Urban history

Urban history

Urban history is a field of history that examines the historical nature of cities and towns, and the process of urbanization. The approach tends to be multidisciplinary, crossing boundaries into fields like social history, architectural history, urban sociology, urban geography and archaeology.

At least five major approaches to the field of urban history can be identified.


History of urbanization

The history of urbanization focuses on the processes of by which existing populations concentrate themselves in urban localities over time, and on the social and cultural contexts of cities and towns.

This includes examinations of demographics concentration, urban structures or systems approach, and behavioral aspects of urbanization.

Major works representing the history of urbanization:

  • For the demographic aspects, one standard work is Eric Lampard, The Urbanizing World, in H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, eds., The Victorian City: Images and Realities, vol. 1 (1973), pp. 3–58.
  • Demographic, economic, and systems analysis is provided in Paul Bairoch, Cities and Economic Development, From the Dawn of History to the Present (1988).
  • Cultural and physical connections are analyzed by Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961).
  • Architecture and urban form are related in Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History (1991).
  • The place of cities in the process of state formation in Europe is examined in Charles Tilly and W. P. Blockmans, eds., Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, A.D. 1000 to 1800 (1994).
  • Some important works on the history of the earliest cities and ancient urbanization processes are:
  • Trigger, Bruce G. (2003) Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.
  • Van De Mieroop, Marc (1999) The Ancient Mesopotamian City. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hyslop, John (1990) Inka Settlement Planning. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Urban biography

Urban biography is the narrative history of a city. This is the most popular form of urban history as far as the general public is concerned. Urban biographies attempt to relate the many complex facets of a city - such as foundations, leaders, economic base, transportation, municipal government, physical expansion, demographic characteristics, and schools and cultural institutions. The city itself gains a distinct collective personality, and becomes more than just a setting for historical events.

Some significant urban biographies:

  • Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a history of New York City to 1898‎ (2000)
  • Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (1993)
  • S. G. Checkland, The Upas Tree: Glasgow, 1875-1975 (1981)
  • Geoffrey Cotterell, Amsterdam, The Life of a City (1972)
  • Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo; 1001 Years of City Victorious (1971)
  • Franklin Tokler, Pittsburgh, An Urban Portrait (1986)
  • Christopher Hibbert, London, the Biography of a City (1969)
  • ‎Blake McKelvey. Rochester (4 vol, 1961), Rochester NY
  • Bessie Louise Pierce, A History of Chicago (3 vol 1957), to 1893.
  • Robert Hughes, Barcelona (1992)


A new sub-genre is the history of specific suburbs. Most works look at the origins, growth, diverse typologies, culture, and politics of suburbs, as well as to the gendered and family-oriented nature of suburban space.[1][2] Many people have assumed that early-20th-century suburbs were enclaves for middle-class whites, a concept that carries tremendous cultural influence yet is actually stereotypical. Many suburbs are based on a heterogeneous society of working-class and minority residents, many of whom share the American Dream regarding home ownership as defined by developers and the power of advertising. Sies (2001) argues that it is necessary to examine how "suburb" is defined as well as the distinction made between cities and suburbs, geography, economic circumstances, and the interaction of numerous factors that move research beyond acceptance of stereotyping and its influence on scholarly assumptions.[3]

New urban history

The "new urban history" emerged in the 1960s as a branch of Social history seeking to understand the "city as process" and, through quantitative methods, to learn more about the inarticulate masses in the cities, as opposed to the mayors and elites. Common themes include the social and political changes, examinations of class formation, and racial/ethnic tensions.[4] A major early study was Stephan Thernstrom's Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City (1964), which used census records to study Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1850-1880. A seminal, landmark book, it sparked interest in the 1960s and 1970s in quantitative methods, census sources, "bottom-up" history, and the measurement of upward social mobility by different ethnic groups.[5]

Other exemplars of the new urban history included

  • Kathleen Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860 (1976)
  • Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (1975; 2nd ed. 2000)
  • Michael B. Katz, The People of Hamilton, Canada West (1976)[6]
  • Eric H. Monkkonen, The Dangerous Class: Crime and Poverty in Columbus Ohio 1860-1865 (1975)
  • Michael P. Weber, Social Change in an Industrial Town: Patterns of Progress in Warren, Pennsylvania, From Civil War to World War I. (1976).

There were no overarching social history theories that emerged developed to explain urban development. Inspiration from urban geography and sociology, as well as a concern with workers (as opposed to labor union leaders), families, ethnic groups, racial segregation, and women's roles have proven useful. Historians now view the contending groups within the city as "agents" who shape the direction of urbanization.[7] The sub-field has flourished in Australia—where most people live in cities.[8]

Rather than being strictly areas of geographical segmentation, spatial patterns and concepts of place reveal the struggles for power of various social groups, including gender, class, race, and ethnic identity. The spatial patterns of residential and business areas give individual cities their distinct identities and, considering the social aspects attendant to the patterns, create a more complete picture of how those cities evolved, shaping the lives of their citizens.[9]

Thematic urban history

A variety of themes (economic, social, architectural, etc) can be examined in the context of cities. Much like micro-history, thematic studies often investigate a larger historical question by examining one city.

London, England, for example, has been used as the focus to investigate a host of different topics:

  • James Alexander, The Economic Structure of the City of London at the end of the 17th Century, Urban History Yearbook (1989), pp. 47–62
  • Peter Borsay, The London Connection: Cultural Diffusion and the 18th Century Provincial Town, London Journal19 (No. 1, 1994), pp. 21–35.
  • Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the 18th Century (1993).
  • Donald Olsen, The Growth of Victorian London (1979).
  • H. J. Dyos, The Speculative Builders and Developers of Victorian London, in David Cannadine and David Reeder, eds., Exploring the Urban Past, Essays in Urban History by H. J. Dyos (1982), pp. 154–78.
  • Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward, A Guide to the Architecture of London (1983).
  • John Russell, London (1994)

Urban culture

The study of the culture of cities and the role of cities in culture is a more recent development which provides nontraditional ways of "reading" cities. The basis for much of this approach stems from an post-modern theory including the literary theory of Jacques Derrida and the cultural anthropology of Clifford Geertz. One example is Alan Mayne's 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 social constructions, and that these representations led directly to the contemporary schemes of slum clearance and city improvement.

Images of the city

The city has long stood as one of the most potent symbols of human capacities and nature. As the largest and most enduring creation of human imagination and hands, and as the largest and most sustained site of human association and interaction, the city has been seen as a marker of what humans are and of what they do. This signification has almost always been shaded with ambivalence. In old legends, epics, and utopias, cities (both actual and symbolic) appeared as places of exceptional but also contradictory meaning. Troy, Babel, Sodom, Babylon, and Rome were viewed, in Western cultures, as standing for human power, wisdom, creativity, and vision, but also for human presumption, perversion, and fated destruction. Images of the modern city restated this ambivalence with fresh intensity. Great modern cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and New York, have repeatedly been portrayed as sites of opportunity and peril, power and helplessness, vitality and decadence, creativity and perplexity. This contradictory face of the city has appeared so often in Western thought as to suggest an essential psychological and cultural anxiety about human civilization, an anxiety about humanity’s relation to their created world and about "humanity" itself. This is especially true of the “modern” city, filled with human artifice and moral contradiction.[10]

Email discussion

Sine 1993, the daily email discussion list H-Urban has enabled historians, graduate students and others interested in urban history and urban studies to communicate current research and research interests easily; to query and discuss new approaches, sources, methods, and tools of analysis; and to comment on contemporary historiography. The logs are open to searches, and membership is free. H-Urban seeks to inform historians on such matters as announcements, calls for papers, conferences, awards, fellowships, availability of new sources and archives, reports on new research, and teaching tools, including books, articles, works-in-progress, research reports, primary historical documents (for example, model ordinances, federal/state/local reports, addresses of city officials), syllabi, bibliographies, software, datasets, and multimedia publications or projects. It commissions its own book reviews. H-Urban is part of the H-Net network of discussion lists.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Ruth McManus, and Philip J. Ethington, "Suburbs in transition: new approaches to suburban history," Urban History, Aug 2007, Vol. 34 Issue 2, pp 317-337
  2. ^ Kenneth T. Jackson. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1987) excerpt and text search
  3. ^ Mary Corbin Sies, "North American Suburbs, 1880-1950," Journal of Urban History, March 2001, Vol. 27 Issue 3, pp 313-46
  4. ^ Stephan Thernstrom and Richard Sennett, eds. Nineteenth-century Cities: Essays in the New Urban History (1970)
  5. ^ Michael Frisch, "Poverty and Progress: A Paradoxical Legacy," Social Science History, Spring 1986, Vol. 10 Issue 1, pp 15-22
  6. ^ See excerpt and text search
  7. ^ Margaret Marsh and Lizabeth Cohen. "Old Forms, New Visions: New Directions in United States Urban History," Pennsylvania History, Winter 1992, Vol. 59 Issue 1, pp 21-28
  8. ^ Lionel Frost, and Seamus O'Hanlon, "Urban History and the Future of Australian Cities," Australian Economic History Review March 2009, Vol. 49 Issue 1, pp 1-18
  9. ^ James Connolly, "Bringing the City Back in: Space and Place in the Urban History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era," Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, July 2002, Vol. 1 Issue 3, pp 258-278. The importance of the materiality of specific spaces and places is also treated in Ralph Kingston, "Mind over Matter? History and the Spatial Turn," Cultural and Social History, 2010, Vol. 7, Issue 1, pp. 111–121.
  10. ^ See especially, Carl Schorske, "The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler," in The Historian and the City, ed. Oscar Handlin and John Burchard (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), Lewis Mumford, "Utopia, The City, and The Machine," Daedalus (Spring 1965): 271-92; Philip Fisher, "City Matters: City Minds," The Worlds of Victorian Fiction, ed. Jerome Buckley (Cambridge, Mass., 1975); Burton Pike, The Image of the City in Modern Literature (Princeton, 1981), Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York, 1982); David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization (Baltimore, 1985); Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (Chicago, 1992); Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge, Eng., 1996); Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).
  11. ^ See H-Urban website


Further reading

  • Abbott, Carl. "Urban History for Planners," Journal of Planning History, Nov 2006, Vol. 5 Issue 4, pp 301–313
  • Chudacoff, Howard et al. eds. Major Problems in American Urban and Suburban History (2004)
  • Fritzsche, Peter. Reading Berlin 1900 (1996).
  • Gillette Jr., Howard, and Zane L. Miller, eds. American Urbanism: A Historiographical Review (1987)
  • Harvey, David, Consciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization (1985), a Marxist approach
  • Hays, Samuel P. From the History of the City to the History of the Urbanized Society, Journal of Urban History, 19 (Aug. 1993), 3-25.
  • Lees, Lynn Hollen. "The Challenge of Political Change: Urban History in the 1990s," Urban History, 21 (April, 1994), pp. 7–19.
  • McManus, Ruth, and Philip J. Ethington, "Suburbs in transition: new approaches to suburban history," Urban History, Aug 2007, Vol. 34 Issue 2, pp 317–337
  • McShane, Clay. "The State of the Art in North American Urban History," Journal of Urban History, May2006, Vol. 32 Issue 4, pp 582–597, a loss of influence by such writers as Lewis Mumford, Robert Caro, and Sam Warner, a continuation of the emphasis on narrow, modern time periods, and a general decline in the importance of the field. Comments by Timothy Gilfoyle and Carl Abbott contest the latter conclusion.
  • Piker, Burton, The Image of the City in Modern Literature (1981)
  • Rodger, Richard. "Urban History: Prospect and Retrospect", Urban History, 19 (April, 1992), pp. 1–22.

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