The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History

The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History
Edited by Peter Clarke
Oxford University Press 
882pp  £30

The present is the urban age. There are close to 500 cities and urban agglomerations with over a million inhabitants and 26 mega-cities with populations exceeding ten million, compared with just one city, Edo, modern Tokyo, which reached the figure of one million people in the early 18th century.

Peter Clark’s ‘handbook’ is a massive collection, which offers a detailed analysis of the evolution of major urban systems in the world from early times to the present. The main trends and key variables in the principal urban systems are examined over three broad periods: the early era from the origins of cities to around AD 600; the ‘pre-modern era’ up to the 19th century; and the modern and contemporary period. There are some valuable comparative sections, for example William Rowe contrasting and comparing early modern East Asian and European cities. Alongside differences, with western European political authorities playing less of a role in determining the urban system than in China, Rowe finds many common features. Culturally, consciousness of urban difference from the countryside increased in all three periods, as did a distinctive infrastructure, which included sites of sociability such as the coffee house and tea house.

The book has an impressive range, from Mesopotamia to cinema and the city, from sacred sites to the ‘great human achievement – pulsing with creative organisation and disorganisation’ – depicted by Penelope Corfield in an extraordinarily successful wide-ranging conclusion. The book shows that cities have always focused on the issue of managing unprecedented growth. Dystopias are seen in terms of urban chaos, as in the vision of Gotham City (New York) in the Batman films. The inner city dominates most fiction, or, at least that is where change plays through the human drama with the greatest intensity.

Alongside unplanned growth, the spread of cities in accordance with government planning became a characteristic feature in the 20th century. Secular visions of the future became more important during the last half-millennium. City authorities drew on the practical issue of planning and on notions of perfectibility, if not utopianism, which offered prospectuses of a graspable future. Current power and ideology inscribed into the townscape of the future was the prime feature of planning, both under authoritarian regimes and in a more benign political context.

At the same time, as Bill Freund discusses in an effective chapter on Africa 1000-2010, urban planning frequently failed. He argues that, if modern Africa is no longer the rural continent, the cities are being overgrown by the culture, adapted in interesting but often brutal ways, of an older society once rooted in the countryside.

Alongside their limitations, cities emerge as central places in wide-ranging political and economic systems. For example, in his discussion of the Ottoman city, 1500-1800, Ebru Boyar argues that despite shifts and changes over time, what made an Ottoman city was its position within the Empire, including the flexibility of the system of governance.

This is no mere handbook, but a most valuable addition to what is proving to be an impressive series.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World will be published by Yale next month.

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