As the growth of cities worldwide transforms humans into an “urban species,” many scholars question the sustainability of modern urbanization. But in reality there aren’t much data on long-term historical urbanization trends and patterns.
A recent Yale-led study offers new clarity on these historical trends, providing the first spatially explicit dataset of the location and size of urban settlements globally over the past 6,000 years.
By creating maps through digitizing, transcribing, and geocoding a deep trove of historical, archaeological, and census-based urban population data previously available only in tabular form, the authors make accessible information on urban centers from 3700 B.C. to A.D. 2000.
Currently the only spatially explicit data available at a global scale is the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects, which provides population values, latitudes, and longitudes for places with populations of 300,000 or more. However, this resource goes back only to 1950.
The ancient Temple of Karnak in present-day Luxor, Egypt (previously the settlement of Thebes, documented in the ancient dataset).
For their dataset, the authors draw on two principle sources: “Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: A Historical Census” (1987), by historian Tertius Chandler, which estimated the city-level populations from 2250 B.C. to 1975; and “World Cities: -3,000 to 2,000” (2003), by political scientist George Modelski, which documents the world’s most important cities during three eras of history (ancient, classical, and modern). Modelski was able to extend Chandler’s work by 1,475 years by using archaeological site assessments and population-density estimates.
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