By Cliff Ellis
The building of cities has a long and complex history. Although city planning as an organized profession has existed for less than a century, all cities display various degrees of forethought and conscious design in their layout and functioning.
Early humans led a nomadic existence, relying on hunting and gathering for sustenance. Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, systematic cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals allowed for more permanent settlements. During the fourth millennium B.C., the requirements for the "urban revolution" were finally met: the production of a surplus of storable food, a system of writing, a more complex social organization, and technological advances such as the plough, potter's wheel, loom, and metallurgy.
Cities exist for many reasons, and the diversity of urban forms can be traced to the complex functions that cities perform. Cities serve as centers of storage, trade, and manufacture. The agricultural surplus from the surrounding countryside is processed and distributed in cities. Cities also grew up around marketplaces, where goods from distant places could be exchanged for local products. Throughout history, cities have been founded at the intersections of transportation routes, or at points where goods must shift from one mode of transportation to another, as at river and ocean ports.
Religious elements have been crucial throughout urban history. Ancient peoples had sacred places, often associated with cemeteries or shrines, around which cities grew. Ancient cities usually had large temple precincts with monumental religious buildings. Many medieval cities were built near monasteries and cathedrals.
Cities often provide protection in a precarious world. During attacks, the rural populace could flee behind city walls, where defence forces assembled to repel the enemy. The wall served this purpose for millennia, until the invention of heavy artillery rendered walls useless in warfare. With the advent of modern aerial warfare, cities have become prime targets for destruction rather than safe havens.
Cities serve as centers of government. In particular, the emergence of the great nation-states of Europe between 1400 and 1800 led to the creation of new capital cities or the investing of existing cities with expanded governmental functions.
Washington, D.C., for example, displays the monumental buildings, radial street pattern, and large public spaces typical of capital cities.
Cities, with their concentration of talent, mixture of peoples, and economic surplus, have provided a fertile ground for the evolution of human culture: the arts, scientific research, and technical innovation. They serve as centers of communication, where new ideas and information are spread to the surrounding territory and to foreign lands.
|Old Paris, photo by aj stephens|
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