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Anglo American conference of historians 2009: Cities

Published: August 23, 2012

Anglo American conference of historians 2009: Cities
Institute of Historical Research, 2 - 3 July 2009

For 10,000 years cities have shaped the affairs of mankind. Now, more than half of the world's population is urban, dwelling in settlements that we identify as 'city' or 'town', some of them so extensive and so complex that they seem to transcend traditional notions of urban organisation and form.

While the impact of cities has grown rapidly in recent times, its essential nature has been apparent from the beginning. Cities mark the transition from nomadic to settled society and drive the development of agriculture and ideas of the rural, as well the exploitation of water, minerals and other natural resources. As both organising forces and habitats, cities are at least as important for animals as for humans. They rest on networks of contracts that regulate the exchange of goods and services and the management of risk, yet the instabilities that characterised pre-urban societies remain with us today, and in many new forms.

Cities facilitate the aggregation of wealth and power and the emergence of distinctive religions, beliefs, cultural behaviour, social structures and institutions. They evolve laws and governmental systems to deal with the particular problems of urban life, including those arising from disorder and disease. As sites of inquiry and information exchange they promote knowledge and understanding of the wider world.

Within the city, the key public locations are those of the market, popular assembly, power, authority, religion and defence, while the occupation of spaces for work, residence and recreation is exceptionally dense. In meeting these and other needs, cities promote innovation in building and architecture, often so as to fulfil the ambitions of the powerful. City plans and forms can also bear symbolic meaning and express ideas of social, political, economic or cosmological order. Such environments are often oppressive or corrupting, yet many cities also offer the individual a freedom of thought and expression not found elsewhere.

Cities' relations with subordinate settlements and with other cities, along with their need to control territory and communications, give them a central role in the formation of states and empires, and now in the process of globalisation. At the same time, they absorb and express the characteristics of the regions in which they lie and of more distant places with which they have contact. With migration and trade they become places where languages and cultures co-exist, intermingle or merge.

The conference will deal with cities throughout the world. Proposals are sought for papers or panel sessions on any aspect of city life, form, ideology and culture over this period. Thematic contributions making comparisons over time or across space will be especially welcome, as will those on networks of cities and their role in cultural formation, on the relations between cities, territories and larger political units, on the ideologies and cosmologies of the city and on what distinguishes the city or town from other forms of settlement or ways of life.

Many of these topics are touched on in general writing on cities, but it is remarkable how rarely they are subject to serious historical analysis. This raises questions for our understanding of cities now, when so much of their past as invoked in relation to the present is misunderstood. As so many of us mass together in cities, are we at a turning point in our identity as humans? Or does past experience of cities offer some clues for the future, whether one of hope or of disaster?

For more information visit: http://www.history.ac.uk/aac2009/

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