Debates on the Urban Revolution and polycentrism

Synekism and the origin of cities

Recently I have been working on the concept of Urban Revolution and reading a lot on the origin of cities. In the thirties of the past century, the archaeologist Gordon Childe proposed the theory of an urban revolution taking place after the neolithic (that is agricultural) revolution. He analysed archaeological data from ancient cities and reconstructed a sequence in which the existence of a surplus allowed for more complex division of labour and the emergence of cities. The hypothesis is so widely extended that is accepted as a conventional wisdom.

Nevertheless, from Urban Studies the hypothesis has been questioned. In The economy of cities (1969) Jane Jacobs proposed to inverse the hypothesis ‘Putting cities first’. That means assuming that cities emerged before the neolithic revolution and that this emergence lies behind the agricultural innovations giving place to the agricultural revolution. Jacobs based her approach on new archaeological data, specially the studies of James Mellaart in Çatal Hüyük, Anatolia.The city had no proper streets, but social life took place in the roofs. It was previous to the large city-states of Mesopotamia, and despite there was some forms of agriculture, the economic activity was heavily based on hunting and gathering. Despite that, there was artistic activity and many of the features that we would find in the city-states emerging 2,000 years later. Since then there has been a controversy about the sequence between archaeologists and some urban researchers. The former do not consider Çatal Hüyük as a proper city, whereas urban researchers focus on the insights that reveal complex social life in the settlement.


But why it was so important for Jacobs to show the ‘cities first’ hypothesis? She was defending the key role of dense agglomerations of population in the generation of innovation and economic growth. This was part of her intellectual fight not only against Robert Moses and his plans to reshape New York eliminating dense and compact neighbourhoods, but also against Lewis Mumford views collected in City in History. For Jacobs the city is a form of urban agglomeration that generates innovation and economic growth, and policy-makers were destroying the city giving place to extensive forms of urbanization (departing from a complete different point of view, Lefebvre would develop a similar criticism).

Later, Edward Soja, assuming Jacobs hypothesis, would label this capacity of the city as synekism, summarizing the outcomes of complex social interactions taking place in an agglomeration. For Soja there have been three urban revolutions: the first taking place 7,500 years ago with the first cities, another 5,000 with the first city-states based on extensive agriculture and since 1500 A.C.E. when the medieval city was transformed into the industrial city. The question remains today a key element, as governments at all levels seek for new sources for economic growth.  What are the elements that make some cities successful in economic growth in front of the others? That was the question that Jacobs tried to answer in 1969 and is still ongoing. Three different activities taking place during February have made me think on the role of synekism to understand current trends in metropolitan regions.

The February great race

February has been a busy month. I have visited our colleagues presenting the results of the European Project ImPRovE: Poverty, social policy and innovation, which has focused on innovative experiences on policy-making against poverty in European cities.The project, coordinated by Bea Cantillon, has involved 11 research groups from 9 different countries.

The final conference, that took place in Antwerp, showed the conclusions of the team  and presented ongoing debates on social innovation and policy-making, and the potential and limitations of the approach to understand current changes in welfare provision.

Secondly, in a seminar in Rome we had the opportunity to discuss the role of social movements and the articulation of new political platforms in southern European cities, and specially in Spain and Greece.

In third place,  I had the opportunity to do a class in Lyon (thanks Deborah) based on the concept of polycentrism and the role of small and medium-sized cities in the current configuration of metropolitan regions. The class was based on  an article, available here, that explains how metropolitan regions are compounds of small and medium-sized cities with their own historical trajectories and productive traditions, what influences their strategies within the metropolitan region. At the same time, the article is based on my PhD research.It shows how Small and medium-sized cities find ways to defend their position as a node in a network of cities formed by social, economic and political interactions between municipalities. Whereas the article is based on two case studies (West Midlands Conurbation and Barcelona Metropolitan Region), the presentation in Lyon focused specifically on the case of Barcelona. I include the presentation below:


Both the emergence of innovative practices in policies, the rise of new political platforms and the fight of small and medium-sized cities can be read through the concept of synekism, that is, as outcomes of dense social relations taking place in cities that become institutionalised and give place to formal and informal ways of organizing collective life. That allows for an explanation of ‘putting cities first’ in order to try to understand certain phenomena, as it is the complexity of cities what allows all kinds of innovation and creation, not only that oriented to economic growth.


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