Outline of Module 1

1.Cities and Society
2.What is Urban History?
3.The Organization of Urban History
4. Reference Materials
5. Assigned Reading
6. Discussion Questions

1. Cities and Society

Great cities like Rome and London have existed for thousands of years but only in the modern era, since about 1800, has a significant portion of any society's total population lived in such urban places. By 1800, about 3% of the world's population lived in places of 5,000 or more; by 1900 that proportion had risen to 13.6 %. Great Britain led the world in this respect, with the urban proportion having reached 80% by 1921.

Does this mean that the city is more important in our society than it was in earlier periods of history?
What has this increased concentration of people meant for how people think and act?
In our modern era, why do some urban places grow and prosper and others stagnate or decline?
How does life in the metropolis, the city, or the town differ from life in the village or country?

Figure 1: Rome: the remnants of the Forum, one of the major religious and ceremonial sites in the city. Source: G.A. Stelter, 1988

2. What is Urban History?

Urban history is an international field of study that attempts to answer some of these basic questions about the nature of our societies. The approach tends to be multidisciplinary. It is not unusual to find an architectural historian, a geographer, a planner, or a literary critic calling themselves an urban historian. Urban history is often associated with local history when the study is a particular locality or when some aspect of life in a local community is being analyzed or described.

At least four major approaches to the field of urban history can be identified. Don't assume that you need to get a firm grasp on all of them at this point. We will return to these categories in subsequent modules. Your research project will probably fall into the third category.

i. One is an emphasis on the urbanization process in general. This is difficult terrain even for urban specialists, but it provides an essentail context for more localized studies. This includes the element of demographic concentration, a structural or systems approach, and the behaviourial aspects of urbanization. A detailed decription of the related elements of urbanization is Gilbert Stelter, "Introduction," in Stelter, ed., Cities and Urbanization: Canadian Historical Perspectives(Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1990), pp. 1-15.

Some of the major works representing this approach are the following:

ii. A second approach is that of the urban biography - the history of a particular place. This is the most popular form of urban history as far as the general public is concerned. The best of the biographies attempt to relate the many complex facets of a city - such as transportation, municipal government, physical expansion, society and social organization - to a larger context of the total city. The city itself becomes a distinct collective personality, capable of action, and thus is seen as more than just a place where interesting events happen. Some of the urban biographies that are worth looking at as models, are:

One of the most successful attempts to relate different aspects of a city's life is Carl Schorske's Fin-de-siecle Vienna(1981), in which chapters on politics, the architecture of the Ringstrasse, the psychoanalysis of Freud, painting, and music all converge on the idea of "modernism" in a specific city.

An imaginative use of urban biography to illustrate larger themes has been attempted by several authors. One example is Sam Bass Warner's The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City (1972), where studies of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in three time periods are used to highlight the negative role of "privatism" on the quality of life in American cities. Another is James T. Lemon, Liberal Dreams and Nature's Limites: Great Cities of North America Since 1600 (1996). Lemon uses a particular city in each of five time periods to examine the notion of liberal dreams of improvement: Philadelphia in the 18th century; New York in the mid 19th; Chicago, the early 20th; Los Angeles, the 1950s; Toronto, the 1970s. Throughout, Lemon compares the Canadian to the American urban experience. Students will find the length and complexity of this work to be daunting, but the effort is worthwhile.

imageFigure 1a:James T. Lemon.The author of Liberal Dreams and Nature's Limits (1996) is a Geographer at the University of Toronto. He has also written a biography of 20th century Toronto, Toronto Since 1918: An Illustrated History (1985). Liberal Dreams is both a scholarly work and a call for public action. Source: G.A.Stelter, 1997.

Great cities like London have had a number of biographical studies. Two popular examples are Christopher Hibbert, London, the Biography of a City(1969), and John Russell, London(1994), an attempt to define the character of a dynamic community. One of the more ambitious biographies of London is a novel by Edward Rutherfurd, London(1997). While it is not great literature, and while the individual characters often seem contrived, this is a remarkably effective look at a city as it evolved over a two thousand year period.

image Figure 2: London: the Parliament Buildings at Westminister Source: G.A. Stelter,1986

iii. A third approach deals with a variety of themes - economic, social, architectural, and so on - in the context of cities. The best of these thematic studies develop a theme in the larger context of other things that are going on in that place at the same time. The literature available for some great cities is of a very high quality. For example, here are some of the kinds of thematic work on London.

Architectural histories of cities form another very important thematic interpretation of a place. Some of the best international examples are: image Figure 3: Edinburgh: the Castle, as seen from Arthur's Seat. Source: G.A. Stelter,1983
image Figure 4: Venice: the central portion - St. Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace. Source: G.A. Stelter,1988
image Figure 5: Paris: the view west from the Arc de Triomph. Source: G.A. Stelter,1985

Two general interpretations deserve mention as particularly insightful into the relationship between a society's culture and its buildings. A delightfully readable explanation of North American urban form, and why it differed from Europe, is Witold Rybczynski,City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World(1995). This is an idiosyncratic and extremely personal approach, and often a little shaky on urban history, but the author has some valuable and provocative insights into the way we have imagined and built cities. You should also know about Larry Ford,Cities and Buildings: Skyscrapers, Skid Rows, and Suburbs(1994). Ford is a geographer who hopes to combine the geographer's concern for space with the architect's emphasis on individual buildings or types of buildings, and he does so in a readable fashion. Ford concentrates on the most common, pervasive building types such as offices, stores and houses, and covers such topics as the invention of the office building and the Central Business District, and the evolution of the single-family house.

iv. A fourth approach, which might be termed cultural studies, is a fairly recent development which suggests some exciting new ways of "reading" cities. Students not familiar with contemporary critical theory might find this approach somewhat daunting, but we will introduce these concepts at various portions of the course in our effort to learn to "read" communities. The basis for much of this post-modern approach stems from an interdisciplinary body of theory including the literary theory of Jacques Derrida and the cultural anthropology of Clifford Geertz. Perhaps the most provocative example is Alan Mayne, The Imagined Slum: Newspaper Representation in Three Cities, 1870-1914(1993), a study of how slums were represented in the popular press in Sydney, San Francisco, and Birmingham. Mayne argues that slums were the constructions of the imagination, and that these representations led directly to the contemporary schemes of slum clearance and city improvement. For a discussion of his approach to "texting the past", see Mayne's "Representing the Slum,"Urban History Yearbook, vol. 17 (1990), pp. 66-84.

Less consciously theoretical, but also interdisciplinary, is Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, The Haymarket Bomb, and The Model Town of Pullman(1994). At one level Smith focuses on how Americans "read" three great Chicago events. At another, he explores the complex relationship between thought, experience and action by examining the way that social reality was affected by the system of ideas or words through which they were expressed.

Urban history is a flourishing field of study in most parts of the world and especially in the United States, Europe, and recently, Asia. Perhaps still the best statement of what urban history attempts to do is that by H.J. Dyos, the father of the modern study of the city, in his inaugural lecture at the University of Leicester in 1973. "Urbanity and suburbanity," in Exploring the Urban Past: Essays in Urban Historyby H.J. Dyos, ed. by David Cannadine and D. Reeder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 19-36.

Three recent essays outline some of the current concerns. Students should glance through one of these essays to get an idea of what urban historians think and write about.

3. The Organization of Urban History

Several organizations of scholars and some key individuals have influenced the development of urban history as a conscious area of study. Perhaps the most important individual was H.J. Dyos (1921-1978), who held the Chair of Urban History at the University of Leicester in England. His books included Victorian Suburbs(1961) and he founded the Urban History Yearbookin 1974 (which is now known as Urban History). An international conference he was planning at his death became the Dyos Memorial Conference; its papers defined the field at that time, and were published as The Pursuit of Urban History(1983), edited by D. Fraser and Anthony Sutcliffe.

image Figure 6: H.J. Dyos and Jane Jacobs in Toronto. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1974.

In the United States, urban historians reorganized themselves by creating the Urban History Association in 1989. This association meets annually at the meeting of the American Historical Association and publishes the Urban History Newsletterseveral times a year. One of the most influential American urban historians is Sam Bass Warner, Jr., who served as second president of the Association. He is the author of Streetcar Suburbs(1962), The Urban Wilderness(1972), and many other books.

image Figure 7: Michael Ebner, Executive Director of the Urban History Association, and Lynn Hollen Lees, President in 1993, at the Association's meeting in Chicago. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1995.

imageFigure 7a: At the Urban History Association's meetings in New York, 1997. Robert Fishman, Rutgers, author of Bourgeois Utopias(1987), and Carol Willis, Columbia, author of Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago (1995). Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1997.

Closely associated is the editorial board of the Journal of Urban History, for its membership overlaps considerably with that of the executive of the Urban History Association.

image Figure 8: Eric Lampard and Sam Bass Warner, Jr., at a board meeting of the Journal of Urban Historyin New York. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1990.

image Figure 9: Blaine Brownell, former editor, and David Goldfield, current editor of the Journal of Urban History. Goldfield was the president of the UHA in 1996. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1990.

The study of cities in the Americas, and especially Latin America, was for many years promoted by the International Symposium on Urbanization in the Americas. The driving forces of this group were Jorge Hardoy (1924-1991) of Buenos Aires, and Richard Morse of the Latin American Program at the Smithsonian Institution. The proceedings of one of their conferences, that at Vancouver in 1979, was published as Urbanization in the Americas: The Background in Comparative Perspective(1980), edited by Woodrow Borah, Jorge Hardoy, and Gilbert Stelter. Some of the papers of another conference formed a special issue of the Journal of Urban History, vol. 10 (August, 1984), entitled "Cities as Cultural Arenas."

image Figure 10: Richard Morse and Jorge Hardoy at a symposium at Stanford University. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1982.

Planning history is closely related to urban history and has become a very active field. The American association is the Society for American City and Regional Planning History. Its leading figure has long been John Reps, the author of The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States(1965), and numerous other books. The British-based International Planning History Society was founded by the late Gordon Cherry, who wrote a number of books on British planning history, including Cities and Plans: The Shaping of Urban Britain in the 19th and 20th Centuries(1988).

image Figure 11: Anthony Sutcliffe, Leicester, and the late Gordon Cherry, Birmingham, co-founders of the international planning journal, Planning Perspectives, at a joint meeting of the British and American groups at Richmond, Virginia. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1991.

image Figure 12: Janet Hutchison, Appalachian State, and John Reps at the Richmond conference. Source: Gilbert Stelter, 1991.

4. Reference Materials

a. bibliographies

A comprehensive bibliography of more than 100 pages, The Urban Past: An International Urban History Bibliography, has been compiled and partially annotated by G.A. Stelter and is available online.

This bibliography lists several more specialized bibliographies on specific countries or themes such as urban planning.

b. journals

Several international journals of urban history in English as well as other languages are examples of the vitality of the field. Among the most useful are:

c.Urban history on the Internet