/ Research/ Urban Culture di: Davide Mariani

6000 years of Urban Settlements in Digital Data


The growth of cities and their worldwide development is consolidating the human status of “urban species”, but we haven’t had much data about long-term trends and patterns so far.
As an example, the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects only shows populations growth and location since 1950s, offering pretty limited information about urbanization.

Thanks to a recent research by Yale University, now it is possible to see the first spatially explicit dataset of urban settlements location and size over the past 6000 years.
Meredith Reba and her colleagues Femke Reitsma and Karen Seto, as they explain in their abstract from the journal Scientific Data, have tried to answer the following questions:

How were cities distributed globally in the past? How many people lived in these cities? How did cities influence their local and regional environments? ”

The researchers developed a map of urbanisation from 3700 BC to 2000 AD, digitizing and geocoding historical, archaeological and census-based urban population data previously published by Tertius Chandler and George Modelski in a tabular form (which is definitely hard to read and decipher).
Looking at their map below, we can see that the earliest settlements (represented with warmest colours) were around Ancient Mesopotamia, bearing in mind that this image shows when a city has started being documented (the actual “date of birth” of a city may be different).


The Turkish city of Istanbul is definitely one of the best documented case, and its massive change between 1057 and 1453 (when it was known as Constantinople) is extremely fascinating.
It is visible on the map how, during those four centuries, the population declined from about 300,000 to 45,000 due to attacks from Crusaders and because of the Black Plague.
Most of the information was never before available in a digital format, and now we can observe the population trends in relation with other cities situation, both in Turkey and around the world.

As Reba said during an interview she released at Research Gate , this is a first step towards a real understanding of how cities were born, how they developed and how they are interconnected.
In 1960 only the 34% of population was living in cities and now we are expecting a 75% in 2030: settlements history exlploration is more and more important, and we need any sort of manageable data to face related issues.

Courtesy of the Research Team and Scientific Data 


Max Galca  from Metrocosm.com has already used the Yale dataset to create a video of 6000 years of global urbanisation in 3 minutes, inspired by the work of Population Connection in their world population history map.


“By understanding how cities have grown and changed over time, throughout history, it might tell us something useful about how they are changing today.”        – Meredith Reba –