Archaeologists have discovered that one of the oldest urban areas in the world was built in a way that completely defies conventional wisdom about how cities grow. Last week, a group of researchers working in Syria published a paper in Science about a 6,000-year-old city called Brak, a once-thriving urban center in northern Mesopotamia (now northern Syria, near its border with Iraq). It has long been believed that cities begin as dense centers that grow outward into suburbs. Brak, however, began as a dispersed group of settlements that formed a rough ring shape and gradually grew inward to form an urban center that boasted a massive temple and a thriving import-export trade in tools and pottery.
Built sometime between 4200 and 3900 B.C.E., Brak eventually grew to 130 hectares, making it one of the largest known cities of its era, surpassed in size only by Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. Long buried under a tell -- a hill of accumulated debris and layers of urban development -- Brak's early history has only recently been revealed. Archaeologists are racking their brains to figure out why the place doesn't follow known patterns of city growth.
Harvard anthropologist Jason Ur, one of the researchers investigating Brak, writes that Brak's history might mean that urban development can be an emergent property of many immigrant groups coming together in the same region. Early cities might have spontaneously arisen via the development of a handful of neighboring villages. This flies in the face of older theories, which hold that cities develop when a ruling elite or a set of dominant institutions creates a dense, hierarchical city center whose culture and populations spread outward from it.
Brak reflects a "bottom-up" model of city evolution, in which a central political power is built slowly out of diverse cultural interests. According to Ur and his colleagues, Brak's layout "suggests both dependence on but some autonomy from the political power on the central mound ... This pattern suggests a greater role for noncentralized processes in the initial growth of Brak and lesser importance for centralized authority."
Short of hopping into a time machine, we'll never know for certain if Brak's layout reflects its citizens' attitudes toward centralized authority or not. What we do know, however, is that not all cities develop in the same way. More important, we now have social scientific theories to explain why that might be -- theories that can help us understand urban development in the contemporary world as well. Cities today could be evolving from decentralized areas, out of geographically dispersed groups that do not view themselves as subject to one dominant set of institutions.
Brak might be an example of how cities would grow if neighborhoods had more social and political autonomy. What if, for example, we considered a city to be a federation of neighborhoods rather than a downtown with satellite suburbs? Would that be the foundation for an anti-authoritarian cityscape?
To answer, let's contemplate a possible modern-day version of Brak: Silicon Valley, a region of dispersed urban centers that have formed a loose economic federation via the computer industry and proximity to freeways. Residents of Silicon Valley may not consider the area to be one city, but it's very possible that people excavating the toxic remains of Silicon Valley 6,000 years from now will interpret the area as a single urban unit.
Like Silicon Valley dwellers, residents of Brak may have thought of themselves as living in a series of linked villages, united by nothing more than a system of commerce and a set of roads. Does this mean that authority in Brak was truly decentralized? Maybe the urban development of Brak belies a deeper truth, which is that centralized authority does not always reveal itself via tall buildings at a city's core. An entire region may bow to the authority of an economic system that stratifies it into rich and poor, and yet never have a common culture. Decentralized urban spaces are not necessarily anti-authoritarian ones.