Note — Jul 04, 2021

How Ancient Societies Reimagined What Cities Could Be

Seen in → No.180

Source →

Greatly enjoyed this one, adapted from Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us, by Patrick Roberts and it’s not only a fascinating look at the history of some great cities / civilizations and some recent findings of how they organized and lived, but also dovetails very nicely in recurring concepts I regularly circle back to, the known and unknown quadrants, and the idea that “we don’t know anything,” or the half-life of knowledge.

The recent findings he goes over show that those cities were larger, had more mixed usage, combined varied food productions, rotating crops, forest gardens, intricate water systems, etc. Although they did suffer from over-exploitation, droughts, and floods, they didn’t crumble as a whole. Rather, rulers lost the trust of the population, leading to more dispersed and less “grand” occupation, not outright collapse. (Annalee Newitz has written about this, see my first two notes here on the new website.)

Finally, oh how I wish I could walk through a recreation of this portrayal of the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia! Can someone make an Assassin’s Creed discovery tour of this?

Not only did societies such as the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia flourish, but pre-colonial tropical cities were actually some of the most extensive urban landscapes anywhere in the pre-industrial world – far outstripping ancient Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul and the ancient cities of China. […]

Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today. […]

In almost all instances, instead of isolated urban buds, scientists have found vast landscapes of small and large centres connected by dispersed agrarian landscapes, residential areas, causeways and a complex, interlinking system of dams, reservoirs, sinkholes, channels and swamps that supported growing populations through even the driest of seasons. […]

The strength of agrarian-based, low-density urbanism remains an attractive model for present-day urban planners across the tropics looking for green cities that balance urgent conservation and environmental needs, political and cultural infrastructure, and growing urban populations.