Act: Inspiration

Intercultural Urbanism: City planning from the ancient world to the modern day

September 22, 2021

Editor’s Note:

Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@TuftsInitially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable and The Kresge Foundation.

Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.

Register to participate in future Cities@Tufts events here.

Below is the audio, video, and full transcript from a lecture that was delivered on October 20, 2020, “Intercultural Urbanism: City Planning from the Ancient World to the Modern Day” with Dean Saitta.

Find out more information about Dr. Saitta and his book at:

Watch the Video>>

Intercultural Urbanism Transcript

Julian Agyeman

Hello and welcome to Cities@Tufts. This is our Wednesday colloquium, and we’re proud to be here with our partners Shareable and the Kresge Foundation. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman and together with my research assistants Meghan Tenhoff and Perri Sheinbaum, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning, and sustainability issues.

And it’s my pleasure today to introduce Dean Saitta, Professor of Anthropology and director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Denver. And I see we have a U Denver graduate in the audience. He teaches courses in evolutionary anthropology, urban anthropology, human biological diversity and archaeology. And his research interests are in ancient city planning and design, comparative architectural and urban form and North American archaeology. He has an outstanding blog called Intercultural Urbanism, and I hope you can visit that. And he’s just published a book in my Just Sustainability series with Z Books in London called Intercultural Urbanism: City Planning From the Ancient World to the Modern Day. And I understand that’s going to be the main theme of his talk. As usual, the guests will talk for about 30, 40 minutes, and then we will have moderated questions. Can I ask everybody who’s not presenting to switch off their video and their microphones? So please, Dean, it’s our pleasure.

Intercultural Urbanism Lecture

Dean Saitta

The pleasure is all mine. Thank you, Julian. It is an honor to be here with you all today. I’m just going to pull up my slide show. So, yeah, what I would like to talk about is what we learn from prehistory about intercultural urbanism, which I essentially define as theory and practice of planning and design that respects differences in ways of living, dwelling, being, belonging and even remembering in the city. Because I think that public statutory and urban history is critical to the constitution of civic life. So I’m just going to run fairly briskly through my slides and just give you a taste of the contents of this book that Julian graciously solicited for his series and actually represents the culmination of almost 40 years of work on town planning across a number of different urban contexts.

First, I want to acknowledge where I’m coming from. I’m in Denver, Colorado, the ancestral homeland of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. And this land acknowledgement has a special meaning for me. A couple of years ago, without the permission of my administration, I pulled together a faculty committee to look into the complicity of Denver University’s founder, a fellow by the name of John Evans, who also founded Northwestern University, his complicity in an atrocity against native peoples here in Colorado, the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, which happens to be the same year that the University of Denver was founded. And we generated a report that found John Evans culpable for atrocities committed against the native peoples of this region.

And to our great surprise, and also delight, about a month after the report was produced, the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, issued a formal apology on behalf of all past and living Colorado governors to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people for the atrocities committed at Sand Creek. It was an incredibly emotional moment. I actually get choked up just thinking about it because this collective gasp went up from the native people in attendance. And you could tell that for the first time they realized that public officials were taking their interests seriously. It’s not reparations. It’s not a reclamation of land, but at least it was a public apology. And I am grateful to my colleagues on the faculty for making that happen. And I mention this because I’m going to loop back to an indigenous view of planning at the end of this talk.

So I mentioned I’ve been doing this for about 40 years. And essentially the unifying theme has been how space and architecture are used as tactical resources in political, economic, and cultural life. I started my career working in Indian Country at an ancestral Zuni Pueblo outside of the reservation. I later moved into labor history and did research at the Ludlow Tent Colony, which I won’t go into detail on — it was the site of another famous massacre in Colorado history where striking miners were gunned down by state militia in 1914. Our archaeological work at Ludlow was instrumental in transforming that site into a national historic landmark in 2009. That was probably the crowning creation of my career, having an archaeological site turned into a national landmark.

And then these days, I’m working on issues in the urban planning of contemporary cities, including Denver. Thank you, Julian, for mentioning the blog. A lot of the work that I’ve done in these different contexts is written about on the blog. As I mentioned earlier, I’m really interested in the monuments debate in American society — actually all around the world these days. So I have some essays up there about Confederate statues and acts of commemoration. And of course, I’m interested in sustainability and how that relates to urban planning and design. For the last few years, I’ve been writing for Planetizen, focused largely on historical issues. And what archaeology and the study of ancient cities can bring to the table in terms of ideas about planning and design.

But today I’m going to talk about the book: “Intercultural Urbanism: City Planning From the Ancient World to the Modern Day,” and just give you a bit of a tour through the book. Two basic aims, my interest was in expanding the body of urban planning knowledge that’s at the disposal of professional planners and designers in a way that draws on a greater diversity of cultures and experiences. And then secondly, I’m hoping that this work will inspire in readers among planners and designers, new urban imagine areas or visions — alternative cognitive images of the city to come. And as everyone on this call knows, there’s a lot of thinking going on about the city of the future and how it can address certain issues that have been raised by the COVID pandemic and also by the Black Lives Matter 2020 insurgences.

A number of intellectual muses: David Harvey saved my life in graduate school, literally, with his writing on the philosophy of social science. I am forever indebted to David Harvey and his work. Leonie Sandercock and Jennifer Robinson, who in different ways have expanded our understanding of contemporary urbanism and have urged us to look elsewhere to other places, times and cultures for models about how planning should proceed. And then I’m certainly indebted to Julian and his work on Just Sustainabilities, instrumental in bringing together the equity conversation with the sustainability conversation — that certainly animates my interest in the ancient world.

And then there’s this guy, Richard Sennett, who I’ve been reading for a long time. When I was writing my book, he produced this book called “Building and Dwelling: An Ethics for the City,” where he identified five design forms for producing the open city. I won’t go into any great detail on any of them. The book is well worth reading, but I found in Sennett sort of an anchor for my investigation of cities in the ancient worlds. I started looking for synchronous centers, for porous edges, for how public monuments might be used in social life. I’m really interested in this notion of how planners and designers might use shells or incomplete forms to create better cities. And then Sennett is big on seed planning as an alternative to master planning for realizing certain Open City goals.

So what can ancient cities reveal? Perhaps alternative combinations of what Sennett is talking about? I think ancient cities can certainly reveal some alternative approaches to collaborative democratic governance. Ancient cities can introduce us, I believe, to alternative ways to be and belong and remember in the city. In short, I think ancient cities can reveal a lot of what another influential urban theorist is talking about. Neil Brenner, just a stone’s throw away from you all at Harvard. While I was writing my book, I read his book on new urban spaces, and I was struck by his conceptualization of alter urbanization — models of the city that are radically democratic, socially equitable and ecologically sane. And I found in Brenner a really robust body of theory.

And one of the arguments I make in the book is that I believe that urban planning and design have to get a whole lot more theoretical. I understand that pragmatism is important and I like the way that Tufts pitches its program as about pragmatism in planning. I know that Julian and other members of the faculty are certainly theoretically sophisticated. I’d like to hear your thoughts at the end of the talk here about whether we need to revisit theory and expand the bodies of theory that are used to do planning and design. Theory is something we all can get impatient with as we just want to set about the task of building better cities. But I’m wondering if we don’t need to revisit the ways that Brenner and others are doing the whole notion of the city as a theoretical object of study.

We can look around us today and I think find some useful alter-urbanizations and design dislocations. In the book, I look to the global south. Like I know Julian and others are, I’m interested in what’s going on in the global south, which I understand is not simply a geographical concept. It’s also a metaphorical one. The global south can refer to all of those peoples anywhere who have been oppressed by modernist planning and monocultural approaches to urban design. So I look at Curitiba in Brazil, the democratization of bus lines. I look to Alejandro Aravena’s work in Chile, his use of incomplete forms, his use of shells to build affordable housing for poor people. Medellín is a gold mine of design dislocations. I’m particularly taken by the appropriation of the elite materiality of ski hills and shopping malls, cable cars and escalators to better connect poor and minorities to people, to jobs and opportunities in the city center. And I love this notion of putting iconic architecture in poor neighborhoods and at the edges of neighborhoods as a way to weave those communities back into the city center.

So this stuff is going on around us and you can find examples of it. One of the points I make in the book is that looking around for alter-urbanizations and design dislocations is relatively easy. Looking back is a lot harder. You have to dig deep, both literally and figuratively, to wring out of the ancient cities ideas that might help in reimagining what urbanization should look like and what good urban design should look like, that serves a broader spectrum of society.

So let’s take a bit of a tour. I don’t want to say a lot about Mesopotamia. I only want to use it for the images it presents by which we know early urbanization. And it’s an urbanization of fairly well planned cities with political hierarchies running the show. The interesting thing about Mesopotamia is that all of those cities were multi-ethnic — they drew people out of the countryside in a big way. But they tended to be autocratic and centrally run and they had a built environment to match, like the monumental temple sitting at the center of the city. You’re looking at some images from Uruk, which is our earliest example of an urban configuration in Mesopotamia.

I’m wondering how many of you know about these guys? Trypillian mega sites of Southeast Europe, specifically the Ukraine, occupied at exactly the same time as the cities we know about in Mesopotamia that are widely discussed. Trypillian cities give us a different look at the origins of urbanization. The slide on the left highlights an invisible Trypillian city that’s located between two existing cities in the Ukraine. And if you look harder at this space, the image on the right, you discover what looks like a concentric settlement formation, and that’s exactly what it is. These Trypillian mega sites are characterized by concentric designs. They are comparable in size to any respectable Mesopotamian city at this time, but they seem to be democratically run.

I’ve given you the data on population size — they numbered up to fifty thousand people. But I’m interested in the distribution of what seems to be collective architectures around the landscape of the city. And if you’re thinking these things look a lot like Burning Man, the utopian city and the Nevada desert, you would be right, because Trypillian mega sites look a lot like Burning Man, which is getting increasing attention these days for what it might suggest about alternative forms of urbanization. In the book, I talk about some of the governing similarities between Trypillian and mega sites and places like Burning Man. They’re predicated on self-expression, on gift and barter economies rather than market economies, and essentially on communal effort and a commitment to civic responsibility.

So Trypillian mega sites remind us of the possibilities of egalitarian organization on an urban scale. This is a quote by David Wengrow from an article he wrote a few years ago where he writes about cities appearing before the state. And I think that’s true. I think if you look at ancient cities, you do discover urban agglomerations existing in the absence of the states, and they’re governed very differently. And one of the points I make in the book, and I’m actually persuaded by this, is that the history of cities is a lot like the history of life. If you know anything about paleontology, you know that the origins of life were accompanied by an explosion of species variation. And then the evolution of life, since that early explosion, has basically been about extinction and the winnowing of diversity down to a few basic forms. And I think maybe the history of the city, the evolutionary history of the city is a lot like that. An explosion of early forms that are incredibly diverse and governed in a variety of ways. And then over the years, that diversity has been winnowed down. And for me, in the modern age, that diversity has been winnowed down to something we call the modern neoliberal city, which everyone on this call probably realizes has its problems in terms of equity and access and sustainability. So there in a nutshell, is my view on why we ought to visit ancient cities.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

I talk about Mohenjo-daro — and I know Julian mentions this in some of his work and probably in his teaching — another example of a collectively governed city. I use the concept of heterarchy in the book a lot. Ancient cities, many of them were heterarchical in terms of their governance. They were governed laterally rather than vertically. The Indus Valley cities are interesting because they were radically egalitarian, I believe. They were, in fact, predicated on sharing economies. You don’t find monumental temples in Indus Valley civilizations. You find other kinds of monumental architecture, like the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro, which I believe served to represent civic identity and probably had other integrative aspects that were citywide rather than serving just the elite. Like Julian, I’m taken with Elijah Anderson’s concept of cosmopolitan canopies, these third spaces that serve the purposes of social mixing. I think we can identify those at places like Mohenjo-daro and visiting Indus Valley civilizations for what they might tell us about the design of cosmopolitan canopies is an interesting project, I believe.

I keep coming back to Julian’s work because I love the guy and I love his work and I know he’s interested in complete streets. Julian, I stole the slide on the right from one of your presentations because I think it nicely fleshes out the first streets at Mohenjo-daro, right? I think the streets at Mohenjo-daro were continuously activated by a mix of uses and a full spectrum of ethnic and social groups. The design of that street on the right looks suspiciously like the design of First Street at Mohenjo-daro. Bazaar economies may have been routine, they may have been always populating those streets. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty much a consensus view that these cities of the ancient Indus were radically egalitarian in nature, even those that ballooned to 80,000 people on the occasion of public market days and seasons when the crop was coming in from outlying areas.

Africa is a revelation in terms of ancient cities. And as I mention in the slide, if you look at Africa, all parts of it, its cities blow up traditional dichotomies around planning, design and land use. They blow up the planned-unplanned dichotomy, among others. My favorite cities of Africa — and I described them as ancient because they’re relatively unknown, even though they were occupied just a few hundred years ago. There’s a long history of racism in intellectual life and scholarship that has turned a blind eye to Africa. I think it’s time to showcase what Africa has to offer in terms of ancient cities. My favorite is Songo Mnara, again, occupied just a few hundred years ago, but almost nobody knows about it. And for me, the public spaces at Songo Mnara are worth talking about because I think they beautifully exhibit synchronous centers as defined by Sennett, mixed spaces, rich in a variety of activities, including provisions for informal housing for immigrants and non elites.

Songo Mnara was a global city. It was open to the outside. It was cosmopolitan. It attracted traders from all around the Indian Ocean world and even the Mediterranean. It may have been governed hierarchically, but I don’t think that governance stood in the way of immigrants and people coming in from the countryside, from having access to the city, from exercising, Henri Lefebvre’s, “right to the city.” My argument is that citizenship at Songo Mnara and other Swahili cities was predicated on just being there on Lefebvre’s concept of inhabitance. And I really like this quote from Ash Amin, from an article he wrote back in 2006 about the good city — I think it applies to Songo Mnara. Their public spaces exhibit a complex use of a number of things without excessive surveillance, gating, privatization, or the humiliation of minorities. That sounds like a good city to me.

The Mayan world is a particularly rich source of what I would regard as principal strategies and lessons for doing better urbanism today. And I highlight a couple of Mayan cities in the book. Chunchucmil up in the Yucatan and Caracol in Belize. Caracol, to me, is a perfect example of the Garden City, as perhaps imagined by Ebenezer Howard back in the day. The work here has been done by two very good archaeologists named Arlen and Diane Chase, and I borrow from their work liberally in the book to talk about Caracol. It’s got this sophisticated combination of agricultural fields, reservoirs, markets, outlying cities that the Chases describe using Joel Garreau’s notion of edge cities, and then causeways connecting the whole. They’re all connected to an urban core, interestingly, as demographically dense as Boston’s or Philadelphia’s.

So these are essentially modern cities in their demographic density. But I think they’re organized and governed very differently. And with the Chases, I think that Caracol fits an ancient form of transit oriented development that was equitable, prosperous and sustainable — a very well established and prosperous middle class at Caracol. But that prosperity filtered down to even the poorest residents of the city as detected by archaeology. So I think there are lessons there for how we might integrate garden plots into the urban fabric. I think there are lessons about doing what can be called “high density ruralism.”

It seems in the United States that we aren’t giving up on sending people to urban peripheries, sending people into the hinterlands. The American dream seems to be alive and well in terms of people wanting to take their families out of the urban core and into the peripheries. Maybe there’s a way we can do that without destroying land and compromising on water resources. So perhaps there’s something to be learned, especially here in Denver, which is in a really fragile environment, from the Maya about doing high density ruralism. And maybe those lessons can be exported to other places as well. I think maybe we need, in order to do that, we need to embrace some of the cosmologies of conservation that were used by the Maya and maybe even the ancient Africans who, as far as I could tell, didn’t make a distinction between urban and rural. It seems to me that their thinking was much more holistic and integrative. And I think we need that if we’re going to do better urban expansion into peripheral areas.

Chunchucmil is a different kind of thing. It’s a market city. It’s an early version of New Urbanism because every last aspect of the New Urbanist charter seems to be evident at Chunchucmil, including mixed income neighborhoods, which, as you know, have been really hard to realize within the framework of New Urbanism. I owe this work to my colleague Scott Hutson at the University of Kentucky. He brought together all of the work on Chunchucmil  into a fabulous book about the ancient urban Maya.

And the Maya had all sorts of urban plans. They used grids, they used radial hub and spoke arrangements. They modeled their cities on cosmologies, what I would call cosmograms, in which elements of their animistic worldview were incorporated into the planning and the design of cities. What you’re seeing in the middle slide there is a hub and spoke plan for Chunchucmil that Hutson argues very effectively mixed people both within and between neighborhoods. And in the lower right, you’re looking at one of the processional avenues that connected the cities to an urban core that didn’t have a single dominant temple. In fact, it had a number of different temples, modestly sized, that again reflects something in the way of a more collaborative rather than hierarchical form of governance.

So my last example before I end is from a city that’s right in our backyard, located almost midway between Denver and Boston, you’ll find Cahokia in East St. Louis. In the book, I talk about it as America’s first multiethnic, immigrant, and, like Songo Mnara, a global city. Cahokia’s pull was incredible. It extended over a wide area. And we’ve confirmed that by looking at the artifacts and the human biology at Cahokia. And the map on the right probably underestimates the extent of Cahokia’s reach. I think it extended up into New York because Cahokia was connected to other parts of the eastern woodlands by a set of rivers and streams. But minimally, it dominated the Midwest and the southeastern United States in terms of its gravitational pull. It clearly attracted a bunch of different people, both ethnically and culturally and linguistically.

And I think one key to integrating that diversity was to use synchronous, open and flexible public spaces. The arrangement of public plazas around the city center is one of the features of Cahokia that I think urban planners might be able to learn something from if they’re interested in integrating diversity in public space.There’s way more to this story here, like there is way more to the story about these other cities that I’ve just talked about.

But all of them, I think, offer up something in the way of planning and design principles that might be useful. We just need to scale them up for our particular modern context. And Cahokia was also modeled on their cosmology. And in the book, I talk a little bit about public architecture and how not only at Cahokia, but also at other cities, public architecture provided a built narrative that resonates with our evolved sensibilities as human beings. And I haven’t gotten into that in this talk, but the book talks a little bit about what we’re learning from cognitive neuroscience, about pan-human universal ways of thinking and mapping on to architecture and space that I think planners and designers might need to pay more attention to as we go forward.

So here’s a quick and dirty summary of the ground we’ve covered. Right now, this is my story and I’m sticking to it. Cities of the ancient world were cosmopolitan, equitable and resilient — maybe even more so than those of the modern world. They embed principles of planning and design that I think we have to translate for modern use and I think we have to scale up for modern use. And my argument is, is I think they can benefit planning and city building in the global north and maybe even elsewhere. And then thirdly, cities of the ancient world can help enrich our planning imagination. If we’re interested in things like inclusion, equity, justice and sustainability.

So I like to think that — and I would advocate — that urban studies and planning programs need to take these insights on board. We need to build up an intercultural literacy, a competence that can help decolonize and indigenize the curriculum. I promised that I would loop back to an indigenous view of planning. I want to give the last word to Lyana Patrick, a member of the Frog Clan of the Stellat’en First Nation in Canada. She’s advocating a rethink. She’s advocating a return to theory, I believe, in how we think about space and planning in a modern context. And I like what she says about the task that lies ahead. It’s not so much about indigenizing what we have as it is about creating something new and regenerative in the interstices of what we’ve created as modern urban planners. And lying there in, I believe, is some excellent advice for not only master planners — if we still believe that master planning has a role today — but certainly for tactical urbanists, urban acupuncturists, seed planners and anybody else who’s interested in working in the interstices of the modern city. So with that, I will say thank you and I’ll stop my share and invite you to ask any questions that you might have.

Intercultural Urbanism Discussion

Julian Agyeman

Well, Dean, thank you for 30, 40 minute trip through prehistory, how it can both help us understand, but also help us really think about cities in a new way, as you said, a new imagination. And I particularly like the way that you finished with an idea about the indigenous presence, because as you were going through this, I was thinking more and more about how in a lot of urban planning courses, what you’ve just talked about is invisible to us, as is our invisiblization and erasure of the indigenous people. And you’ll note that many of us, and certainly when I give talks now, I pay respects to the Wampanoag and the Massachusett people. Dean has posed so many provocative questions, but the first one goes to our cities at Tufts Research assistant Megan Tenhoff, and Megan says high density ruralism sounds like an oxymoron. Can you explain?

Dean Saitta

Yeah, it’s a good question and I agree. It is kind of oxymoronic and maybe my idea is simple minded. But here in Denver, we’re concerned about sprawl. And we have some interesting stuff going on in the exurbs that are trying to be conservation minded and minded about water and civic minded about sprawl. I write about them in the book, some of the projects that are happening on the periphery. I guess it’s my answer to this idea that people are never going to want to stop leaving the city — they’re in search of bigger houses and better schools. And those tend to lie on the periphery.

And some of these exercises on Denver’s exurban periphery are trying to work with density and trying to preserve as much open space as possible that is available to all of the people living out there.  I guess the notion of high density ruralism is just, if we’re going to sprawl, if we’re going to spread, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we need to be dense. Maybe the modern city needs to contract. James Kunstler has been talking about the coming contractions — we need to contract. And I guess my argument is that we need to do the same on the periphery. And high density ruralism is my way of trying to capture or advocate for that. And I think the Maya probably did that fairly well. They were concerned about not exploiting every bit of tropical rainforest. They needed to let agricultural fields regenerate. They needed to have space to do slash and burn agriculture, to leave some fields fallow while they moved on to something else. So I’m just thinking that this high density rural is thing probably relates to that.

Julian Agyeman

Thanks, Dean. Another question, you’ve alluded a lot to the pushback from different institutions when it comes to pushing the recommendations you’ve mentioned. What suggestions do you have for those of us that want to push to indigenize on decolonize our approach to urban planning, who will likely run into that pushback as well?

Dean Saitta

You know, my stuff hasn’t been out there enough to experience pushback. I did weigh in on a master plan for our campus that was rooted in New Urbanist and neoliberal ideals, and I didn’t hear a word from my institution. Maybe the pushback I got was silence, right? Nobody on my campus wanted to hear that what they were doing was basically the white spatial imaginary. And this was another neoliberal development scheme that Denver doesn’t need. And there was no consciousness about how we’re sitting on indigenous land.

But I think maybe the way to guard against that pushback is just to be well armed with a bunch of examples that come from the global south and the ancient world. I’ve talked to politicians and architects and city councilmen in Denver about some of this stuff. For them, the global south doesn’t exist either geographically or metaphorically. And the ancient world might as well be Mars, right? Cities were invented in the 19th century for city council people in Denver. And, as I said in the talk, we’re looking at a very narrow slice of urbanism. So I think maybe being able to push back and being able to catch people off guard and being able to tell people that their slice of understanding about what urbanism is and what it looks like is remarkably narrow.

So this is why, and I know Julian and colleagues have written about this, planning and design curricula that need to be expanded. And, you know, back when I was young, a young man, I used to sit on juries at the architecture school at CU Denver. And I did that a couple of years ago. And I wasn’t sure much had changed between the 1990s and the early twenty teens in terms of how architecture students, for example, are being trained. It’s all about AutoCAD. It’s all about coming up with sexy designs. I’m not sure I see a very sophisticated understanding of history and the history of cities in what they’re doing and planning in architecture school. So I think the curriculum needs to help with the pushback.

Julian Agyeman

Dean, silence is a great form of pushback. I mean, it’s like a wall. Yeah, it’s a great point you raise there. Question, what are some of the challenges these premodern cities faced?

Dean Saitta

Yeah, it’s a great question. I take pains in the book not to romanticize them too much. They were dirty, they were noisy, they were chaotic, they were disease ridden — which actually raises the issue of what can we learn from ancient cities about how to control things like COVID? Because almost certainly they did that successfully. Many of them are in ruins today, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t sustain themselves for very long periods of time. Some of them were around for hundreds of years, right? Way longer than Boston, way longer than Philadelphia, way longer than Denver. So they were able to get through pandemics and environmental crises.

The cities in the Indus had to deal with flooding. They had remarkably sophisticated water control systems that would give Haussmann or  Bazalgette a run for their money. The great infrastructure re-imaginers of Paris and London in the 19th century. But they had to deal with all manner of ecological challenges and social challenges because they were magnets for diversity. They were magnets for a lot of people. Countrysides emptied out when Mesopotamian cities formed and countrysides emptied out to a large degree in the Maya world. People were drawn to these places. So I think disease and to some extent social conflict — although it seems like there were fewer challenges around social and ethnic conflict than there were around other things.

Julian Agyeman

What do we know about the economies of premodern cities and how did premodern economic activity shape these cities?

Dean Saitta

There was probably a spectrum of economic activities. Archeologists really have a lot of work to do in terms of reconstructing things like economic systems. There were tribute systems. There was stuff flowing in from the countryside that might have been commanded by elites. There would have been market systems, there would have been barter systems. It’s a good question about currencies. Were there standard currencies? Almost certainly some ancient cities had them, but just as certainly other cities didn’t have them. So redistribution, reciprocal exchanges, barter systems, centralized and decentralized market systems. I think the whole gamut was there. They were kin-based, they were non kin-based. Again, some of them were imperial in nature. They were governed by central elites. And again, I don’t want to make it sound like all of these cities were collectively governed.

The great excitement in archaeology these days is how many of them were collectively governed, because historically we thought because of their plans, because of their infrastructure, there must have been centralized elites. And we’re discovering that that’s not the case. That a lot of this building of infrastructure may have been the responsibility of local neighborhoods.

That’s kind of a roundabout way of avoiding the question — it’s kind of a spectrum of economic systems. And the other thing I should point out is that — and I talk about this in the book — our image of the ancient city is based on almost no knowledge of what’s going on in neighborhoods, because historically we’ve been drawn to temples and monumental architecture. And only now we’re starting to dig into residential areas that I think can help answer that question about economic systems.

Julian Agyeman

And Dean, just on that, in my book Sharing Cities, we look to a lot of these ancient cities as collectivist cities. There were some exceptions, as you say, but as you also say, the focus often has been on hierarchies and temples rather than on a more collectivist notion of the shared city. We’ve got a few more minutes — are strong links between ancient cities you mentioned and the modern cities nearby? Are any good examples of modern cities that have drawn upon the nearby ancient counterparts in this sort of alter urbanism?

Dean Saitta

Yeah, that’s a good question. The one that comes right to mind is Mexico City, because they’re dealing with all sorts of problems around congestion and population growth and food provisioning. And you may or may not know that the Aztecs were geniuses at extracting cultivatable land from swamps. They had this whole system of causeways and floating gardens that served to provision that city and manage population growth. So I’m thinking right now of an architect who floated some plans for rebuilding or redesigning Mexico City based on the Aztec ancient city of Tenochtitlán upon which Mexico City sits right now. But a lot of Tenochtitlán has been preserved and there is a lot we can learn and there’s a lot that we know about Aztec infrastructure and Aztec urban planning.

That’s one city that was hierarchically managed, right? It was based on a tribute system. And people living outside of Tenochtitlán hated the Aztecs because they were being power tripped by Aztec elites all the time. But at the same time, the Aztecs were geniuses in managing that particular landscape — that particular ecoscape. But again, I think there’s been a lot of resistance to these ideas about how to return Mexico City to its Aztec roots, because for a lot of folks, the horse is out of the barn and there’s no going back. But I think we have to try to stem the tide of that kind of thinking. So that’s the best example that comes to mind. If you’re going to find other examples they’re probably in the Maya world, because the cities of the global south, I think, have a healthier respect for local urban history than almost anywhere else.

Julian Agyeman

You know, continuing that, we’ve got a question here, how did ancient cities manage to transform into modern ones, e.g., Rome or Cairo? I mean, you talked about Mexico City, Tenochtitlán, what about the Romans, the Cairos, some of these ancient cities that are now megacities themselves?

Dean Saitta

I speak less to that. I haven’t really worried so much about Athens or Rome or those cities of the classical world, although it’s a great question. And I would like an expert to give me an answer to that. For an archaeologist like me, Rome and Athens have been overdone — we’ve neglected all of these other cities that were at least as great as Athens and Rome for both planning and architecture and  infrastructure. So it’s a great question, but I just don’t have the expertise to answer it, about that transformation from the classical world into the modern. I make a distinction in the book between the ancient world, the classical world and the modern world, because I want the focus to be on the ancients.

Julian Agyeman

Absolutely. Well, I just want to say, I think you’ve identified some big gaps in UEP curriculum here. I’ve already had a couple of messages about how we need to rethink some of our classes, one or two core curriculum classes, around this ancient, this prehistoric perspective. And guess which book might well be recommended as part of the reading for that? Dean, it’s been a pleasure. Visit Dean’s blog, Intercultural Urbanism, do get a copy of the book, it will be in the library eventually. Can we give a warm UEP thank you to Dean Saitta, fantastic talk Dean, and we’ll speak soon.

Dean Saitta

Ok, thank you. Thank you all.

 This article originally appeared on


Teaser photo credit: Hypothetical reconstruction showing a small section of the ancient Maya city of Chunchucmil, Yucatan. By David R. Hixson CC-BY-SA-2.5

Julian Agyeman

Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University