History, the mention of the word doesn’t exactly conjure a lot of excitement in our minds. While many of us may consider history to be a mind bogglingly boring subject it is important for us to take a sneak peak into the past to help us gain some context and navigate to the future.
Cities orginated from Old French cite, from Latin civitas, from civis ‘citizen.’ Originally denoting a town, and often used as a Latin equivalent to Old English burh ‘borough,’ the term was later applied to foreign and ancient cities and to the more important English boroughs.

When did cities start, and why?

It’s hard to imagine from where we are today that a mere 15,000 years ago that our ancestors were hunters and foragers. Waking up in the middle of the night craving for a midnight snack meant sharpening their spears and chasing down the closest meat source and stabbing them until they become food (Obviously, this is not historically accurate but we’d like to imagine that’s what happened). Compared to that, where we are today is huge contrast where all that labour is replaced by the click of a mouse or a tap on our mobile phones.

So how did we move from being a loose association of society to forming an (arguably)organised city and civil society? History point towards the Agricultural Revolution as the catalyst towards the formation of cities

The early Neolithic societies are known to radically modify the environment to allow for the cultivation of food crops to create large surpluses of food supply. Prior to the Neolithic era almost the entirety of the human population was involved with sourcing for food whether through hunting or foraging, whereas today only 40% of the world’s population is working in the agricultural sector to supply food source to the rest of the world.

As you can imagine, having a segment of the population not being involved with food sourcing enables specializations of different roles and trades. It is circumstances such as these that lead to the creation of cities. Food source played a major role in city creations this is evidenced by the fact that many ancient cities were built along water sources such as the The Nile, Yellow River, The Amazon Basin and Coatzacolas. The reason for this is that they are flat, well watered and when they flood they deposit nutrient rich silt. This meant fertile lands for agriculture and fisheries was a sweet bonus as well.

“How did the Agricultural Revolution begin?” – excited reader of this article.

Well I’m glad you asked this question and thank you for your enthusiasm! There are many theories to how it began and one of the more interesting theory was that it began to allow for the domestication of grain supply to allow for the production of more alcohol. That’s right,bar fights exists is also the reason why you live in a city that has internet which enabled you to view this article.

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Looks like Homer Simpson is a lot smarter than he seems

How did cities look like in the past?

Let’s take a walk in the passage of time and examine the way cities were in the ancient times. To that purpose we’ll look at what is arguably the largest ancient civilization; the Indus Valley. Which incidentally, is formed around a network of rivers as well. The Indus Valley, was flourishing civilization largely due to the fact that the river floods reliably twice a year and had the most calorie per acre of anywhere in the planet at that time.

There was one particular city that was very notable at that time.

Mohenjo Daro

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Mohenjo Daro, which translates to Mound of the Dead Man and is situated around modern day Pakistan but don’t let the name fool you; at it’s prime Mohenjo Daro was actually the largest settlement in Indus Valley and is widely considered one of the world’s earliest cities

The city consisted of very well planned street grid and dense multi-storeyed homes constructed of  mostly fired and mortared brick along perpendicular streets. The homes were connected to a centralized drainage system, the system relied heavily on gravity to transport the waste water out of the city. Despite being built circa 2500 BCE, if a European stepped into a time machine and visited the Mohenjo Daro, he or she would be envious of its sophisticated plumbing systems.

Many of us, cannot imagine living without an air conditioning system on a hot summer’s day, especially for those of us who stay in a country where every day is a hot summer day. Apparently the citizens of Mohenjo Daro felt the same way as well, which is why the cities were built in such way where it had air conditioning. Now, obviously archaeologists did not find several Panasonic or Samsung air-conditioners installed in the city, when I said air conditioning I meant the way the cities were designed to be oriented to catch wind to provide a natural form of air conditioning.

Judging from the sound of things, it seems as though Mohenjo Daro was poised to be the resilient civilization that will last the ages, however what remains today is a fragment of it’s former glory

Where Did it All Go Wrong?

All this points to an organised society that is highly skilled in urban planning and design, which begs the questions where did it all go wrong? Though there are no conclusive answers, it is widely accepted that it is due to environmental disasters which some argue is caused  by the radical re-engineering of their environment.

Today we see examples of re-engineering of the environment in a even more massive scale. Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers? I’m of course no way advocating for all of humanity to move back into caves, god forbid that I’ll have to physically exert myself to hunt for my midnight snack.

It’s important that we as a society look at how we create, build and manage our cities as we move forward to an increasingly more urban world. We’re standing at a very important crossroad, what we decide to do now will go down in the annals of history and determine whether the future generation will view us as the great civilization that engineered our way to survival or the reckless civilization that doomed ourselves.

Let’s make the decision to be smart about our cities today.


About the Author

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Vincent Fong is the General Manager of Knowledge Group and a self-proclaimed pundit of Smart Cities

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