How people learned to live in cities

Session Date: 
Oct 11, 2024

The transition from Neolithic villages to early cities marked the greatest social transformation faced by our species before the Industrial Revolution. Our ancestors had to learn how to live in new settlements that had more people, higher densities, and more activities than had been known previously. The new adaptations to urban life involved changes in society and social processes, not just individual learning. Some changes came about through social interactions in a process called energized crowding; these include innovations in housing and the use of space, and the establishment of neighborhoods in cities. Other changes were driven by powerful new institutions, including formal governments and social classes. Cities had both negative effects (crowding, crime, and poverty) and positive outcomes (cities quickly became the generators of economic change and prosperity). I ask whether ancient cities—and they ways they responded to shocks—might hold useful insights for the development of urban adaptations to climate change today. This talk expands on themes from my recent book (Smith 2023).