Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Teotihuacan in the news: 1966 and 2016

I was looking for some biograhical material on Rene Millon, director of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. I came across this story, from Popular Mechanics magazine in July 1966:

This was from the early days of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project, when they were in the middle of making surface artifact collections and digging test excavations.  And now, 50 years later, here is another press item from Teotihuacan:

Wow, knowledge really does advance through time. Back in 1966 no one had any idea they would find rabbit bones at Teotihuacan, and asking questions about animal keeping and diet like this were out of the question. Our analytical methods, as well as our stock of excavated archaeological contexts, are now far beyond what they were in 1966. This rabbit study, by a couple of archaeologists who started out as anthropology majors at Arizona State University, shows the kind of detailed questions we can now ask about the past (see bibliography below).

But as an archaeologist and scholar, I like to try to stand above the weeds now and then and take a broad perspective on the past. Archaeology is not just about mapping a site or figuring out what people ate for dinner. We need to take facts like these--established from rigorous fieldwork and laboratory analyses--and put together a broad view of life, society, and cities in the past. When we do this, it turns out that many things are not all that different from life, society, and cities today. This insight is the basis for the "Wide Urban World."

And when you turn to your turkey dinner for the Thanksgiving holiday this week, don't just think back to the Native Americans and Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving meal. Think, instead, about the Mayas and Teotihuacanos of ancient Mesoamerica, the ones who first domesticated the turkey in the first place.

Bibliography:

Somerville, Andrew D., Nawa Sugiyama, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Margaret J. Schoeninger
2016    Animal Management at the Ancient Metropolis of Teotihuacan, Mexico: Stable Isotopoe Analysis of Leporid (Cottontail and Jackrabbit) Bone Mineral. PLOS-One 11 (8): e0159982.

2016    Leporid management and specialized food production at Teotihuacan: stable isotope data from cottontail and jackrabbit bone collagen. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences  (online first).

Pyramids of Teotihuacan in the 19th century


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Energized Crowding Turns Cities into Social Reactors

What is is about cities that makes them exciting and dynamic? Things are happening in cities and people are attracted to them. As Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Some cities never sleep. Cities are the setting for activities that just aren't found in smaller settlements. The more people in a city, the more activity and the more excitement. This is not just a feature of contemporary cities:  ancient cities like Teotihuacan were also bustling, dynamic, and attractive places. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof coined the term "energized crowding" to describe this aspect of urban life and society.

Energized crowding doesn't just describe the condition of life in cities - it describes the basic social forces that lead cities to grow and to transform life and society. This is the basis of the work on settlement scaling by the Social Reactors Project: me and Jose Lobo at Arizona State University, Scott Ortman at the University of Colorado, and Luis Bettencourt at the Santa Fe Institute. Check out our website. In our model, the process of energized crowding turns cities into social reactors.

As the number of people in a settlement increases, the number of potential social interactions grows at an exponential rate (see graph). As settlements grow larger, the effects of social interaction are amplified. These include positive, negative, and neutral effects. Let's start with the negative side of things. As we as individuals have to deal with more and more people, we get overloaded. Too many people, too much going on. This is called scalar stress. Some of the effects are highly negative--more people means more crime, more poverty, more social alienation. But scalar stress is offset by one of the big "nuetral" effects of growing settlement: the formation of neighborhoods. As cities grow, people adjust their activities so that they can live life on a smaller scale--the neighborhood. As I have said many times in this blog, neighborhoods are one of the very few universals of the urban experience. Here are a few posts on this (out of many.....):
 But there are also positive effects of energized crowding. Urban economists and economic geographers have known for a long time that when businesses and industries concentrate themselves in cities, it leads to economies of scale and thus major gains in productivity. These effects are called agglomeration effects, as in this diagram:
But it turns out that the positive effects of concentration and energized crowding are not limited to the modern industrial economy. In fact, they occur in cities before the industrial revolution, whether medieval European cities, or cities in the Roman or Inka empires. This fact alone shows that these effects are not due to factories, wage labor, advanced transportation, or other attributes of modern economies. In fact, these effects arise primarily out of the very act of social interaction within the built environment.

This realization was a real breakthrough in our understanding of the nature of city size and its role in generating the social and economic properties of cities. The key paper is Bettencourt (2013). Luis derives a quantitative model that predicts characteristics of cities based on their sizes, within a given region or urban system. The beauty of the model is that its conditions are general enough to fit cities before the modern era. In fact they also should work for non-urban settlements in agricultural village societies (and they do!).

Below is my diagram of energized crowding (from Smith 2017). When population grows, leading to higher densities, energized crowding increases. This can happen from regional population growth, or it can arise from the process of people moving into cities. The three results shown here are the negative, neutral, and positive outcomes of energized crowding.


In the time since Luis's 2013 article, our group has been scouring archaeology and history for cases where we can try out the model. Scott Ortman initiated this work with his studies of the settlement in the prehispanic Basin of Mexico. We've published a number of studies, and a bunch more are in the pipeline. Scott has even found the same scaling effects in village societies. The data requirements are heavy (a sample of 30 or more settlements from a given region and time period, with population estimates and other quantitative data to scale against population). If you think you know of any such cases, please let me know!

We have found the same quantitative relationships in modern and ancient settlement systems. This suggests that the same or very similar fundamental social processes operate when humans come together in settlements, whether today or two thousand years ago. Energized crowding--which is at a much higher level in larger settlements--has measurable effects on the density of settlement, and on the levels of economic and social outputs. In this figure, Graph A shows economic output measures for the modern U.S. economy, while Graph B shows wealth output for the ancient Inka economy. Quantitatively these two graphs are nearly identical. Both exhibit "superlinear scaling," with beta coefficients of 1.13.

So, how far can we push these relationships? Are they universal? Well, not quite. Hunter-gatherer campsites show very different patterns from the agricultural societies we have studied so far. This is something we are working on now. But for most systems we have examined, we find similar patterns, and when we apply Luis's model, we conclude that energized crowding turns settlements into social reactors.

For some other posts on the scaling work, see:
See our project website for more information.


Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  2013    The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Cesaretti, Rudolf, Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, Scott Ortman, and Michael E. Smith 2016    Population-Area Relationship in Medieval European Cities. PLOS-One: 11:(10) e162678.  .

Ortman, Scott G., Andrew H.F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm, and Luís M. A. Bettencourt
2014    The Pre-History of Urban Scaling. PLOS-one 9 (2): e87902.

2015    Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society. Science Advances 1 (1): e1400066.

Ortman, Scott G. and Grant D. Coffey  2015    Universal Scaling: Evidence from Village-Level Societies. SFI Working Paper, vol. 15-10-044. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe. 

Ortman, Scott G., Kaitlyn E. Davis, José Lobo, Michael E. Smith, Luis M.A. Bettencourt, and Aaron Trumbo  2016    Settlement Scaling and Economic Change in the Central Andes. Journal of Archaeological Science 73: 94-106.  .

Smith, Michael E.  2017    The Generative Role of Settlement Aggregation and Urbanization. In Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Anthropologist Anthony Leeds on cities

Anthony Leeds (1925-1989) was an urban  anthropologist back in the days when anthropologists made important contributions to understanding cities and urbanism (today "urban anthropology" means studying globalization in this city, studying neoliberalization in that city, but never looking at urbanism or cities from a comprehensive perspective).

Leeds was a productive ethnographer of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. But for this blog, his claim to fame is the conceptual advances he made in understanding the nature of cities and rural-urban relations.I blogged about his ideas on rural-urban relations last year. I recently came across some notes I took on his publications, and they reminded me of some of his other creative ideas. Here I will go over three of his contributions, all of which are discussed in his 1979 article listed below: (1) his criticism of urban studies for being overly dependent on modern western cities and ignoring early and non-western cities; (2) his discussion of the different types of specialization that are associated with urbanism; and (3) his rural-urban framework.

(1)  Urban studies.  Here are some quotes from Leeds (1979). I sometimes think that in this blog I am channeling his ideas:
  • “Most current discussion of ‘urbanism’ and ‘urbanization’ can be shown to be ethno- and temprocentric and based on a historically particular class of urban phenomena and urban forms of integration.” (p.227)
  • “Generalizations are then made about ‘urbanism’ and ‘urban society’ based essentially on the urban experience of the past few hundred years, apparently without the realization that all urban phenomena of the past four or five hundred years have been ineluctably affected by the expansion of the capitalist system, in short by the development of what Wallerstein calls the ‘World System.’ The generalizations are, then, in fact not about ‘urbanization’ in general but about a single form of ‘urbanism’ or ‘urbanization,’ its evolution, and its acculturational by-products.” (228)
This is one of the critiques anthropologists make of the other social sciences: you cannot look only a modern western society and use that to generalize about all of humanity. Our ancestors lived for millennia in very different ways that people live today. If you want to generalize about humanity or human society, please do so from a reasonable sample! And while you are at it, please don't make up imaginary patterns of non-western or early human behavior (this last is directed at economists......).

(2)  Specialization.  People are always tossing around the term "specialization" when they talk about cities or complex societies. But there are different types and concepts of specialization, with different implications for society. We need to be clear which type we are talking about. Leeds (1979) identifies three types of spcialization:
  1. Specialization of localities. Different places within a system are often the settings for different types of activities or institutions. When a particular type of activity is limited to a few locations, and/or those locations are the setting for a high level of that type of activity, then we can say that the place is specialized. There is a differentiation of functions among places.
  2. Specialization of the components of technology. In this sense, the various aspects of technology can be specialized. Tools, materials, techniques, housings, tasks, activities, labor/skills, and knowledge can all be specialized, often (but not always) within a single large settlement.
  3. Specialization of institutions. This kind of specialization highlights differences between large complex societies and small-scale societies. In complex settings such as today's western nations, institutions such as government, religion, and education are specialized. But in small-scale societies, these institutions tend to be bundled together and their activity spread widely among the people. Instead of schools, everyone is responsible for education; instead of having an organized religion, religious knowledge and activities are widely distributed among people.
Leeds goes on to relate these to the concept of urban:  "I define 'urban' as the interacting confluence of all three of these specializations." (p. 230) I'll stop here, because I'm not sure this is a productive way to define urban or cities. But the concepts of specialization are important.

(3) Rural and urban. In the 1979 article I am writing about, Leeds briefly outlines his ideas of rural and urban, but the best discussion is in a paper from 1980. For Leeds, any society that has cities is entirely an urban society. That is, urban is not the opposite of rural. "Rural" refers to a set of specialized locations (agriculture, mining, forests, mountains) within an encompassing urban society. This is a functional definition of urban and rural: These are defined not as absolute entities of their own, but rather as places within a regional system have have particular functions.

All three of these ideas are productive, and they help us see urbanism not as a unitary phenomenon consisting of the cities on a Google map today. Rather, the urban world extended far back into the past, and around the world. And when we look at any urban society, we find that cities and their (specialized) activities transform the entire society. I cover this in greater depth in my older post.

When I discovered the work of Anthony Leeds, a couple of decades ago, a memory came back from my undergraduate days at Brandeis University. Leeds came to give a lecture at Brandeis, and my professors urged the anthropology majors to attend (just as I urge the majors to attend these talks today). Later, I recalled two things about that lecture. First, I didn't understand it at all! And second, I recalled the title, which I liked, "Some unpleasantries on peasantries."

I highly recommend the work of Anthony Leeds. Many of  his articles were assembled after his death into a nice edited volume (this includes the 1980, but but not 1979 paper). The introductory essay by Roger Sanjek (another outstanding urban anthropologist) is very good. 

The organization formerly known as the Society for Urban Anthropology offers the annual Anthony Leeds Award in Urban Anthropology. The society is now called, "The Society for Urban, National, and Transnational / Global Anthropology." What a joke, this is a signal of the decline of urban anthropology as a productive field (back in the days of Anthony Leeds) to a later diffuse existence where scholarship is not about cities, but rather cities are merely places to study other issues. Anyway, don't get me started here about the decline and fall of urban anthropology. Go look at the works of Anthony Leeds.

Leeds, Anthony
1979    Forms of Urban Integration: 'Social Urbanization' in Comparative Perspective. Urban Anthropology 8: 227-247.

1980    Towns and Villages in Society: Hierarchies of Order and Cause. In Cities in a Larger Context, edited by T. Collins, pp. 6-33. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

1994    Cities, Classes, and the Social Order, edited by Roger Sanjek. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Were ancient societies more egalitarian than we had thought?



I just got a request from a journalist to comment on the notion that archaeologists are now finding that ancient societies may have been more egalitarian than archaeologists had once thought. Here is a pretty close version of my response:

First, it doesn’t mean much to say that ancient societies were more or less egalitarian than we had thought. For hunter-gatherers and small-scale farmers, the situation is the reverse. Traditional models held them to be egalitarian, and we now know that many cases (but far from all) had significant levels of inequality. Some of the papers in our recent Amerind symposium show this. While this isn’t a particularly new idea, it has taken scholars some time to acknowledge this, and we now have better quantitative data.


For state-level societies, I don’t know of any overall scholarly trend of saying things were more or less unequal than thought previously. We now know that there was tremendous variation in how ancient states were organized. One trend, though, is that scholars (and the public, and certainly the National Geographic Society) used to think all ancient kings were autocratic and despotic, ruled their people with an iron fist, and controlled everyone’s life. Pyramids built by slaves being whipped by overseers was a common image. Few archaeologists will admit to this view, but they dress it up in fancy theoretical terms (Foucaultian power, hegemony, and such) that say the same thing: ancient rulers tried to control everyone's life.

The biggest advance in understanding ancient states in the past few decades is Blanton and Fargher’s 2008 book.They show that premodern states (all of their cases are based on historical or ethnographic data, not archaeological) can be arranged along a continuum from autocratic to collective. They have rigorous methods of measuring their scale in each of 30 societies, and they have a theory that explains the variation. Basically, if you have to tax your subjects, then you must be nice to them, provide public goods and not be too tyrannical; these are more collective regimes. But if your revenue comes from outside (say, from trade or conquest), then you can treat your subjects like dirt, and be despotic. There is a counter-intuitive element here, which is that collective regimes mess with people’s lives to a great degree (to count them, tax them, and keep track of things) than do autocratic regimes. This is what Michael Mann calls infrastructural power. Despots leave people alone, they don’t try to control their lives; they just don’t care what their subjects do. Many archaeologists still have not gotten the word about this, and they still claim that autocratic tyrants in the past were trying to control everyone, which is really quite a silly idea when you have read the literature.


Unforetunately, Blanton and Fargher's model has taken a long time to get established. I don’t fully understand why, although it might be due to the fact that some parts of archaeology has become very post-modern and humanities-oriented, with fashionable social theory being more important than scientific methods and data. Blanton and Fargher are scientific and empirical, so lots of archaeologists ignore their work for that reason alone.

The implication of this for the basic question (about levels of inequality in the past) is that it seems to be the case that more collective regimes are associated with lower levels of social inequality than are more autocratic regimes. This is certainly the case for the modern world (democracies have less inequality than dictatorial regimes, etc.). But for the premodern world, this association has yet to be established conclusively. Unfortuantely, Blanton and Fargher do not address the question of levels of inequality. Our Amerind seminar project may support it – but that will depend on some synthetic data analysis that is only just now starting. So, IF this association of regime type with inequality holds up for ancient times, then the recognition that collective regimes were far more widespread than thought (i.e., collective rule did not begin all of a sudden in Athens), does suggest that many ancient state socieites had lower levels of social inequality. But the proof is in the pudding, and I’m not willing to come out and declare this conclusion until we have analyzed the data.


Also, there is an ideological element to claims of lower inequality in the past. It is true that archaeologists are now working more on houses and households, not just considering kings and pyramids. And one common tendency is to claim that these ancient people we study were more successful and independent and prosperous that we used to think. But given that our old models were completely unrealistic pictures of domination and suppression, the new ideas are due less to new findings than to theoretical fashions and changes.

That said, I do think I have made a case for prosperous Aztec commoners in my book, At Home with the Aztecs. Check out the book’s website for some journalistic articles and publicity that covers some of the content.  http://smithaztecbook.wikispaces.asu.edu/


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2008)  Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Mann, Michael  (1984)  The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie 25:185-213.

Mann, Michael  (2008)  Infrastructural Power Revisited. Studies in Comparative International Development 43:355-365.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

My journey in settlement scaling



I am posting today from beautiful Santa Fe, NM. I am here to attend a meeting of our working group on settlement scaling in the ancient world. Our article on scaling at Inka sites was accepted by the Journal of Archaeological Science, and it was posted online yesterday (Ortman et al. 2016):
Mantaro region, Peru


This paper is a particularly important step in our long-term objective of exploring the application of settlement scaling theory in the ancient world. To explain why, let me step back to 2013, when I first got involved with this project. I was invited to the Santa Fe Institute in summer 2013 to explore the notion that urban scaling theory should be applicable to ancient cities. Luis Bettencourt and Jose Lobo had been working on scaling in contemporary cities for some time, and Scott Ortman had begun to explore an application to the pre-Spanish Basin of Mexico. They were interested in how an expert in ancient cities would react to this research. I knew nothing of scaling when first invited, so I tried to read up on the topic before my visit to Santa Fe.

It was fascinating to me that the quantitative expression of many urban attributes could be predicted by city size in groups or systems of cities in the modern world. Many key economic features are amplified in urban settings, to a greater extent in larger than smaller cities. In economic geography, these changes associated with large cities are called "agglomeration effects." My reading of economic geography and urban economics in 2013 led me to think that agglomeration effects and quantitative regularities in contemporary city systems were due to processes in the contemporary economy. That is, these regularities were produced by the globalized capitalist economy.

I went up to the Santa Fe Institute ("SFI") in 2013 ready to argue that these scaling regularities should NOT apply to ancient cities. Ancient economies were not capitalist: wage labor was limited or non-existent, land was not a commodity, and the whole structure and functioning of the economy in ancient state societies was radically different from the contemporary situation (the advanced economy of imperial Rome may be a partial exception, though). "You guys are barking up the wrong tree" was the essence of my message for the scaling folks at SFI.


Within a couple of hours of my arrival at SFI, however, Luis, Jose and Scott had convinced me that the scaling regularities were NOT dependent upon the capitalist economy. Luis had just published his paper in Science (Bettencourt 2013). This paper presents a quantitative model that predicts, rather precisely, the scaling regularities observed in city systems today. But the model is not based on wage labor, firms, private property, industrial production, or other attributes of the modern capitalist economy. Instead, it is based on the way individuals move and interact within the confines of the urban built environment. Networks of individuals, interacting socially and exchanging information, were the foundation of Luis's model.


If Luis is correct (and I have since come to accept that he is), then there is no logical reason why premodern cities should not exhibit the same regularities found in modern city systems. I found this possibility quite exciting, and immediately set out to explore it further. This first meeting was on a Monday, and I was scheduled to give a public lecture at SFI on Tuesday. The theme of that lecture was the way ancient cities differed form modern cities, and how that implied urban scaling should not work in the ancient world! I had to scramble to revise my slides and lecture. That talk was later turned into a paper, coauthored with Jose, about the similarities and differences between ancient and modern cities (Smith and Lobo n.d.).

Anyway, logic suggested that the processes underlying Luis's 2013 model should also have operated in cities before capitalism. Furthermore, there was no reason why these processes should not apply to smaller, non-urban settlements. That is, village systems should exhibit the same scaling regularities. I started working in two directions to explore the possibility that scaling would apply to ancient and nonurban systems of settlement. First, I had to convince myself that this was indeed the case. The scaling framework implies (but evidently does not require) that in any urban system, people were able to move around easily, from the countryside into cities, and between cities. Yet many people in anthropology and history believed that peasants were typically tied to their fields and did not move as much as people do today. So I looked into the extent of geographical mobility in the ancient world, and found that movement was more prevalent and extensive than many had thought. This was published in World Archaeology (Smith 2014).

A central concept in the scaling model is the notion that interactions among individuals, and the exchange of information that takes place, is one of the driving forces of social and economic change. This idea came out of economics. But if such interaction is so crucial, then why hadn't I heard about this in anthropology and sociology? After all, these fields are devoted to the study of how individuals interact and exchange information. Again, I had to convince myself that this concept made sense in terms of how anthropologists and sociologists understand society. I had to make sure this wasn't another case of economists making up silly things about individuals and their behavior in order to preserve the purity of their models. Lo and behold, this concept of the generative role of social interactions is in fact quite common in the other social sciences. Perhaps it was my own ignorance that had prevented me from seeing this, or perhaps issues are simply not framed this way in anthropology and sociology. So I wrote a paper on this, which is now in press in an edited volume (Smith n.d.). I focused on architectural historian Spiro Kostof's concept of "energized crowding" in cities as a good label for the basic processes involved.

So, I have now convinced myself that the scaling framework fits with what we know of societies and cities in both ancient times and in the nonwestern world. They say that converts make the biggest fanatics, so maybe that explains my excitement about scaling. But my enthusiasm is based to a major extent on the second direction of my work scaling: the empirical study of quantitative patterns in ancient settlement systems. This work is truly a group effort. Our new paper on Andean scaling is a good example.

Since our first session in 2013, we have been scouring archaeology and history for datasets that can be used for scaling. The data requirements are actually somewhat stringent for past urban systems. Even where we have decent population figures for an urban system, it is hard to measure economic productivity or the other variables we want to scale against population. We had a couple of working groups, with colleagues invited to Santa Fe.

Scott has taken the lead in most of the archaeological cases. Beyond his initial forays into the Basin of Mexico settlement pattern data (Ortman et al. 2014, 2015), Scott has found the scaling regularities in a couple of samples of North American village societies (Ortman and Coffey 2015). He and his students took the lead with the Andean data in our new paper; I mainly contributed some contextual and framing information. I made sure we emphasized that the Inca were one of the few large-scale ancient state societies that did not have markets, money, or commercial exchange. The fact that we find, again, the same scaling regularities in a society with a non-commercial economy is simply astounding; this is one of the major points of significance for the new paper.


My student Rudy Cesaretti was our RA on this project a year ago, and he took charge of a study of scaling in medieval European towns (Cesaretti et al. 2015). This is a great dataset with fantastic results. I wish PLOS-One would get off their duff and complete the review! Rudy is now working on a paper that uses data from Henry VIII's beard tax to show superlinear scaling! I want to be a co-author just so I can add "Henry VIII" and "beard tax" to my CV! I took the lead in applying the scaling methods to the question of plaza size at Mesoamerican settlements. We included a sample of Aztec-period sites (Smith 2005), and Alanna Ossa contributed data from her own research on plazas in the Mixtequilla area of Veracruz (Ossa 2014), and we found some published data on the Palenque region. When we scaled plaza size against population, we got statistically regular results, but they don't match any known scaling coefficient. Oops. What is going on? And now Scott's post-doc, Jack Hanson, has produced the first scaling paper on Roman cities (still in preparation, I think).

 
We now have a good conceptual foundation, and empirical results supportive of Luis's scaling model are piling up. We will have a symposium at the 2017 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Settlement scaling is expanding through the historical and archaeological records. Resistance is futile. I'll bet if we scaled the size and structure of ships like the Borg collective and the Enterprise against their population, we would not be surprised by the results.


I would guess that many people remain dubious about this enterprise. Personally I am baffled and amazed at our results. Wow, where does all this cross-cultural and cross-historical regularity come from? As my ASU colleague Charles Perreault has pointed out, there is nothing in our background in anthropology that would have predicted these results, or that can explain them. So, go read some of these works and see for yourself why a growing number of scholars are getting excited about settlement scaling.


Bettencourt, Luís M. A.
2013 The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.


Ortman, Scott G., Andrew H.F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm, and Luís M. A. Bettencourt
2014 The Pre-History of Urban Scaling. PLOS-one 9 (2): e87902.

2015 Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society. Science Advances 1 (1): e1400066.



Ossa, Alanna
2014 Plazas in Comparative Perspective in South-Central Veracruz from the Classic to the Postclassic period (A.D. 300-1350). In Mesoamerican Plazas: Arenas of Community and Power, edited by Kenchiro Tsukamoto and Takeshi Inomata, pp. 130-146. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Ossa, Alanna, Michael E. Smith, José Lobo, and Scott Ortman  (n.d.)  The Size of Plazas in Mesoamerican Cities: A Quantitative Analysis and Social Interpretation. (paper under review)


n.d.   The Generative Role of Settlement Aggregation and Urbanization. In Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Smith, Michael E. and José Lobo
n.d.   Cities through the Ages: One Thing or Many? (unpublished ms).

Monday, July 4, 2016

How do neighborhoods form?

Neighborhood organization is one of the few universals of urban structure. All cities, past and present, all over the world, are organized into neighborhoods. Sometimes neighborhoods are planned from the start by officials or commercial builders. Think of all the ready-made suburban neighborhoods built by developers today, with their phony bucolic- or English-sounding names. Or consider company towns, whether ancient Egyptian workers settlements or capitalist factory cities like Pullman, Illinois. The planners build in neighborhoods from the get-go. If they aren't planned out in advance, however, neighborhoods spring up on their own. People interact with those living nearby, new residents move into areas where they know people, or where people are like them culturally, and before long there are neighborhoods that are clear to residents and visitors alike.
Neighborhoods: suburban U.S., Ottoman city; Chinese city

One of the best ways to look at certain urban processes, to my mind, is to examine "semi-urban" places. These are places where large numbers of people gather together, often on a temporary basis. They aren't really cities--they aren't permanent enough. After a while, people leave and go home. But when people gather in  one place, a certain "energized crowding" takes place (see my post on Cities as  Social Reactors), and by looking at what happens, we gain a better understanding of urban processes and activities.

So, here I want to take a quick look at three very different kinds of semi-urban settlements (a company town, a protest camp, and the Burning Man festival) to see how neighborhoods develop. This post is based on a recent article (Smith et al. 2015) that looks at neighborhoods in a wider range of semi-urban settlements. I won't cite a bunch of sources here; see that article for citations and a more scholarly treatment.

Abadan, Iran, Company Town:  Top-Down Neighborhood Formation
Deir el-Medina, ancient workers village

The company town is a settlement planned and established by a central organization to house its workers so that they can work more efficiently. They tend to exhibit careful planning and regularity of housing; they show some evidence of the central authority; and they are physically set off from their neighboring settlements. We tend to think of company towns as modern features, used by capitalist enterprises. But the basic concept goes back to ancient Egypt at least. Pharaohs set up walled settlements that archaeologists call "workers villages" to house construction workers, or temple personnel. This was not by any means a capitalist economy, yet the form, function, and goals of workers villages matched closely those of a 19th century town like Pullman, Illinois. These settlements are one of the main types of what Kevin Lynch called "the city as a practical machine."

My example here is Abadan, an oil refining town set up in the early 20th century in Iran by the Anglo-Persion Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum). The company knew they would need to bring in workers from several national/cultural groups, and they were worried about possible trouble that could come if members of these groups could easily mingle with one another. So thay arranged the housing in a big band around the outside of the refinery, and
they kept individual neighborhood units separate from one another. The British executives and engineers were in one area, and various local and Near Eastern groups were distributed in other areas.
Neighborhoods laid out around the refinery, which was in the center

British neighborhood in Abadan
The plan to settle groups in physically separate neighborhoods was quite deliberate, as research into company archives has shown (see Smith et al 2015 for citations). So, Abadan ended up with a system of neighborhoods, distinguished culturally and socially, as a result of deliberate planning from the
top. Such "designed neighborhoods" are also found in other company towns, and in other regimented planned settlements such as internment camps.

Occupy Portland Protest Camp: Bottom-up Neighborhood Formation

Information from the Occupy Portland camp was gathered by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman for her MA thesis. Katrina is an interesting urbanist; check out her "Think Urban" website or her Twitter feed. As an undergraduate at Arizona State University, Katrina worked for our interdisciplinary urban project, "Urban Organization through the Ages." She conducted ethnographic fieldwork during the "Occupy Portland" event of 2011. This was one of the many local protest camps that spring up following the initial Occupy Wall Street settlement.
Occupy Portland camp. Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

What Katrina found was that the campers in Portland quickly formed spatial clusters of like-minded people who spent time together. They set up their tents near one another. These groups took on names. In short, these were neighborhoods. This is a clear example of the bottom-up route to neighborhood formation. People created neighborhoods on their own, following their needs and interests. No one came along and organized the campsite. In fact, the participants in the Occupy Portland event refused to submit to a top-down organization. Someone pointed out that the campsite looked messy. If they reorganized it to look neater, with tents in nice rows, then the authorities would be less likely to tear it down. (This is a basic principle in informal settlement invasions in Latin America; local governments are far less likely to destroy shantytown settlements when they have neat streets and lots than when they are a mess).  But, true to their anarchist orientation, the participants refused to submit to this top-down structure. The messy, grass-roots organized spatial organization of neighborhoods was too strong to be torn apart in an effort to please city officials.

The Burning Man Festival: From Anarchy to Planning


The annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert is a fascinating case study of a semi-urban settlement. What began as a bonfire on the beach in San Francisco in th 1980s has grown into a huge annual campsite with as many as 70,000 week-long residents. It has always been a festival of arts and free expression, run with a series of anarchist principles, including radical inclusion, decommodification, communal effort, radical self-reliance, and leave no trace. The entire settlement is taken down each year, all traces are removed or destroyed, and then it is planned, surveyed, and built again the following year. Urbanists have only just begun to study Burning Man, and there is much to learn there about cities, urbanization, and social patterns.

The Burning Man site is on federal land, and the festival receives a permit each year. As the festival grew during the 1990s, people naturally gravitated toward specific areas, forming neighborhoods. These were linked by friendship and social bonds, as well as by interests (e.g., all-night loud parties in one area; campers with small children in another). But by 1996, the event had grown too large to function on its anarchist principles. People were shooting guns in crowded places, driving cars too fast and destroying tents and injuring people. The government threatened to shut down the festival (by denying the permit) unless more order were achieved.

Almost overnight, the site -- called Black Rock City -- became a heavily planned settlement, with a circular layout and the burning man tower in the center. There is now a "Department of Urban Planning" in the Burning Man organization. Neighborhoods were either continued, or established anew, again, using social bonds and common interests as defining features. These anarchists were able to submit to some top-down planning in order to continue to celebrate their anti-authoritarian and free-expression values.

Whereever you look, there are neighborhoods!

These are just three examples of semi-urban settlements with clear neighborhood organization. Our study found neighborhoods at many other types, from Plains Indians tipi camps to refugee camps. The conclusion I draw from this study is that neighborhoods are indeed a  universal feature of urban life. Whether created and enforced by authorities (state or corporation), or generated by grass-roots action of individual acting in their own, neighborhoods are an integral and crucial part of urban organization, from the distant past to the present.

For more details, see:

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov and Bridgette Gilliland  (2015)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8(2):173-198.