Our image of a premodern city tends to vaguely involve squalid buildings crammed cheek by jowl, tightly hemmed in by a defensive wall with a few monumental gates cut into it. This isn’t wrong — but it’s both incomplete and not always accurate. There’s more than one way to build a city before the last few centuries, and some of them might be surprising if you haven’t read a lot of history.
Let’s start with that wall (although when I get around to talking about warfare I’ll go into a lot more detail about both fortified cities and things like castle towns). There’s a fair bit of accuracy to this, because cities tend to contain a high density of wealth and are used to control the countryside around them, which means they make great military targets. So yes, many cities were walled, and — in a detail people tend to forget — often closed their gates at night, because there were only a very few jobs that gave you legitimate reason to need to pass in or out after the sun set.
But if you’re imagining a clean line between City and Not City, don’t. Cities often sprawled outside their walls as the population grew, and while that might lead to the construction of a new wall farther out, if times were peaceful and the borders far away, that was an expense and inconvenience not worth bothering with. Suburbs are not a new invention. Along the roads leading away from the city, you frequently see spider-legs of settlement extending outward, containing nice elite residences (away from the main stink of the city, but still close enough to easily travel there for business or pleasure) or the houses and shops for all those vegetable gardens that help feed the metropolis.
And while incredible crowding with tiny alleys and lanes is entirely accurate for some cities in some time periods, in other instances the area inside the walls could also be surprisingly non-urban. There’s defensive merit in having some of your food production within the protected zone, plus it leaves room for later population growth. Gardens don’t feature in our mental image of historical cities, but they were often there, producing small amounts of food or medicinal herbs or whatever else might be useful. Livestock, too: pigs in particular, because they can thrive in small spaces eating whatever scraps are available, but also fowl (so you can have fresh eggs) and even things like cows — remember that, at least in folklore, the Great Chicago Fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The trend these days toward keeping chickens or growing squash in home gardens is the return of a very old idea.
As is modern city planning. European cities tended to be ad hoc things, with people initially building wherever seemed convenient at the time, and then the resulting inconveniences being enshrined in tradition and property law for centuries thereafter. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, both John Evelyn and Christopher Wren dreamed of rebuilding the city with wide, straight boulevards . . . but their dreams ran aground on the reality of land ownership and the crown’s limited power to fiat a new London into being. Today, the tangle of streets is virtually unchanged from what it’s been for the last five hundred years.
In East Asia, though, you see a very different pattern. China had planned cities from early on, with streets laid out in an orderly grid, and even markets, administrative buildings, or temples distributed according to the rules. Japan adopted that along with other elements of Chinese culture during the Heian Period, such that the central parts of Kyoto still reflect the original grid, but outlying areas are often less regular — especially where the hills make straight lines more difficult to achieve.
Even with a grid to help, however, find things within a city isn’t always easy. The naming of streets is pretty much ancient and universal, but getting to a specific location is more complicated. Buildings in Japan are notoriously numbered according to when they were constructed; you can’t just go along a street and watch the numbers tick upward in a predictable manner. In Europe, proper numbering really only came in with the development of organized postal systems, which made it more necessary to identify locations for easy finding. Prior to that, things depended more on distinctive signs (which you still see in many cities there, especially on pubs or taverns), names, or just the neighborhood awareness that the third house along is where the Franklin family lives.
That lack of modern organization also extends to things like zoning or distinct economic neighborhoods. Because things needed to be within walking distance — pre-modern cities are very reliably only two or so miles across — there was much less of the differentiation we take for granted now: even the fine manor of a nobleman might be just around the corner from a slum alley. Houses and places of work weren’t very separate; often you found shops on the ground floor and lodgings above, or a workshop on one side of a courtyard and the residence on the other.
Which isn’t to say there was no zoning. Foul-smelling work like tanning leather or butchering the animals herded in from outlying areas did generally get confined to certain areas, because nobody wanted that stench evenly distributed around the city, or bleating flocks of sheep driven past their front door. If something involved a lot of fire, it might be safer to a buffer zone between it and flammable things like neighboring buildings. Much of modern urban zoning began as an effort to regulate noise, so that suburban residences could enjoy peace and quiet, away from the clangor of industry and trains.
But you’ve probably read at least one fantasy novel or played one game that talks blithely about “the market district” and “the temple district” and “the noble district” and so forth as if these things are singular and clearly delineated. That isn’t impossible . . . but it’s more often a reflection of recent history (meaning the last three hundred years or so) than the more distant past. State religious institutions may well be in a central location — the fora of Roman cities are a good example of this — but are the common people going to walk halfway across town just to carry out their daily devotions? No, they’re going to have parish churches or neighborhood shrines, as well as local food markets and basic crafts, all within a short walk of where they live. Any city plan that involves relying on them to go longer distances is soon going to devolve into a more ad hoc system of pop-up markets and wandering sellers.
We’re almost done with cities. But capitals and other significant urban loci deserve a bit of exploration, so we’ll get to that next week.