Urban Mind: Introduction

This project derives a new concept the ‘Urban Mind’ from combined humanities and natural science studies of the development of urbanism and climate change in the Middle East. 40 scholars in Uppsala University, Stockholm University and KTH will formulate the concept as part of the IHOPE (Integrated History and future of Peoples on Earth) initiative. The concept will be assessed with a specific case study: Byzantium-Istanbul. The global relevance of the Urban Mind concept will be illustrated with ongoing studies of cognitive aspects of urbanism and climate change in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas.

In February 2008, the project received a Mistra Idea Support Grant (Phase 2) of 5.1 million SEK to run over two years (see Mistra press release). The Urban Mind project is organized as six research frames, incorporating in all thirteen minor projects. These cover the development of urbanism from its origin of 10 000 years ago until modern times and span over a large part of the world. It involves researchers on humanities and natural sciences, working on a range of subjects and from various institutes in Sweden, United Kingdom, Germany, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The project was launched during a meeting at Uppsala University in June and will at the end of the two-year project period result in a book, presenting the initial analyses in synthesized form.

The development of urbanism has been a global phenomenon unfolding as co-evolving human-environmental systems, unfolding over millennia but taking radically different forms in different times and places – and with widely varying consequences. Crucially, urban living began at least in part as a mental process which acquired physical substance, and in this sense towns are ideological constructs: as we invent them, so we believe in them. Drawing upon Bateson’s early approach to human environmental interactions in the ‘Ecology of Mind’ as well as contributions from the new field of Historical Ecology, this project proposes a combined humanist and natural science exploration, and delineation, of the cultural and environmental dynamics of the ‘Urban Mind’ as part of the IHOPE initiative.

Towns arose from existing patterns of human settlement, and have lasted in some places for thousands of years. Towns as spatially ordered, demographically dense settlements, and their affiliated communities add a cognitive dimension to the landscape. A landscape is a multidimensional mosaic that relates social constructivist and bio-geophysical aspects of reality. The complex interactions of urban factors at different scales often defy simplistic models of linear development. Towns contain a critical mass of people often from differing cultural backgrounds, producing a variety of ideas, goods and services. Towns are primarily attractors of humans but also support a diverse range of other animals and plants. Urban dynamics presuppose systems of control but also free zones where sub-cultures thrive.

We aim to study town-dwellers’ mental landscapes and organization of physical space from the origins of urbanism over 10.000 years ago until the enormous changes of the last two centuries. Human populations the world over have shifted from predominantly rural to urban lifestyles It is also possible to derive similar but different Urban Mind concepts from deep time assessments of the environmental, historical and cultural background to urbanism in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas – often developing concurrently with the Middle Eastern towns. Northern Europe and Scandinavia provide a control study to the urban impetus of the Mediterranean and Middle East, responding first to the expansion of Rome and subsequently its withdrawal. Some societies resisted the urban impulse and urban mindset, for centuries, in a way that can shed considerable light on development of towns elsewhere.

Taken together, we aim ultimately at a genuinely culturally and environmentally informed approach to the cognitive dimensions of urbanism, the most prevalent form of societal organization in the world today.

The Urban Mind idea development project is exploratory and has an ultimate purpose to inform urban planning for sustainable urban systems. Humanists and the Natural Scientists bring a range of specialist competence capable of handling large and complex cultural and environmental datasets. The humanists with access to a range of cultural and linguistic information provide completely new source materials for informing current discussions on social and ecological resilience and sustainability. The ‘Urban Mind’ concept adds a crucial cognitive dimension to our understanding the organization of modern urban complexes which currently house more than 50% of the world’s population. Urban dwellers face acute needs to derive strategies for dealing with the multiple effects of e.g. resource depletion and climate change in cities today. Highlighting the cognitive aspects of urban organization past and present contributes to a better environment for urban dwellers dealing with problems of urban transitions in a humane and people-centred way.