The Next Step in Global Urban History

By Joseph Ben Prestel (Freie Universität Berlin), Michael Goebel (Graduate Institute Geneva), and Tracy Neumann, (Wayne State University).

We launched the Global Urban History Blog in November 2015. Three and a half years later, we are pleased to announce a new project that has grown out of our work on this site: The Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History.

Grosz Lower Manhattan 1934

George Grosz, Lower Manhattan, 1934

Cambridge University Press describes Elements as “a new concept in academic publishing and scholarly communication, combining the best features of books and journals.” The format of the series offers distinct advantages that will allow for a new kind of discussion of global urban history. With their length of 20,000–30,000 words, Cambridge Elements are situated between a monograph and a long article. In this way, each volume will offer space for thorough reflections about different aspects of global urban history, ranging from topics and approaches to the variety of geographic lenses that historians use to think about the urban past.

The Elements format attends to our own observations over the past years, as well as some broader exigencies of academic publishing today. It permits us to commission texts that are explicitly framed as contributions to global urban history. As blog posts remain a somewhat ambiguous format in academic publishing, our scope has been limited so far; we often benefitted from posts by scholars whose recently published books resonated with global urban history, but were not necessarily framed or understood as such outside the blog. A series of commissioned, peer-reviewed volumes, by contrast, promises a joint steering of the discussion around a more coherent set of concerns.

Over the next five to six years, we will publish around forty Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History. We are working with emerging as well as established scholars as future authors, building on the networks the blog and the Global Urban History Project (GUHP) have helped to create. We thus see the series as developing in tandem with the last years’ initiatives bearing the label of “global urban history.”

But we also wish to take stock of our efforts so far and learn from the areas in which they have borne fewer, or different, fruits than we initially hoped. With the first two major conferences with GUHP sponsorship on the horizon (one in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the other in Leicester), the moment to do so seems right.

Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza

George Grosz, Metropolis, 1916/17

When we created the blog, it was our goal to anchor and promote a conversation that from our perspective seemed to be everywhere in the air, but lacked a name and a stage on which to transform cacophony into a symphony. WordPress promised to furnish the appropriate tools. A blog would, we hoped, help channel the rising interest in bringing together global and urban history. It would deepen an intrinsic complementarity between the two fields, which we felt was thwarted by their asynchronous and dissimilar institutional histories. A more global approach promised to push more urban historians to move beyond biographies of single cities, to pay attention to the intersection between larger processes and the localities they studied, and to question the Eurocentrism built into the lexicon of urban history. Conversely, the urban lens furnished a possible riposte to allegations that global history had become unmoored from concrete settings and archives. Injecting urbanism into current debates, we thought, might urge global historians to engage more fully with the social and material nitty-gritty of the histories they were more interested in.

East Tabriz

Map of the eastern part of Tabriz (Iran) by the Ottoman polymath Matrakçi Nasuh, 16th century.

The response to the blog has been encouraging. Since 2015, we have published 81 posts written by colleagues from a wide array of backgrounds. As we tried to move beyond a discussion of the urban past that is solely centered on Europe and North America, we included posts about cities in a variety of geographic locations—with Europe (25%), Latin America (20%), the Middle East (15%), North America (15%), and Africa (10%) better represented than South and East Asia. These proportions, and the scarcity of Asian histories in particular, surely reflect the regional specializations and the resulting academic networks of the editors. But they stem not only from what we commissioned, but also from what we were offered: The demographic that so far has been keenest to engage with the “global urban history” label have been scholars who primarily see themselves as urban historians and who write about cities in Europe or North America. By contrast, historians of cities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have had more of a part-time interest, as they remain more firmly grounded in the historical area studies of their respective world regions. For them, an interest in, say, African history, not an interest in cities, is the typical career constant between the first and the second monograph. Meanwhile, people genuinely at home in global history, with no explicitly declared interest in urbanism, proved all but impossible to engage.

In other words: The blog made it easy to add the adjective “global” to urban history, just as the same adjective now prefaces intellectual history or social history. Regarding the more substantive intellectual effects of this operation for urban history, it is too early to tell. In terms of trying to insert “urban” in global history, however, we are more confident that the effect has been all but indiscernible.

city_lights_africa_720How, one may interpose, could it be otherwise, given that the globe is so much larger than even the sum of its cities? In fact, our intuitive choice of the order of adjectives in “global urban history” in itself assumed that it was easier to convert urban historians to think globally than to persuade global historians to engage with cities. Still, this observation is entirely unremarkable only if the entire matter is reduced to the two fields’ supposedly radically different geographic scope—assuming that, while global history covers the entire planet, urban history narrowly zooms in on tiny dots on the world map. The vibrant discussions about “global microhistory” (in fact, the very existence of that expression) reveals that issues other than geographical scale are at stake. An important one among them is that the field of global history has offered many more exciting opportunities and novelties in recent decades than urban history. Global history continues to be, so to speak, the happening part of town.

We have drawn two main conclusions from our experience so far. First, if global urban history is to be something more than a fashionable relabeling of urban history tout court, we require a more coherent and sustained discussion of the meaning and the implications of the adjective “global.” Closely related to this is a debate about the Eurocentrism and U.S.-centrism of nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban history and its implications. This is a necessary precondition for the second conclusion: We need to better demonstrate what an urban focus offers to global history. This case must amount to something more than an unimaginative and unrealistic imploration that everyone study cities and title their books accordingly. Instead, we might start by tweaking Chris Bayly’s famous quip about “world history,” by saying: We are all urban historians, even though many of us don’t know it.

Consider three examples: First, modern migration history, surely an area dear to global historians, is in good part a history of urbanization, yet it is not written as such. In many historical settings, migrants have primarily moved to cities. The association is so strong that people who went to work the land have typically been described differently: settlers, indentured laborers, and so forth. In spite, or because of, these truisms, there is little sustained theorizing today about the reasons, meanings, and implications of this link, even as the influential Chicago School of Sociology was essentially a two-pronged approach to both migration and cities.

Global Urban History Banner

Cover logo of the new Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History.

Second, intellectual history, which is now being bound up with global history, has long been a field in which much of the action, by all but unacknowledged default rather than choice, has taken place in cities. True, liberal understandings of what intellectual history should be today include themes such as peasant cosmologies. There might even be a case for a conscious project to de-urbanize intellectual history. Yet again, the point is not so much to move research topics into, or out of, cities, but rather to alert historians that the space in which their story unfolds may well matter to the contours of that story.

Finally, there is social history, which not coincidentally was born as an institutionalized subfield in Western academia alongside urban history. Here, too, it is worth bearing in mind that the entire discipline of sociology essentially developed out of an interest in social differentiation in cities, which historically have been, and continue to be, key drivers of inequality both globally and nationally. Whether a “global social history” is possible or useful, is an urgent question for global history at large. It is not one that can be answered without conscious attention to the urban.


Heinrich Barth, Timbuktu from Terrace, 1858

None of this should be misunderstood as a plea to abandon histories that focus on the rural. Neglect of the countryside in fact continues to be a significant problem for history altogether, not only because most historians today are urbanites whereas the human past was a more rural affair, but also because the traditional archival record tends to be denser for cities than for non-urban places. But the spatial dichotomy between the urban and the rural should not be seen as an either-or choice of subject matters. On the contrary, it is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most successful agriculture-related global history books of recent years, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, was written by someone previously known as a specialist of the New York bourgeoisie. Our call therefore is not to narrow our topics to things that happened within city limits, but instead to pay attention to “urbanness” (and its defining opposites) as a category of analysis.

This, in short, is what our Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History will seek to achieve cumulatively. The blog’s raison d’être does not therefore cease to exist, and we will continue to post new work here. Moving forward, we envisage the Elements series and the blog will work together and respond to each other to develop global urban history as a subfield with a more rigorous theoretical and methodological basis – one that more intentionally draws together the urban and the global.


Michael Goebel is Associate Professor of International History and the Pierre du Bois Chair Europe and the World at the Graduate Institute Geneva. He is the author of Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Argentina’s Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History (Liverpool University Press, 2011).

Joseph Ben Prestel is Assistant Professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) of History at Freie Universität Berlin and currently a Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University. In his research, he focuses on European and Middle Eastern history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as on global and urban history. He is the author of Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910 (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Tracy Neumann is an Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University. Broadly speaking, her research explores how global and local processes interact to shape urban development; her current project is focused on the global circulation of ideas about urban design and international development since 1945. She is the author of Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

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