Myths of origin!
Behind the Romulus and Remus myth or the founding of Carthage by Didon, most archeologists today agree that the concept of cities originated in time from somewhere between 8 000 to 6 000 years B.C.
Why such a fuss? After all, since human beings settled down to shift to agriculture, it would seem "natural" that a successful cluster of housing would grow in a town that, maybe, could be called a "City" if it has enough population growth?
Findings show that that wasn't the case. At the time of Ur there were bigger settlements along the Euphrates or the Tiger whose population sigificantly outnumbered Ur or Nineveh, still history didn't call them "cities" (nor did keep track of them).
Until recent times, the usual belief was that a "city" was the "King's place" (or chief, chefferie in french), showing a shift in the "elder" system of authority inherited from nomadic times to the more centralized "chief of warriors". Ancient cities' fortifications and enclosures gave creed to that theory. The cities' success story being mostly because they were a trading tool.
Later observations and theories tend to relate the "City" concept with the development of irrigation and the first civil servant system. The new definition of the necessary condition for an urban civilization (concept of City) being:
An agricultural high level output next to a allogenous river in a hot desert...
Let's try to see what that means...
- High level output for agriculture is easy! It means several crops a year... Calling for a lot of water and nourishment substrates.
- An allogenous river means a river that carries deposits to and from, two very different geographical environments (silt carried to deserts).
- A hot desert is the opposite of a cold one (Duh...!)
In old times when some roaming nomads settled to agriculture, the choice site was along rivers... Free water and rich grounds.
The trouble starts when most of those river banks are held by diverse groups (tribes) and that newcomers came, by sweeping waves, just behind them (in time and in geography).
The newcomers (other tribes) didn't have free access to the river and in the precise case of the hot desert, a very bad ground for agriculture.
As you can expect, and as in Hollywood westerns, it was war...
But war is not a lifelong thing with peasants... They need people to tend their crops, and they can't reproduce like rabbits if they don't have food for the offsprings... Means of agricultural irrigation were born!
They quickly evolved in a very sophisticated way, as some gigantic tunnels (hundreds of Km long) allowing for four workers to work in it with air and light (some still exist), reducing evaporation and harnessing the water resource!
These main tunnels were doubled with small canals in a mesh that could cover hundreds of hectares.
This full blown system was regulated with small doors, allowing water to flow only at some times and in some directions...
While Hercules was thought up a bit later, these works were enormous, and even if phased in time, required quite a lot of manpower and energy. These are not "warrior minded" designs, nor a collectivity auto-management's one (for that era).
Why would people accept to do such a slave task ? Maybe because they were "hooked" by the idea of a better future. Where their small acres of land far away from the river could one day be of some value for their descendants...
Such works induce time sharing culture, control, and overall design.
It means also a forced sharing of the water resource.
Small or Powerful, as in La Fontaine's fables they had to follow, because punishment was worse than death... Banishment...Or, no more water!
Somebody or some group had to control the sheer workforce, create shifts, negotiate the water deliveries, argue about the usefulness for the community of some crops... The "Master of Water"!
And mostly, because of high output, The City could sell the surplus for tools, or pay people just to think about improving the system... Or soldiers!
In a way, modernity was born!
While the City was building it's own unbalance, having to go forward to have more crops, more water, more people, more technology, it also tried to keep the smallest footprint possible. There was few open spaces at first.
Several story buildings with a upper terrace life. Collective spaces as wells, temples and marketplaces were the only ones at first, and when the streets begin to show, it was more of a maze in the "medina" sort.
Outer walls where hard to build and people crowded inside, getting used to less space.
The City evolved by swallowing it's outer core of buildings... The "yet to be citizens" living "outside the walls" becoming full fledged ones (often after a war where they served as the first buffering ring)!
But the City always tried to stay within limits... Choosing to add new layers on top of the existing buildings, before sprawling "outside". In those times, the City was a model of sustainability... Even in it's natural opposition to "Nature".
Citizenship was hard to get. But it gave incredible rights as very heavy duty. A good analogy would be a Roman citizenship in 30 A.D. for a family living in Syria.
With the City states, a centralized and hierarchical state form was developed in opposition to the mesh of villages that lived an "Hobbitshire" life style (Mumford, author of The City in History, seems to have been a good friend of Tolkien!), bound by some ethnic feelings or mostly by a religious one.
A City could raise an army of mercenary nomads, a cluster of village couldn't (sort of prefiguration of the "Seven Samurais").
As the city needed new people (immigration) they were very open about beliefs and religions, as anyhow the City itself was founded by a god, a half-god, or at least a hero! Moral was not so tight (you had people from various origins so inbreeding wasn't a risk as in villages)... And an underground economy could be tolerated... Then recuperated!
There are only four major urban civilization recorded.
- The middle-east from where most of us of advanced countries have inherited the concept... Tigres and Euphrates (The reference to Gilgamesh often seen as the father of the City concept or at least as it's vehicle in litterature).
- The Indus and the Gange one (not yet fully recorded) with Mohenjo-Daro and now several cities discovered i what is also called the Harrapa civilization.
- The Yellow river in China, Huanghe that is the Chines civilization cradle
- The high plateau of Andes... (Uh???) Hey, how come? Where is the hot desert and the river ?... Well in South America the problem (as in France today) was more about the crop... Corn ! That is highly demanding of water! And on a limestone plateau that's not a simple task!
The concept of Cities was successful enough to spread. But it was a society choice. Some group of people didn't choose it, even while dealing everyday with cities.
While born in Mesopotamia and with influences with the Indus-Gange one, it's mostly the Canaan ancestors of the Phoenicians who spread the concept and the techniques all over the Mediterranean sea for the Middle East urban cicilization. Greeks and Romans did the rest!
These first urban techniques were very sound, playing with the main winds (cooking was with open fire) and a hierarchical grid of streets following local geography. While the water needs of the "origins" wasn't anymore the incentive, the different political utopias and territory control was an asset for most.
In matter of religions, Catholicism (mostly because of St Paul) was the most "City oriented" and helped to preserve the concept, while Judaism, Islam, Protestantism don't really care about the City (either you can pray anywhere or you just have some unique bearings to some axis mundi!) (it IS a simplification, but space relationship in religions does exist)!
Many of our European countries entered the "City" way of living through the Roman empire (and some never did)!
The main difference between the Anglo-saxon view of city (community, collectivity, christianity, protestantism, etc.) and the Latin ones might just be about the Roman urban and agricultural techniques and way of life seduction...
A City is therefore not just an overgrown village, but more of a peculiar "way of life". It is not, either, a level in evolution between the rural town to the megapole, there's nothing "natural" in it, it's more of an end then a mean.
It can be ditched as useless, not because it's old fashioned but more because we have changed or want to change our societies.
It shouldn't be misinterpreted as it is today when people want a "village" in the city or bring the countryside in the city core... In each of these cases you can end up with a gettho as you stigmatize either the riches (view on park) or the "sameness" of a population.
Forgetting what is the City, brings up the notion of the French "Banlieue" (from "Ban" as in banished, and "lieu" the locus= the non existing locus!)whereas it still is an important urbanization. Elsewhere, it's urban sprawl vs downtown.
Of course, in time, the city model was used (and abused) by many. Some, by badly copying it, other by being enforced through a colonial empire. Today a city seems so natural that we coined the word "Urbanism" (from Urbs, of course) to deal with all the different built-up areas, including the city and the rest !
It is a common saying here, that if you speak of urbanism, it's because you've lost the City...
To paraphrase Malraux, I would say that the century that comes must be sustainable or mustn't be !
Agriculture has been desecrated by Industry and Landscaping was born. Heavy Industry is dying and now we talk of Cityscaping. As if, each time we shift our values, the precedent value is converted in a form of art or of leisure...
The City is in shambles... Some want to keep it as a museum, others speak of urban monads clustering between nations, the "ports" of a new MetaPolis.
Others again dream of the "village" as an utopia... ( Sarcelles is a village, same density per m2, a child must know at least 150 names of people not of his family that he crosses in the day, as in a village, while the urban child stops at about 50, etc.)
The villages in the countryside have, in the meantime, dwindled, left over to the few professionals of farming (just like the Gallo-Roman farm that was an industry).
Still, because of technology, the dream of the "original village" is in the mind of many. To live in the countryside with a distant on-line work... With an autonomous house, in a new form of self-sufficiency ! To be with real people, mostly friends whom you can talk to... (those never went in a countryside bar at 6 A.M.)!
The individual housing dream has pushed to the development of thousand of "new" villages ("lotissements" in french), clusters of small cheap houses with millions of square meters of nice watertight roads to get there, lighted at night, with water pipes, electricity cable (copper), drains, etc... Usually built on excellent agricultural land! All these "Monopoly" houses sit right in the middle of the parcel of land, accentuating the isolation feeling !
When asked, the inhabitants say that's because "they want to be free to do whatever they want, at anytime of the day or of the night, without being pestered by neighbors"... ( speak of social bonds!). In truth, they lose two hours of transportation to go to work, are to tired to mow the grass, and yell at their kids if they are too noisy...!
While technology will, in time, help to reduce most of this ecological impact, transportation will still be a problem. Social lives too. A teenager will need a transportation mean or share it with friends to have the "Saturday night fever" with all the inherent risks .
The more people get isolated, the more they get paranoiac, the less they want to see people... It's what I call the "shotgun" syndrome!
I'm not specially fond of the way of life of "Brazil" but I don't like either, the sprawl of houses covering most of the territory. I shudder at the idea that they might get "autonomous" one day, shutting most of my fellow countrymen in social darkness.
I've studied many utopias, they all lead to totalitarianism ! And while the City model didn't escape dictatorship, it also showed in time that it could support self management as various political models... And maybe that an autonomous city is easier to build and more profitable...
If somebody asks me, I vote for the City... And spread along the idea that before long, "individual housing will be a crime against humanity"...