research in the history of planning

selected abstracts

Jill Grant. 2004. Sustainable urbanism in historical perspective. Chapter 2, in A. Sorensen, P. Marcotullio, J. Grant (eds.), Towards Sustainable Cities: East Asian, North American and European Perspectives on Managing Urban Regions, Ashgate, pp. 24-37

How long need cities last to be called sustainable? The oldest cities on the planet can claim a few millennia of heritage, but many cities are only decades or centuries old. When we talk about urban sustainability, we should consider several issues: survival of the settlement through time, environmental impacts on landscapes, and quality of life for inhabitants. The historical and archaeological record demonstrates that the settlements that have lasted longest did not necessarily grow the most rapidly, nor exhibit the highest standard of living for inhabitants. They survived because they found a reasonable balance in their demands on the land, or their residents could supplement local resources with imports. They managed their interactions in such a way that their technologies did not outstrip the ecosystems on which they drew. A quick view of the past could lead us to suggest that exponential urban growth is not sustainable over the long term: cities that grew quickly in the past often “burned out” as they exhausted the resources that supported expansion. If the lessons of history offer any guidance, then they give us cause for concern that the phenomenal growth we have experienced in the past century does not bode well for continued prosperity.

Cities depend upon appropriating the surplus of the land, as most residents of large urban centres are not engaged in primary production. Thus urban growth is linked to the productivity of the land. As we know, the earliest cities follow the development of agriculture, expanding population in the wake of technological innovation that enhanced production while encouraging sedentary communities (Hammond 1972). Through the centuries people improved technology and administrative systems to manage growing populations, thus facilitating considerable urban expansion. History shows, however, how precarious is our relationship with technology: the very innovations which can expand food supply and support population growth in one generation may undermine life-sustaining ecosystems in subsequent generations.  In this chapter, we briefly explore the history of urban traditions to consider what lessons past experience offers us as we search for sustainable strategies for urban development in the twenty-first century.