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Anglo-American Conference of Historians 2009: Cities
Institute of Historical Research, 2 – 3 July 2009
St Mary Axe, London
For 10,000 years cities have shaped the affairs of mankind. Now, more than half of the world’s population is urban, dwelling in settlements that we identify as ‘city’ or ‘town’, some of them so extensive and so complex that they seem to transcend traditional notions of urban organisation and form.
Cities facilitate the aggregation of wealth and power and the emergence of distinctive religions, beliefs, cultural behaviour, social structures and institutions. They evolve laws and governmental systems to deal with the particular problems of urban life, including those arising from disorder and disease. As sites of inquiry and information exchange they promote knowledge and understanding of the wider world.
Within the city, the key public locations are those of the market, popular assembly, power, authority, religion and defence, while the occupation of spaces for work, residence and recreation is exceptionally dense. In meeting these and other needs, cities promote innovation in building and architecture, often so as to fulfil the ambitions of the powerful. City plans and forms can also bear symbolic meaning and express ideas of social, political, economic or cosmological order. Such environments are often oppressive or corrupting, yet many cities also offer the individual a freedom of thought and expression not found elsewhere.