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Cities of Today, Cities of Tomorrow

Unit 2: A Brief History of Urban Expansion
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“To change life, we must first change space”
—Henri Lefebvre, French writer, philosopher and educator

With their industries, traffic jams and sleek buildings, cities are often seen as new developments in history. In fact, the origin of cities goes back thousands of years and passes through at least three distinct phases.

The first phase began between 5 to 6 thousand years ago with settlements that grew into what we call the river valley civilizations of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), Egypt, India and China. Early on, the settlements depended largely on agriculture and domesticated animals. However, as the civilizations grew in size and trade routes grew in number, these settlemetns became centers for merchants, craftspeople, traders and government officials. The division between "town" and "country", "urban" and "rural" had begun. A similar path was taken by later civilizations such as the Greek, Iranian, Roman and the Great Zimbabwe.

The second phase in the development of cities came much later with the industrial revolution in Europe around the middle of the 18th century. Factories needed a large labour force and a rise in commercial activity created new opportunities in cities. Looking for employment and a better life, people moved from rural areas into cities in greater numbers than ever before.

The third phase began after the Second World War. The largest and fastest growth in the world's urban population has taken place in the decades since 1950 (Table 2). As the world economy became more international and grew in size, cities all over the world began to grow larger at a very fast pace. Most of this growth has been concentrated in Asia, Latin America and Africa, although some U.S. cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles have been growing at the same pace.

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