The city is not a new thing. From the beginnings of mankind there has been a tendency to come together and form communities that have slowly grown into centers of civilization. But why? Why come together over a small area when you could live on the land elsewhere and have as much space as you want?
Being hardwired to be together seems to be a standing element throughout history. However the reasons for coming together have constantly changed. Let’s look at a few examples from the book Urban Ministry; The Kingdom, the City & the People of God (Conn & Cortiz 2001):
- Religion and power
“At the heart of power’s expression in the city-state was its religious role…In these urban centers ‘every creature…revealed the belief that man was created for no other purpose than to magnify and serve his gods. That was the city’s ultimate reason for existence.'” (Conn & Ortiz 2001; 36).
- Military force
“Emerging from the early city-states was a new twist to urban power that would shape a new direction – the expansion of the city past local borders through conquest. The urban empire was born, and the shrine city became also the imperial city.” (Conn & Ortiz 2001; 36).
- The birth of the polis
Through Hellenism and the Greco-Roman empire the city as a center for political, economic, military and cultural power was amplified. “The gods, though ever present, slowly lost their place as integrating centers of the city.” (Conn & Ortiz 2001; 36).
- Feudal and commercial cities
After the fall of the Roman empire, cities in the Western world went into seclusion for over six hundred years (though in places like China and Mexico great cities began to appear during this time). Why did the city begin to re-emerge after such a long pause in history? At least two factors play a role: gold and God. “The city was reborn, and commerce and the church were its midwives.”. (Conn & Ortiz 2001; 37).
As the structure of social organization was shifting away from the chartered city and towards the economic power of the nation-state, Reformation (a uniquely urban event) came in as an added push as its urban impact was widespread and promoted independence from under the church.
“Up until now, one might say that three buildings symbolized the main functions of the city in history: the market, the castle and the temple.” With the industrial age came a fourth: the factory (Conn & Ortiz 2001; 49).
There are many more categories that could be added to this list, but that would go beyond the scope of this blog. However in looking at these six categories we can already see a city through the centuries that is not static or somehow absolute. It is instead an organism purveying the current values and culture of the times.
So why is this of importance to us? I would argue that with an increased understanding of how cities have come to be throughout the history of mankind, we are able to scrutinize the inner workings of the cities today and thus engage them in ways that are relevant and focused.