Histories of Global Urbanism

Teaching Assistant(s)
Elaine Tat

The course presents the formation and evolution of urbanism as practices of describing, theorizing, and designing the city and its territory in relation to both local and global historical contexts and geographies, with a particular focus on the spatial and social implications of the global processes of modernization and capitalism, and colonialism and democratization. Among the many possible histories of urban forms and urbanism, the course will present and discuss urbanism’s on going challenge to shape the city as a public institution and space. It helped to turn crammed towns into advanced platforms for social exchange and interaction. The achievement of healthier, well-connected, and more efficient and accessible urban environments did not come without struggle or inherent contradictions. Quite often, urbanism became instrumental in facilitating public and private exploitation of land and labor, producing social and racial segregation. The course will span from the ancient city of Athens around 400 BC, with its urban space designed to accommodate an early form of democratic power, to the theories and practice of landscape urbanism and its ecological agenda.

What is urbanism?
Despite the long-standing practice of city planning, the rise of modern urbanism as a systematic practice and discourse goes back only to the First Industrial revolution. The reorganization of the city as a productive platform, also healthy and efficient, questioned the organic growth as a sustainable option. By the end of the 19th century the individual work of philanthropists, urban reformers, and young city planning agencies triggered what was called town planning. The French urban historian Françoise Choay recalled that the word urbanisme appeared for the first time in France in 1910. In North America, in his 1938 essay “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” the Chicago-based sociologist Louis Wirth referred to urbanism as a yet-to-come theory to describe the city as a social entity. Since its early years, Choay’s and Wirth’s definitions highlighted urbanism as both a descriptive and a projective practice. The two sides informed the evolution of urbanism in the 20th century when the professionalization of city design disciplines grew hand-to-hand with the field of urban studies that spans from urban sociology to economics. The course will present urbanism as trans-disciplinary practices to understand, describe, and design urban built forms and landscapes and their impact on urban sociality.

What is global urbanism?
Ancient cities such as Rome and Baghdad built their economical and military power by functioning as nodes of networks beyond their physical and administrative boundaries. With the rise of colonialism first, and capitalism and modernization after, urbanism became the most important tool to ground global processes. The hierarchical structure of the city and its territory became instrumental to provide a strong financial base to the constitution of modern states. The same infrastructure that brought power and exploitation facilitated the movement of urban ideas across the globe. For almost five centuries, the colonial routes brought urban ideas from Europe to America and Asia. In the last fifty years, innovations in technology and mobility are facilitating even more global movements of people, ideas, and goods confirming the city as an urban apparatus for human and now post-human exchange. The course will discuss how modern urbanism developed in relation to global issues and travelled across different cultural and geographical contexts.