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  • Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History.

Article |  12/05/2013Peter Clark

Cities in a Globalizing World

In February 2013 Oxford University Press published the Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, a book which I had worked on and edited over the previous three or so years, aided by Professor Lynn Lees of the University of Philadelphia, a leading expert on modern cities, and Prof. David Mattingley, equally well known for his studies of the ancient city.

In February 2013 Oxford University Press published the Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, a book which I had worked on and edited over the previous three or so years, aided by Professor Lynn Lees of the University of Philadelphia, a leading expert on modern cities, and Prof. David Mattingley, equally well known for his studies of the ancient city.

The need for a book of this kind is clear.  For too long  many urban researchers  have been locked in narrow debates often focused on a locality or region, at best country, which frequently lack a comparative dimension and take little notice of interactions with the world outside  their region or country.  It is self-evident that in the early 2lst century, with urbanization becoming a global phenomenon, this kind of pre-Galilean mentality is no longer meaningful. The Oxford Handbook  is an attempt to provide the first large-scale global framework for historical urban studies through the collective work of an international team including leading Finnish scholars (Marjatta Hietala, Jussi Jauhiainen, Hannu Salmi), as well as American, European and British researchers.

The book is 900 pages long and has 50 contributors from the fields of urban history, ancient history, archaeology, architectural history, sociology and political science. It examines from a comparative perspective urban developments across the world from the origin of cities to the present day. The book is divided into three parts:  Early Cities; Pre-Modern Cities; and Modern and Contemporary Developments. Each part contains regional surveys of the main urban systems in the world, including Europe, the Americas, Africa, China, Japan and South and South East Asia, as well as thematic chapters comparing key variables in  urban development (for example,  power, migration and population, culture and representations, urban creativity, suburbanization, economic growth).

In this short paper I want to discuss the constraints of editing a comparative volume of this type, then the challenges (and opportunities!), and finally (and briefly) some of the main findings of this exciting enterprise.

When I took on the commission to edit this book from OUP, I told the commissioning editor that this was the riskiest publishing project I had ever been involved in! What I meant was that it involved a large group of scholars, largely unknown to one another, from diverse disciplines, working on a wide variety of periods and themes, in order to attempt to construct the first wide-ranging comparative survey and analysis of the world’s urban development from ancient times to the present. Not an easy mission!

There were from the start a number of constraints. Firstly the publisher had a rather rigid view of the series format and the size of the volume – ideas for adding new chapters involved dropping others. Even though the final volume was bigger than Oxford University Press had wanted, still there was no way the collection could ever be comprehensive. In contrast to earlier times when publishers had helped underwrite the organizational costs of large collective ventures, there was no financial support from the press. So we had to fund almost everything ourselves!

Thus there was the related difficulty of raising the money needed for the preparation of this elaborate volume, including the two planning conferences in Helsinki University in May 2010 and at the University of Pennsylvania in April 2011, together with the costs of copyrights and images. Research  funding bodies talk a good deal about supporting comparative interdisciplinary projects and even global research, but the rhetoric is often more positive than the funding outcomes.  However I am delighted to say that both the University of Helsinki and the City of Helsinki (notably Asta Manninen and Urban Facts),  as well as the Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth Foundation,  the Federation of  Finnish Learned Societies (TVS),  and the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands in Finland gave important support for the work on the volume.

Most striking was that when I first contacted people to take part in this work I became aware that quite a number of scholars are not really interested in comparative history of the transoceanic variety: they prefer their own smaller lagoons, even shallows, of research. In fact in one or two major areas I wrote to a good number of people without any response at all. Nevertheless what proved both inspiring and humbling about the project was that those colleagues, young and old, who did agree to join the enterprise were remarkably enthusiastic, engaged, open to dialogue, and responsive to our tight schedule. I take my hat off especially to those authors who took on the challenge of writing the comparative thematic chapters, real path-breaking efforts, though a good number of the survey chapters also have important comparative perspectives. It has indeed been a real voyage of discovery for almost all of the authors!

What were the challenges? One clearly was to construct a completely new international network of scholars. Although urban studies have flourished across the world in the last few decades, research networks have been fragmented and divided with little communication between them. In our project, for the first time, Europeanists, Africanists, scholars of North America, Latin America, East Asia and so on, were involved in intensive and wide-ranging debate and discussion which undoubtedly informed and improved the final publication.

Another important challenge was to create a structured, joined up history of global urban development from early times to the present day, to pursue key questions and arguments across different urban systems, to clarify some of the issues about the interconnectivity and interactions of cities across the world in the era before contemporary globalization. We were not interested in simply producing an encyclopedia of articles. A structured approach was adopted to ensure most major regions and themes were explored in detail, rather than a kind of pick and mix approach, privileging one or two particular themes or just big and famous cities.

A further challenge of course was to bring the book in on schedule to a high standard without having a mutiny of contributors! Here the very successful conferences we held in Helsinki and Philadelphia played an important part, mobilizing the commitment of contributors and revealing where authors might face difficulties in meeting the schedule or publication standards. But the strong capacity of the editorial team was also influential in producing the final outcome.

What are the principal findings of this large collective work? No doubt readers will have their own views reflecting their own perspective and interests. But it seems to me that a number of general conclusions are evident. First, the trope of globalization which so dominates contemporary debates has a long pre-history: that international interactions between urban systems in East and West certainly were important by the Middle Ages and were probably significant already during the ancient era. Trade between Europe, the Middle East and both China and India affected the fortunes of major port cities and inland entrepôts across the world, not just in Europe, from the 13th century if not before. Up to the 17th century at least, European cities were often the poor relation in the intercontinental traffic between Asia and the Middle East. Second, it comes as a salutary surprise to discover that for much of the pre-modern period Asia and Middle Eastern cities were often bigger, more sophisticated, more continuously dynamic than their European counterparts. Kaifeng in China had perhaps 1.4 million inhabitants in the 11th century, Hangzhou around a million in the 13th century, Baghdad above 600,000 in the 11th century, Cairo 270,000 around 1400, at a time when the biggest European cities probably did not much exceed 200,000; again Edo (Tokyo) had around one million c. 1700, well ahead of the largest Western city at that time, London.  A third general conclusion is that the rise of the European city is recent.  Only from the later 18th century do we see the First Great Divergence: urbanization rates accelerate in the West powered by industrialization, global trade, high finance, and powerful militarized nation states in Europe; whilst cities largely stagnate in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. One consequence was a proliferation of European (and American) colonial cities across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  But this ascendancy has proven short-lived.  Since the 1980s a Second Great Divergence has occurred.  Whilst European urbanization has stabilized, Asian and Latin American cities have grown rapidly, with the great majority of the world’s largest cities now located outside this continent. As we know, from the problems of Nokia, economic competition from Asia has had a major impact on urban industries in the West. Finally, the new comparative material should encourage us to review and revise some of the key concepts that Western scholars have stressed – such as municipalism, and civil society, to mention just two – in their discussion of urban development over time.

Needless to say, there is much more work to be done on a global analysis of city history in the past! This book is only the start, a launch pad for fresh and no doubt diverse discourses, for an ongoing debate about the role, impact and interaction of cities in world history. Here the Oxford Handbook may serve, also, as an important resource for global urban history, providing key data, outlines and literature references. 

What I see as crucial for future analysis are two points. One:  comparative material should enable us to see much more clearly what is distinctive about urban systems in our region, and what features are shared, common, to all urban societies.  Secondly it should help illuminate what the key drivers of change are – the structural pressures of urbanization, interconnectivity, competition and emulation, and so on.  If this book is to have any impact it will surely mean that studying cities or regional urban systems in glorious isolation is on the way out.

Peter Clark is Professor Emeritus of European Urban History at University of Helsinki.

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