by the geographer Strabo about 10 CE: “A knowledge of places,” he wrote at the beginning of his Geography, “is conducive of virtue.”

Geographers, with their knowledge of the cosmos, wide travel, and careful observations, were especially capable of evaluating places, and this enabled them to interpret the providential order of landscapes, to distinguish good sites from unpropitious ones, and to advise others – especially political and military leaders – on how to take advantage of them. Whether the leaders paid much attention to this advice is not clear, but there is ample evidence that the great Roman network of roads and trade routes carried fashions for amphitheatres, therapeutic baths, villas with under-floor heating and elegant mosaics, and carefully organised grid town plans throughout the empire. This could be considered an early form of placelessness, though Strabo’s remarks suggest that it did involve adaptations to the particularities of places.

Roads and trade routes do, however, run in two directions. As they took Roman culture to the frontiers, they also brought people from throughout the empire to Rome. At its peak, the city had a population of about 1 million – perhaps 30 percent of whom were slaves. It had many of the elements we still identify with large cities – stadiums, centres of government, multi-story tenements, water supply and sewerage systems. But it was also filled with noise, congestion, inequalities and what Lewis Mumford  describes evocatively as “megalopolitan elephantiasis.”