Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Cities: what are they?

We take cities for granted. But where do they come from, why do they look the way they do, and why do people live in them?

The first cities were proto-city-states: Jericho and Çatalhöyük. These were built in the Near East towards the end of the Paleolithic. Jericho was first settled 12000 years ago and is still an inhabited city, in what is now the Palestinian Territories. Çatalhöyük, now an archeological site in Turkey, was settled between 7500 and 5700 BC. During the Palaeolithic, humans mastered fire, made increasingly sophisticated stone tools, were hunter-gatherers, domesticated plant and animal species, made art, spread around the world-- and lived in apartment buildings in proto-city-states, like this: Inside an apartment.

Çatalhöyük seems to have been a residential city without a clear social hierarchy or a central temple or administration. There were no streets, with people apparently climbing across the flat roofs to get around. Waste was dumped outside the city, but the dead were buried inside the mud-brick residential buildings. In general, however, city states arose around powerful religious temples and kings, who created large bureaucratic operations to collect temple offerings, taxes, and tribute from conquered rural lands. Cities thus affected life far out into the countryside. For example, the demands of urban residents for food or tax collectors for an easily collectible resource led many Near Eastern rural groups to transition from mainly hunting and gathering to mainly shepherding, since sheep were easier to trade or send as tax to cities than wildlife. Early city-states were also often points at which merchants stopped along trade routes. But they were not necessarily key locations in the spread of ideas: dramatic and transformative new practices like the domestication of various species seem to have spread through rural networks.

Roman cities affected European landscapes a great deal due to the Roman conquest of many parts of the continent. The Romans considered cities as the central elements in land organization, and as superior to the countryside. Legally, cities included the surrounding countryside, on which many were dependent for the creation of food and wealth. Famously, Roman cities are made of an orthogonal grid of streets, with outdoor public spaces and interior, private courtyards, and with canals to bring fresh water in and sewers to take waste out. Roman cities also had gardens. The king of Macedon (Ancient Greece) Alexander the Great brought back garden styles and plants from his conquests in Persia and India, which influenced Mediterranean gardens in general. The Ancient Greeks, however, did not seem to have many residential or public gardens. The Romans by contrast were very keen on gardens in their cities, including household gardens in villas, palace gardens, temple gardens and public parks. (For maps of Roman cities over time, see here: Ancient World Mapping Centre).

There are many reasons why cities have been invented, but some of them have to do with efficiency and control: cities house administrations and bureaucracies to maintain political control over large rural territories. Our European image of cities is also strongly influenced by Roman culture, but very early cities like Çatalhöyük were organised on an entirely different logic. There is nothing natural or inevitable about our ideas of what a city is: what might they be like in the future?

--Meredith Root-Bernstein