Why Do We Build Cities?

Against all odds, more than half of the citizens of New Orleans returned to their broken city after Hurricane Katrina to try to repair their homes and their communities. The process has been notoriously difficult, as the media continues to report, yet New Orleansians press on, living in FEMA trailers or under tarp roofs and trying to make sense of the legal nightmare of applying for aid.

Meanwhile, down in Pisco, those who lost their homes in the recent earthquake are starting to rebuild their adobe houses without any kind of supervision or safety regulations, Peruvian officials worry. At least part of the motivation is economic, as one can only build on the land that one owns or can lay claim to. These people need shelter, and they're addressing that need. But with the government promising aid and training for people rebuilding their homes, there is the suggestion that there is some other motivation, something below the surface, that is causing people to rebuild so quickly.

In fact, the rebuilding processes in both New Orleans and Pisco raise some interesting questions about the nature of urbanism. Why do these people rebuild instead of moving elsewhere? And if a city must be rebuilt, why start over in the same place? Why not build a new city in a place less prone to, say, flooding or earthquakes? What's the reasoning behind trying to rebuild a city that has been knocked down?

There is a social aspect to urbanism that underscores all of the other motivations for urban development. People, as has been well-documented by sociologists, generally like to be around other people (at least in close proximity, even if there is no direct interaction). Still, we generally think of cities merely as concentrations of power (both economic and militaristic) instead of what they are, literally: concentrations of people.

If our settlements can be leveled by natural forces regardless of size, and if their economic structures can be so easily toppled, why don't we all live in small towns or villages? They'd probably be easier to rebuild. They wouldn't be such a hassle to manage. In fact, one could make a convincing argument that a society made up of small towns, even operating with current technology, would be more sustainable than one composed of large cites.

So why the heck do we build cities, anyway?

A few weeks back, a research consortium with participants from Harvard and Cambridge Universities (among others) shared some interesting new findings from the excavation site at Tell Brak -- findings that seem to tell us a lot about the origins of urbanism. The researchers have found, by analyzing fragments of pottery scattered around what was essentially a core city, that the urban area around Tell Brak was developed in an organic way that suggests an entirely different reason for the founding of mankind's earliest cities.

Traditionally, the founding of these early cities has been attributed to various kings and religious authorities. In an article about the new findings, Scientific American quotes researcher Jason Ur: "Kings were quick to take credit for founding cities...We're taking royal inscriptions at their word, which could be a bad thing to do."

The informal growth of Tell Brak seems to suggest that, at their very beginnings, cities were founded because they provided a strong social network. This undoubtedly created economic and military power as early cities grew, but the original impetus was simply for people to gather in one place in order to improve their lives in some way (the researchers acknowledge that individual motivations were likely diverse). So Tell Brak illustrates at least one compelling argument for why we build large, impressive urban centers: we just like to be around each other.

In wrecked cities like New Orleans and Pisco, the large majority of citizens don't return because they look forward to the immense challenges of cleaning up environmentally devastated lots, tearing down the shards of their old homes, and rebuilding from scratch. They return because they are looking to rebuild the social places that existed before their city was ruined. They rebuild for the same reason that anyone builds in the first place.

They just like to be around each other.

(Photo from Flickr user mateollosa.)


Pay Heed to New Orleans' Plight (Associated Press)

Citizens in Pisco, Peru Informally Build Adobe Houses after Earthquake (LivinginPeru.com)

Ancient Squatters May Have Been the World's First Suburbanites (Scientific American)

Researchers rewrite origins of the urban sprawl (University of Cambridge)

1 comment:

Peter Sigrist said...

Excellent article. It's fascinating to consider why and how cities take root in certain places. The Tell Brak example is new to me, and I look forward to learning more about it.