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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: A Comparative View


Low-density urbanism in the industrial world is a topic of some dispute and has even been viewed as a unique and transient, modern settlement pattern. But low-density settlements are actually a normal feature of human habitation and are and have been used by every major socio-economic system. In particular, they have been a distinct feature of urbanism in tropical forest environments for many centuries. The analysis offers a long-term perspective on contemporary industrial-based, low-density urbanism.

The great low-density agrarian cities that dominated lowland Mesoamerica, Sri Lanka and mainland South-East Asia between the late first millennium BCE and the mid second millennium CE represent a distinctive path to urban life in tropical forest environments. Their economies and histories may be of some relevance to the modern world because the Maya, Singhalese and Khmer cities all experienced a long process of collapse by the early to mid second millennium CE, apparently associated with substantial reductions in regional populations. Agrarian low-density urbanism appears to have been vulnerable to some combination of social and ecological factors that removed this mode of urban organisation in the five hundred years prior to the European expansion. This paper will place agrarian low-density urbanism in the larger context of low-density settlement patterns worldwide.

Insights Paper