Workshop Report

Report on Workshop 1: “Space”

The Global City, Past and Present

Before diving into discussion of the papers, we opened with a general introduction to the research networks and its goals. The workshop organizers outlined what had prompted them to create the network, what possible pitfalls the project should be aware of and avoid, and what outcomes they were hoping for. The participants added their thoughts, which are included in the following summaries:

Intellectual Purpose of the Project

As early modern urban historians with an inter-disciplinary and transnational outlook, we have often noticed how segregated our area of interest was, across both time, space, and discipline. Urban historians focusing on different continents rarely gathered to discuss their subject. Historians with interests in global and transnational history seldom speak to urban historians or include the city in their discussions about the forces of globalization. Scholars working after 1850 often don’t converse with those working before the nineteenth century. Furthermore, historians have little contact with social scientists who have, over the last 25 yrs, developed a keen interest in the relationship between cities and the global. This lack of conversations is problematic all around. As Gyan Prakash recently noted, the lack of historical perspective in a global city discussion that focuses on modernization and the “rise and fall” of cities results in a narrative where “elite memories of the city’s past unity and harmony leave no place for hierarchy and multiplicity.” A messy and circuitous process of urban growth is re-imagined as a smooth transition to the wonder of the modern global city. This critique also resonates with many social scientists, not least Jennifer Robinson whose influential work on “ordinary cities” urges planners and policy-makers to question the idea that “global modernity” is a must for a city’s future success.   Thus, with the recognition that the “global city” does not always represent either the zenith of modernity or a desirable policy objective, comes the necessity of better understanding the interplay between the urban and the global over a much larger span of time and space than is currently under discussion. If we can think critically about the urban past, using a long-term perspective that embraces the multiple ways in which cities have had to deal with external influences on their spaces, peoples, and governing structures, we can better tackle the twenty-first century iteration of this process – the global city. Beginning this knowledge-gathering process is the primary purpose of this network.

Possible Pitfalls

The project organizers are only too aware of the possible problems that await a project of this scale that spans disciplines, centuries, and continents. Indeed, this is an issue that has already been tackled by participant Carl Nightingale, who has highlighted the need for comparative urban historical work to produce an “explanatory payoff” rather than simply a nebulous collection of hypothetical connections. We also need to ensure that our particular disciplinary perspectives do not get in the way. In particular, those with urban policy experience urged the historians to impart their knowledge in an easy-to-access format that would be accessible to individuals who did not have either the time or the motivation to read lengthy academic monographs. We will have to make sure that we do not reproduce the jargon that plagues our individual disciplines as we seek to communicate across boundaries. The network must produce work that targets a collection of different audiences.

Goals and outcomes

In their original proposal, the PI and Co-I promised an edited volume of essays and an exploration into the potential for creating a web-based resource on the history of cities and globalization. In the light of the aforementioned discussions surrounding interdisciplinarity, these goals were modified and expanded. There was a suggestion that we should target the edited volume at an upper-level undergraduate and postgraduate audience, making it into a useful handbook for historians, social scientists, and planners, focusing on the issues surrounding cities and globalization. An edited special edition of a history journal will communicate the outcomes of the network more of interest to academic historians. Blog posts, policy-briefings, and newspaper articles were proposed as methods of disseminating the network’s activities more broadly. Also suggested was the possibility of using the network as a springboard for the creation of a more permanent research group who would host a bi-annual conference.


Summaries of Panels and Papers

The first panel on “Managing Water” included papers from Chris Silver on planning Jakarta’s waterfront and Mark Peterson on the changing profile of Boston’s waterfront from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Both papers pondered shifting understandings and uses of water and the spaces in which water met land. While both cities’ position on the waterfront was crucial to their importance as global hubs in the age of sail and imperial expansion, industrialization and the agendas of national governments changed attitudes to this space. In Boston, land was filled in as attention turned to the many railway terminals linking the city to the US interior. In Indonesia, the complex water management techniques employed by the Dutch in the seventeenth century were forgotten in the quest to create more space to accommodate the growing city. Silver also focused on the contemporary consequences for Jakarta, where the extreme riverine nature of the city means that it now faces a severe flooding problem as aquifers are drained and land sinks.

The second panel focused on squares. Although Elizabeth Rauh and Richard Kagan work on cities in very different parts of the world – namely seventeenth century Persia and Spanish/British America – their discussion of these public spaces shared many common themes. Rauh highlighted how Isfahan’s rulers built their square, and the edifices that surrounded it, as a symbol of their supremacy and an articulation of the belief that their city was at the centre of world trade and culture. Foreign visitors and local non-elites were permitted to use the space, but their access and activities were often shaped by the vision of the shahs. The idea of the square as a vehicle for expressing power structures for a global audience also resonated in Kagan’s paper, which addressed the importance of the plaza in colonial Latin American towns. In this space, Spanish officials displayed their ruling status through ritual, religious ceremony, and sets of regulations that limited the activities of indigenous peoples and castas. However, there were limits to elite’s ability to dictate how “non-dense” urban spaces were used and interpreted – often, the agenda of global power propagated by elites encountered the will of average city-dwellers who incorporated those spaces into their daily lives.

Our third panel shifted attention from public space to commercial space and to the issue of how increases in trade and merchant activity after 1450 shaped spaces within the city. Looking at Renaissance Venice and Genoa, Jane Crawshaw emphasized the ways in which growing and globally-connected ports prompted writers to imagine new ways of developing the cityscape. Ultimately, however, plans that were best suited to the needs of citizens had the most influence on the built environment. The immediate requirements of expanding trade were likewise the theme of Sarah Milne’s paper, which emphasized how London’s sixteenth century overseas merchant community managed private and public space to accommodate the ever-expanding quantities of goods that required storage in the city. By the eighteenth century, Louis Nelson demonstrated, the scale of the transatlantic slave trade had utterly transformed the impact of overseas commerce on the urban landscape. This was a trade which made merchant mansions into slave pens, sponsored grand public buildings like Liverpool’s Exchange, and prompted the construction of state-of-the-art wharves like London’s East India Docks.

We concluded with two papers focusing on seventeenth-century Naples and nineteenth-century Hong Kong. Although concentrating on extremely different locations and eras, both Nick Mithen and Tai-lok Lui examined how urban spaces were shaped by the global connections of individuals who were part of distinct ethnic or intellectual communities. Mithen addressed the ways in which Naples’ libraries and colleges were meeting points for people and ideas who had come from across the globe, making the city part of knowledge networks much larger than its customary reputation as a hub of European enlightenment might suggest. Likewise, Lui emphasized how looking at new sets of cultural connections changes our understanding of Hong Kong’s role in nineteenth-century East Asia. While historians have customarily seen it as a British colonial outpost, approaching its growing importance from the perspective of its Chinese residents uncovers an alternative global network that moved people and capital between the growing Chinese diaspora and their home country.

Concluding Discussions: Over-arching Themes and Points of Departure

Our concluding discussions were set in motion by Carl Nightingale’s summing-up of the proceedings. Nightingale commented first on the necessity of including cities in our discussions about the “global” because of the way in which they contain the intersections of forces and influences occurring across a wide range of registers. Nightingale described this as the “urban diascopic.” This is a quality that has also been observed by Pierre-Yves Saunier who, commenting on the benefits and limits of global history more generally, has focused on the ability of the global city as a unit of analysis to break down the dissonance between different “scales” or “registers” that scholars often trade in. Thus, concentrating on the complex interaction of global, extra-local, regional, and local forces within the cityscape, offers us more complex models for understanding the role of globalization – models that go beyond ideas of the “glocal,” for example.

Nightingale also emphasized the essential role of the cities in creating global connectivity, suggesting that their role is important to the global process because they form a feedback loop of connections that facilitate cross-regional networks. Yet, he argued, we should be aware of the fact that not all cities foster the same types of connections, meaning that many have specific roles within a larger global system.

The following topics were thought to be compelling categories for further discussion at the upcoming workshops:

  • Water, environment, disease, and patterns of global influence
  • Elite projection of global power through cities and non-elite mediation thereof
  • Ideas of order, disorder, formal and informal
  • Unrealized plans
  • Dissolving the boundaries between global and local
  • Agents of globalization in the city
  • Global capital flows and their expression in an urban context