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A city is an urban settlement with a particularly important status which differentiates it from a town. A city may also indicate a special administrative, legal, or historical status.

In the United States of America, "city" is primarily a legal term meaning an urban area with a degree of autonomy (i.e. a township), rather than meaning an entire large settlement (metropolitan area). Outside the United States, "city" implies an entire settlement or metropolitan area, although there are notable exceptions, e.g. the term City of London. In the United Kingdom, a city is a settlement with a charter ("letters patent") from the crown.


Towns and cities have a long history, although opinions vary on whether any particular ancient settlement can be considered to be a city. Cities formed as central places of trade for the benefit of the members living there. Benefits include reduced transport costs, exchange of ideas, sharing of natural resources, and later in their development, ameneties such as running water and sewage disposal. The first true towns are sometimes considered to be large settlements where the inhabitants were no longer simply farmers of the surrounding area, but began to take on specialized occupations, and where trade, food storage and power was centralized. In 1950 Gordon Childe attempted to define a historic city with 10 general metrics[1]. These are:

  1. Size and density of the population should be above normal.
  2. Differentiation of the population. Not all residents grow their own food leading to specialists.
  3. Payment of taxes to a deity or king.
  4. Monumental public buildings.
  5. Those not producing their own food are supported by the king.
  6. Systems of recording and practical science.
  7. A system of writing.
  8. Development of symbolic art.
  9. Trade and import of raw materials.
  10. Specialists craftsman from outside the kin-group.

This categorisation is descriptive, and not all ancients cities fit into this well, but it is used as a general touchstone when considering ancient cities.

One characteristic that can be used to distinguish a small city from a large town is organized government. A town accomplishes common goals through informal agreements between neighbors or the leadership of a chief. A city has professional administrators, regulations, and some form of taxation (food and other necessities or means to trade for them) to feed the government workers. The governments may be based on heredity, religion, military power, work projects (such as canal building), food distribution, land ownership, agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, finance, or a combination of those. Societies that live in cities are often called civilizations. A city can also be defined as an absence of physical space between people and firms.

Ancient times

By Gordon Childe's definition, the first cities we know of were located in Mesopotamia, such as Eridu, Uruk, and Ur, and in Egypt along the Nile, the Indus Valley Civilization and China. Before this time it was rare for settlements to reach significant size, although there were exceptions such as Jericho, Çatalhöyük and Mehrgarh. Among the early cities, Mohenjo-daro of the Indus Valley Civilization was one of the largest, with an estimated population of 41,250,[2] as well as one of the most developed in many ways, as it was the first to use urban planning, municipal governments, grid plans, drainage, flush toilets, urban sanitation systems, and sewage systems.

The growth of the population of ancient civilizations, the formation of ancient empires concentrating political power, and the growth in commerce and manufacturing led to ever greater capital cities and centres of commerce and industry, with Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia of the Hellenistic civilization, Pataliputra (now Patna) in India, Chang'an (now Xi'an) in China, Carthage, ancient Rome, its eastern successor Constantinople (later Istanbul), and successive Chinese, Indian and Muslim capitals approaching or exceeding the half-million population level.

It is estimated that ancient Rome had a population of about a million people by the end of the first century BC, after growing continually during the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st centuries BCE.[3] And it is generally considered the largest city before 19th century London.[4] Alexandria's population was also close to Rome's population at around the same time, the historian Rostovtzeff estimates a total population close to a million based on a census dated from 32 CE that counted 180,000 adult male citizens in Alexandria.[5] Similar administrative, commercial, industrial and ceremonial centres emerged in other areas, most notably Baghdad, which to some urban historians, later became the first city to exceed a population of one million by the 8th century instead of Rome.

Agriculture was practiced in sub-Saharan Africa since the third millennium BCE. Because of this, cities were able to develop as centers of non-agricultural activity. Exactly when this first happened is still a topic of archeological and historical investigation. Western scholarship has tended to focus on cities in Europe and Mesopotamia, but emerging archeological evidence indicates that urbanization occurred south of the Sahara in well before the influence of Arab urban culture. The oldest sites documented thus far are from around 500 CE including Awdaghust, Kumbi-Saleh the ancient capital of Ghana, and Maranda a center located on a trade rout between Egypt and Gao.[6]

Middle Ages

During the European Middle Ages, a town was as much a political entity as a collection of houses. City residence brought freedom from customary rural obligations to lord and community: "Stadtluft macht frei" ("City air makes you free") was a saying in Germany. In Continental Europe cities with a legislature of their own were not unheard of, the laws for towns as a rule other than for the countryside, the lord of a town often being another than for surrounding land. In the Holy Roman Empire some cities had no other lord than the emperor. In Italy, Medieval communes had quite a statelike power.

In exceptional cases like Venice, Genoa or Lübeck, cities themselves became powerful states, sometimes taking surrounding areas under their control or establishing extensive maritime empires. Similar phenomena existed elsewhere, as in the case of Sakai, which enjoyed a considerable autonomy in late medieval Japan.

Early Modern

While the city-states, or poleis, of the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea languished from the 16th century, Europe's larger capitals benefited from the growth of commerce following the emergence of an Atlantic trade. By the late 18th century, London had become the largest city in the world with a population of over a million, while Paris rivaled the well-developed regionally-traditional capital cities of Baghdad, Beijing, Istanbul and Kyoto. During the Spanish colonization of the Americas the old Roman city concept was extensively used. Cities were founded in the middle of the newly conquered territories, and were bound to several laws about administration, finances and urbanism.

Most towns remained far smaller places, so that in 1500 only some two dozen places in the world contained more than 100,000 inhabitants: as late as 1700 there were fewer than forty, a figure which would rise thereafter to 300 in 1900. A small city of the early modern period might contain as few as 10,000 inhabitants, a town far fewer still.

Industrial Age

The growth of modern industry from the late 18th century onward led to massive urbanization and the rise of new great cities, first in Europe and then in other regions, as new opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas. In the United States from 1860 to 1910, the invention of railroads reduced transportation costs, and large manufacturing centers began to emerge, thus allowing migration from rural to city areas. However, cities during those periods of time were deadly places to live in, due to health problems resulting from contaminated water and air, and communicable diseases. In the Great Depression of the 1930s cities were hard hit by unemployment, especially those with a base in heavy industry. In the U.S. urbanization rate increased forty to eighty percent during 1900-1990. Today the world's population is slightly over half urban,[7] with millions still streaming annually into the growing cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America. There has also been a shift to suburbs, perhaps to avoid crime and traffic, which are two costs of living in an urban area.

See also


  1. Childe, V. Gordon (Apr). "The Urban Revolution". Town Planning Review 21 (1): 3-19.
  2. The Indus Civilization - Population at Encyclopædia Britannica.
  3. On The Political Economy of the Roman Empire, Keith Hopkins
  4. The organization of the grain trade in the early Roman Empire, David Kessler and Peter Temin
  5. Rostovtzeff 1941: 1138-39)
  6. History of African Cities South of the Sahara By Catherine Coquery -Vidrovitch. 2005. ISBN 1558763031
  7. Retrieved on 2007-06-03.