Common Place   /   August 11, 2014

Urban Thoughts in a Medieval City

Stephen Macekura

Second World Congress of Environmental History meets in Guimarães, Portugal

What makes a thriving city?  One way the Thriving Cities Project seeks to explore this question is  by comparing a selection of cities across the United States, relying on expert analysis from those who best know their local communities. But cities beyond the United States also experience similar challenges. The globe-spanning history behind cities and their relationship to the natural environment was a major theme at the recent Second World Congress of Environmental History (WCEH) in Guimarães, Portugal. Held in early July, the conference brought together scholars from around the world to present the latest research on different aspects of environmental history.

 Strolling in the old town section of Guimarães

Presentations included histories of environmentalism in the developing world, research on environmental decline in settings as diverse as pre-colonial Africa and the Soviet Union, environmental thought in Czech urban planning, environmental disasters and memory in Latin American cities, various urban efforts at nature conservation around the world, and historical perspectives on contemporary urban ecological problems in China. Across these diverse topics, presenters stressed a number of important and recurring themes: the regional and often global nature of urban problems; the complex and peculiar ways in which urban life sparks environmental thinking; the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world; ecological limits to urban sprawl and growth; and the many ecological consequences—pollution, for example—of urban living.

This perspective was particularly notable at the WCEH because urban life has not always played a large role in the field of environmental history. Early environmental histories often focused heavily on the "natural"—that is, wilderness spaces and their protection—and less on the built environment of cities. For many decades, historical scholarship on cities largely remained in the domain of cultural, political, economic, architectural, or social perspectives.

Inspired by the pioneering scholarship of Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, and William Cronon, historians have developed innovative new lines of inquiry into the relationship between cities and the environment.  In the United States, for instance, Tarr and social historian Clay McShane have shown how environmental forces such as animals and pollution have shaped the course of urban life. Environmental historians Chris Sellers and Adam Rome stressed how urban and suburban experiences shape our ideas and definitions about "nature." And Cronon's scholarship revealed the many overlapping material connections between cities and their rural surroundings.

Although many of the presentations suggested that urban environmental history is now thriving as a discipline, more work along these lines is vital, as urban thriving today continues to be defined by a city's material surroundings. Guimarães offered a unique setting for this kind of project. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic city has been associated since the twelfth century with Portugal's rise as a world empire; in 2012, Guimarães served as European Capital of Culture promoting urban development amid cultural diversity. As a center of commerce and business, the city was also one of the earliest to be shaped by urban planning. In addition, with its proximity to fertile farmlands, hills, and two rivers, it is a vivid instance of the reciprocal relationship between the natural world and city development. Guimarães is a city of many layers, from its well-preserved medieval castle and city walls to its dilapidated, industrial-era factory spaces and sleek, modernist hotels. Like a palimpsest, its historical layer reveal the cumulative past attempts to alter and build on the rugged, hilly landscape in order to protect its people and allow them to prosper.

As the Thriving Cities Project continues to ask what makes a thriving city, it would do well to keep in focus the central insights of the WCEH: that many urban problems are now global in scope and that there are ongoing historical and modern challenges in reconciling city life with the non-human world.

Stephen Macekura is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.