Cities Through the Ages: Service Access in Premodern Cities

How similar or different were early cities compared to cities today? We are carrying out a comparative project to answer some key parts of this question. Our detailed information on 23 past cities allows us to investigate whether the residents of various neighborhoods in premodern cities had equivalent access to the facilities that provided urban services. Did elites live closer to temples or shops than commoners? How accessible were plazas and other formal open spaces to urban residents? Our research will help us understand whether urban residents in deep history were better served by service facilities than their contemporary descendants, or whether there were greater inequities and barriers to services in the past. Premodern cities have many similarities to those of today, and we seek to bring current social science methods to bear on spatial and contextual data of well-mapped ancient cities, both historical and archaeological.

  Project Details

Our research questions are: (1) to what extent does the spatial distribution of public facilities indicate inequality in access to services in premodern urban neighborhoods? and (2) what contextual variables dynamically shape the level of inequality in service access? These questions have not been addressed for cities before the modern era, yet they hold the key to understanding many features of premodern cities, from neighborhood organization, to social stratification, to patterns of governance. Our analysis of these interrelations not only illuminates the historical antecedents of contemporary urbanization, but also explores the causal dynamics of urban life from a broad temporal and regional perspective.

We have faced major hurdles in the study. Each case included in the study requires a city map with enough associated information to locate the three kinds of facilities we focus on: religious, public assembly and market. These are the kinds of facilities for which we could most reliably obtain information across cities in our sample. Our definition of urban service derives from a succinct economic definition by Hill (1977:318): “one economic unit performs some activity for the benefit of another." An urban service may then be defined as an activity performed or provided by a government, organization or individual for the benefit of urban residents. In many cases, urban services are studied through the location of their facilities. A facility is any component of the urban built environment whose primary use pertains to more than one household; a service facility is a facility that serves for the distribution of services. No all services are fundamentally facilities based, however, such as street sweeping or garbage collection. Urban services may be facility based or mobile. We consider facility-based services. 

We systematically compiled historical and archaeological information about the social and cultural contexts of 23 cities, drawn from 13 early urban traditions located on five continents, ranging in age from the ancient Maya to 19th century Africa.. We digitized city plans and service facility locations (temples/shrines, assembly spaces and markets/shops), and constructed a set of measures of spatial access to facilities. We also coded each city for a total of 89 contextual variables (in ten domains) and devised indexes (combinations of variables), ultimately comparing 20 such measures with local access to services. Currently we are exploring Quantitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). When our analyses are complete, our data — maps and contextual information — will be archived on the tDAR archaeological repository, so that other scholars and students can access the data and conduct independent research.

  Research Team


President’s Strategic Fund at Arizona State University

Part of the umbrella project “Late Lessons from Early History” for the project “Urban Organization through the Ages: Neighborhoods, Open Spaces, and Urban Life” in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (ASU).

National Science Foundation

“Service Access in Premodern Cities,” co-funded by Archaeology, Geography, Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Science, grant 1260344


Smith, Michael E. 2010. The Archaeological Study of Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Cities. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29 (2): 137-154. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.01.001.

York, Abigail M., Michael E. Smith, Benjamin W. Stanley, Barbara L. Stark, Juliana Novic, Sharon L. Harlan, George L. Cowgill, and Christopher G. Boone. 2011. Ethnic and Class Clustering through the Ages: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Urban Neighborhood Social Patterns. Urban Studies 48(11):2399-2415. 

Stanley, Benjamin W., Barbara L. Stark, Katrina L. Johnston, and Michael E. Smith. 2012. Urban Open Spaces in Historical Perspective: A Transdisciplinary Typology and Analysis. Urban Geography 33(8):1089-1117. 

Smith, Michael E. 2012. The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8: 15-19.

Smith, Michael E. and Juliana Novic. 2012. Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica. In The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities, edited by Marie Charlotte Arnauld, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Michael E. Smith, pp. 1-26. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Stanley, Benjamin W. 2012. An Historical Perspective on the Viability of Urban Diversity: Lessons from Socio-Spatial Identity Construction in Nineteenth Century Algiers and Cape Town. Journal of Urbanism 5 (1): 67-86.

Dennehy, Timothy J. 2013. Security in the City. SAA Archaeological Record 13 (5, November): 28-32.
Michael E. Smith, Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland. 2015. Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8 (2): 173-198. DOI: 10.1080/17549175.2014.896394

Dennehy, Timothy, Benjamin W. Stanley, and Michael E. Smith. 2016. Social Inequality and Access to Services in Premodern Cities. In Archaeology of the Human Experience, edited by Michelle Hegmon, pp. 143-160. Archaeological Papers, vol. 27. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC. DOI: 10.1111/apaa.12079

Smith, Michael E., Benjamin W. Stanley, April Kamp-Whittaker, Timothy Dennehy, and Barbara L. Stark. 2016. Conceptual Approaches to Service Provision in Cities throughout History. Urban Studies 53(8) 1574–1590. DOI: 10.1177/0042098015577915

Stanley, Benjamin W., Timothy J. Dennehy, Michael E. Smith, Barbara L. Stark, Abigail M. York, George L. Cowgill, Juliana Novic, and Jerald Ek. 2016. Urban Service Access in Premodern Cities: An Exploratory Comparison of Spatial Equity. Journal of Urban History 42(1): 121-124. DOI: 10.1177/0096144214566969

Smith, Michael E., Barbara L. Stark, Wen-Ching Chuang, Timothy Dennehy, Sharon L. Harlan, April Kamp-Whittaker, Benjamin W. Stanley, and Abigail York. 2016. Comparative Methods for Premodern Cities: Coding for Governance and Class Mobility. Cross-cultural Research 50(5) 415–451. DOI:10.1177/1069397116665824

Related team publications or other contributions that draw upon project data and approaches:
Smith, Michael E., Timothy Dennehy, April Kamp-Whittaker, Emily Colon and Rebecca Harkness. 2014. Quantitative Measures of Wealth Inequality in Ancient Central Mexican Communities. Advances in Archaeological Practice 2(4):311-323. 

Stark, Barbara L. 2014. Urban Gardens and Parks in Pre-modern States and Empires. Cambridge Journal of Archaeology 24:1:87-115.

Stark, Barbara L. 2014. Ancient Open Space, Gardens, and Parks: A Comparative Discussion for Mesoamerican Urbanism. In Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies, edited by Andrew T. Creekmore III and Kevin D. Fisher, pp. 370-406. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 

Other related contributions
Michael Smith's blog, "Wide Urban World," is listed on the new Guardian Cities website as one of "…the best city blogs around the world."