Publication Date

April 4, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the Editor

Thematic

Urban

The AHA TownhouseSince September, Perspectives on History issues have been linked by two threads: periodization and ghosts. These words were suggestions that prompted the reader to ponder the scope of an idea, rather than to mark its borders. They were words that were good to think with. We are continuing this experiment with the 2023–24 issues and one single uniting thread. Over the next year, Perspectives is especially (but not exclusively) interested in pitches for articles with something to say about urbanism and rurality.

One unexpected outcome of the COVID-19 lockdowns is that cities were suddenly quiet. It’s cars that make them noisy, it turns out. Unable to socialize indoors, city dwellers began exploring the urban outdoors and found them enjoyable, much to their surprise. Local governments leaned in, setting up street closures, outdoor dining, and pop-up parks. Many residents began to see the possibilities of urban spaces designed around people, rather than vehicles.

Since the end of the lockdowns, and intensified by a nationwide housing crisis, there has been a renewed interest in and vigor for developing cities into places for humans. Public transit and multimodal commuting are now subjects of general interest, as is the “15-minute city”—an urban space where all of one’s needs (housing, work, groceries, childcare) are within a 15-minute walk. Perhaps the clearest sign of this idea’s reach is that right-wing conspiracy theorists have derided the 15-minute city as a government-orchestrated panoptic trap.

All this has a history, of course. US cities were designed for people until urban planners in the 1950s and ’60s drove highways into their hearts in the name of “urban renewal,” frequently targeting minority communities in the process. But even such a villain as Robert Moses has a legacy both good and ill—much of the change urban visionaries now wish to see realized seems impossible without Moses’s casual disdain for both the law and the people his plans affected. And cities are not merely recent developments. Urban environments with hundreds of thousands of people existed in antiquity in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, and China. Rome, Constantinople, Chang’an, Tenochtitlan, and Baghdad featured many aspects of urban planning we now assume are modern. The Romans, for example, employed modal filtering—physical impediments for certain vehicles—to ensure carts stayed in certain parts of their cities. The geometric perfection of Pierre L’Enfant, which snarls traffic daily in Washington, DC, has a genealogy that reaches back to the gridded, planned, and fortified bastide towns of medieval Europe. And so on.

Nor is the history of cities confined to areas of high population density. Cities, after all, can rarely feed themselves, and before modern medicine, they required an influx of immigrants from the countryside to sustain their populations. The tensions between urban and rural are as old as Gilgamesh; the Latin rusticus means “idiot.” In between the country and the city stand the suburbs—a term that once referred to buildings outside a European city’s wall but now conjures racially homogenous communities sprawling across America, composed of single-family homes with chemically enhanced lawns and two-car garages. Cities, their suburbs, and the countryside are all entangled in an interrelated web that reaches both forward and backward in time.

I hope that, as a thread, urbanism and rurality generate the mix of academic subject matter and popular appeal that produces the ideal Perspectives piece, whether in the form of a 1,500-word article, a 600-word Everything Has a History piece, or something else entirely. But these words are not riddles. There is no fixed answer to the meaning of either lurking in my brain—their meaning can only exist with respect to your answer. They are, as I said, good for thinking with. I have given you some of my thoughts; send us the thoughts they help inspire in you.

L. Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.

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