Primer: Global Urban History
Urban history is a rich subfield of historical scholarship that examines life in urban spaces, how communities within cities interact and coexist, as well as the process of city formation and urbanization. Since cities date from Ancient times and also exist throughout the world, they also provide a valuable lens for world historians to make connections across time and space. In this essay, Carl Nightingale expands on the ways to approach urban history on a global scale and relates how drawing connections among cities provides a compelling lens for exploring world history.
Global Urban History is a hybrid field whose practitioners explore the crossroads of urban history and global history. In 2017, a group of such historians founded the Global Urban History Project (GUHP) to support conversations about cities as “creations and creators of larger-scale historical and even global phenomena.”
To world historians the idea that the urban and the global constitute each other may not seem terribly controversial. Transformations in global history by definition affect almost everything on Earth, and that includes cities. Conversely, the idea that cities are crucial factors in world history goes back to the use of the Latin word civitas to coin the word “civilization,” and the idea that the invention of cities marks the end of pre-history and the beginning of … well, world history itself. While archaeologists tell us that not all cities created states, all states need palaces, monuments, processional avenues, barracks, and prisons just as much as liberal reformers and revolutionaries require streets, squares, wine-shops, university campuses, barricades, and parliament houses. Imperial states are of especial interest to world historians, but empires, even ones founded by tent-dwelling nomads, cannot last without capitals, offices for tax collectors, bureaucracies and armies, provincial centers, colonial cities, and settler colonial cities. Global commercial circuits and multinational corporations cannot function without foreign merchant quarters, caravanserais, ports, railyards, airports, “global city” financial districts - let alone big, especially bustling, marketplaces. Long-distance mass migrations would not occur without transport hubs and population sorting facilities - or without “pull” factors largely exerted by urban economies. Intellectual, cultural and technological revolutions require large places of worship, artisan shops, schools, universities, libraries, R&D centers, and now internet server farms. Disease pandemics cannot become global without urban incubators. Energy transitions happen because new modes of energy harvesting are required to meet the needs of production systems designed and situated largely in cities - or in “global value chains” that connect many urban industrial districts. Humanity’s accelerating global environmental impact began with the accelerated deforestation required to expand farmland required to feed cities, light the profusion of urban hearths, and fire our industries. That impact has culminated with vast waste streams produced mostly in cities (or in industrialized agricultural zones meant to feed cities) - above all the megatons of greenhouse gasses produced by the urban hydrocarbon revolution. In this way, there are reasons to speak of cities as “planetary” phenomena as well as global ones.
Urban history and world history are increasingly overlapping, a welcome development. The field of world history now has at its disposal the services of several hundred urban historians experienced with the specific skills required for interpreting the notoriously profuse archives produced by all cities. While world historians enter their own field from many excellent pathways, the growing clamor to “locate” the otherwise diffuse concept of World or global in space now has scholar-advocates who will do precisely that. They will do so in the spaces that most profusely create the global, often, as the urban theorist Aihwa Ong has reminded us, by means of unique “worlding practices” in each case (Ong, 2011, pp. 10-15). That also entails the very important business of elaborating the role of space – in the case of cities, the design, construction and habitation of particular spaces – matters specifically to explanatory analyses of global phenomena.
For urban historians, the chance to imbibe the methods and sensibilities of world historians is just as bracing a tonic. Several big issues are at stake. The first is that most urban historians need to read far more of the work of urban historians outside North American and Europe. It should embarrass us deeply, as it has in recent years, that the urban history of China, India, and the Middle East (the three greatest city-producing regions of the past), of Latin America (the second most urbanized continent on Earth today), and of Africa (by all accounts the greatest-city-producing region of the future) barely make it onto the conference programs of the largest urban history associations. Urban historians also need to learn from global historians more about how to read urban archives in ways that allow us to shed light on much bigger phenomena – especially if we are to intervene in debates about causality. Here, world historians’ longstanding interactions with environmental historians, theorists, climate scientists, and geologists provide a model as well.
Meanwhile, enormous theoretical issues are at stake for both fields, for even as GUHP entered the crossroads of the global and urban, so did the highly contentious concept of “planetary urbanization,” the gift of the planning theorist Neil Brenner and the geographer Christian Schmid. Urbanization, Brenner writes, now engulfs “planetary space as a whole, including not only the terrestrial surfaces, but the underground, the oceans, and even the atmosphere itself” (Brenner, 2018, p. 36). If Earth now supports an “Urban Planet,” as cities’ enormous contributions to our current climate predicament (and cities’ inevitable role in solving that crisis) suggest that it does, then there are field-altering consequences for both global and urban history. Surely, such a concept must be as important as “civilizations,” “world systems,” “international orders,” “global circuits and connections,” and the like as a way to measure the global. For urbanists, the concept has already thrown the long-vexed question of “the city” - or “the urban variable” - onto a more complex playing field.
Urban historians and self-described global ones have been large importers of theory from other disciplines in the past, and it is incumbent on us to inspect this new massive shipment of goods very carefully, perhaps even to go beyond our usual comfort zone and suggest a global urban theory based in real archives and real history ourselves. One critic of planetary urbanization, the great urban theorist Anaya Roy, has even suggested as much, rejecting what she sees as the concept’s tendency toward “totalization” in favor of an understanding of “the urban” that takes cities’ many “constituent outsides” into account, and, more importantly, conceives of both as “historical concepts” (Roy 2015, pp. 4, 13). For all of these reasons, GUHP welcomes all historians – global and otherwise -to join its new series of ongoing multidisciplinary “Dream Conversations” on such perennial world history topics, beginning with global urban theory, empire, inequality, and the Anthropocene.
The city of Manila is a perfect place to think about the importance of cities to world history. Founded by Spanish conquistadors on the site of a small harbor town in 1571, Manila provided the specialized spaces necessary for the first truly globe-circling system of imperial exploitation and commerce. Its port, fortification system and surrounding neighborhoods for Chinese merchants forged the final link required to connect the royal court in Madrid with the American silver mining cities of Potosí and Guanajuato, with the Pacific port of Acapulco, with the world’s most prolific artisanal and industrial economies in Chinese cities, with key economic bureaucrats at the Ming court in Beijing. The resulting “silver circle” came about because of separate decisions made in cities on four different continents, yet its importance for global power relations, wealth accumulation, migration, consumer culture, and religion radiated everywhere else, a sign that a “world system,” or some theorists today would call it an “urban planet” was coming into being.
The woodcut illustration and maps in the frieze above this page are details from the amazing "Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas" of 1734. Like the work of today's global urban historians, the map allows its readers to move swiftly from intimate street-level dynamics to bird’s eye views of the city to the much larger regional and global geographies that create and are created by the world's cities. This triptych portrays the full panoply of transformations, from the diversification of Manila’s neighborhoods and street life, to the global imperial-commercial-religious power wielded within the city’s “Intramuros” fortifications, to the use of currents, winds, and navigation technologies needed to navigate the World Ocean.
This source is a part of the Global Urban History methods primer.
Michael Goebel, Joseph Ben Prestel, and Tracy Neumann, eds. Global Urban History blog at globalurbanhistory.com.
GUHP, “Dream Conversations” in Urban History at https://globalurbanhistory.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=803980&mo...
For a full compendium of the work of global urban historians, see the “Meet Other Members” pages of the GUHP website at globalurbanhistory.org (page requires registration with cost-free option available).
Neil Brenner, Critiques of Urbanization: Selected Essays (Gütersloh: Bauverlag, 2017).
Aiwha Ong, “World Cities, or the Art of Being Global,” in Ananya Roy and Ong, Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global (Chichester; Blackwell, 2011), pp. 1-25.
Nicholas Kenney and Rebecca Madgin, eds., Cities Beyond Borders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015).
Andrew Sandoval-Strausz and Nancy H. Kwak, eds. Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)
Ananya Roy, “What is Critical about Critical Urban Theory?” Urban Geography 2015: 1-14.
Richard Harris, How Cities Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge Elements in Global Urban history, 2021).
Carl H. Nightingale, Earthopolis: A Biography of Our Urban Planet (Forthcoming, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).
Carl H. Nightingale has taught urban history and world history for 25 years as a Professor at the University at Buffalo and the University of Massachusetts. He is Coordinator of the Global Urban History Project, a network of over 500 scholars working in this new hybrid field. His book Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (2012) was co-winner of the Jerry Bentley Prize from the World History Association.