Urban Mind (project completed)

This project undertakes the long-term study of urban resilience across the world – from the development of urbanism 10,000 years ago until modern times.

Project Description

Urbanism is a global phenomenon of co-evolving political and human-environmental systems. Unfolding over the last 10 000 years, urban life has persistently taken radically different forms with widely varying consequences. As a point of departure, we define cities, together with their affiliated communities (towns, villages), as spatially ordered, demographically dense human settlements. Urban living began, at least in part, as a mental process which acquired physical substance; in this sense towns are ideological constructs, Urban Minds. In this sense towns are ideological constructs: as we invent them, so we believe in them. Drawing upon Bateson’s early approach to human-environment interactions in the ‘Ecology of Mind’ as well as contributions from the new field of Historical Ecology, this project combines humanist and natural science explorationand delineationof the cultural and environmental dynamics of the ‘Urban Mind’ as part of the IHOPE initiative.

Today, some argue that in the near future 90% of the human population will live in cities; others counter that the urban population will shrink owing to disease, conflict and lack of food. In any event, the cities of today must become more sustainable and learn difficult lessons from cities such as New Orleans and Bhopal which are still affected by environmental disasters that have significant anthropogenic components. How can the humanities and social sciences best contribute to on-going efforts to re-think the relationships among environment, energy and food security and the people who live in towns and cities?

Collection of proxy-based paleoclimatic data showing wetter (up) and drier (down) conditions. Grey bars mark the 200-year periods used for the spatial analysis. Horizontal black bars in graphs show calculated average proxy value for the period 6000–0 yrs BP.

The Urban Mind project is exploratory with the ultimate purpose to inform urban planning for sustainable urban systems. Humanists, Social and Natural Scientists bring a range of specialist competence capable of handling large and complex cultural and environmental datasets. 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 resource depletion, climate change and other problems in cities today. Highlighting the cognitive aspects of urban organization, past and present, contributes to finding better and more socially responsible contemporary solutions.

The remains of central Babylon seen from a helicopter in southern direction. Reconstructed moat with water, area of Main Palace ruins, partly reconstructed South Palace, area of main temples with no longer visible remains of the great zikkurrat tower. In the background the Euphrates arm hidden between palm trees and the modern provincial capital Hilla in the far back. Photo credit James Matise.


A preliminary version of the digital model of Babylon seen from the north. Part of the city with the Euphrates and moats, city walls, Street of Procession, Ishtar Gate, palaces, zikkurrat, some temples, and a few private houses. Most details are missing. Somewhere in the palace area, the famous Hanging Gardens were situated according to later Greek authors. Picture by O. Pedersén using ArchiCAD.

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, who produce 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 support free zones where sub-cultures thrive.

This project studies town-dwellers’ mental landscapes and their organization of physical space, from the origins of urbanism over 10.000 years ago until the enormous changes of the last two centuries.

As 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 that contrasts with 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.

Byzantine fleet; Miniature in Chronicle of Skylitzes, 12th century; Madrid, Biblioteca National, Codex Vitr. 26-2; courtesy of Biblioteca National.

Taken together, the Urban Mind project ultimately aims 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.

In February 2008, the project received a Mistra Idea Support Grant of 5.1 million SEK to run over two years. At that time, the Urban Mind project was 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 resulted in a book, presenting the initial analyses in a synthesized form. The book is available for free here.

Key Publications

van der Leeuw, S., Costanza, R., Aulenbach, S., Brewer, S., Burek, M., Cornell, S., Crumley, C L., Dearing, J A., Downy, C., Graumlich, L J., Heckbert, S., Hegmon, M., Hibbard, K., Jackson, S T., Kubiszewski, I., Sinclair, P. J. J, Sörlin, S., Steffen, W. 2011. “Toward an integrated history to guide the future.” Ecology & Society 16:2.*

Seitzinger S.P, Svedin U, Crumley C.L., Steffen W., Abdullah S.A., Alfsen C., Broadgate W.J., Biermann F, Bondre N.R., Dearing J.A., Deutsch, L., Dhakal,  S., Elmqvist, T., Farahbakhshazad, N., Gaffney, O., Haberl, H., Lavorel, S., Mbow, C., McMichael, A.J., Demorais, J.M., Olsson, P., Pinho , P.F., Seto,  K.C., Sinclair, P.J.J, Stafford Smith, M., Sugar, L. 2012. Planetary Stewardship in an Urbanizing World: Beyond City Limits. Ambio, vol. 41. 787-794.*

Sinclair, P. Nordquist, G. Herschend, F and Isendahl, C. 2010. The Urban Mind , cultural and environmental dynamics. Studies in Global Archaeology 15 pp591-616 . Uppsala, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.*

Sinclair, P. Ekblom, A, & Wood, M. 2012. “Trade and society on the south-east African coast in the later first millennium AD: the case of Chibuene.” Antiquity 86:333, 723-737.*


Coordinators: Prof. Paul Sinclair (GIS, Urban Archaeology), Prof. Gullög Nordquist (East Mediterranean Urbanism): Prof. Frands Herschend (Scandinavian settlement and Landscape studies); Prof. Jan Olof Rosenkvist (Byzantinology), Prof. Olof Pedersen (Cuneiform script and Assyriology); Prof. Karin Holmgren (Stockholm University Climate Change); Prof. Sverker Sörlin (Royal Institute of Technology, Environmental History).

Uppsala University (UU) Faculty of Arts: Dr Christian Isendahl (Meso-American Urbanism and Landscape Studies); Doc. Michael Lindblom (East Mediterranean archaeology); Dr Karl-Johan Lindholm (Landscape Studies GIS), Dr Susanne Carlsson (Hellenistic history); Dr Erika Weiberg (Aegean archaeology); Doc. Kerstin Höghammar (Hellenistic Archaeology), Prof. Irmgard Hein (Egyptology); Dr Helena Victor (Scandinavian settlement archaeology and statistical analysis); Dr Hans Lejdegård (Classical historical sources); Dr Svante Fischer (West European archaeology and numismatics); Birgitta Leppänen Sjöberg (Classical archaeology).

UU Faculty of Languages: Doc. Mats Eskhult (Semitic language and culture); Prof. Éva Csató Johanson (Turkic languages, Istanbul; Dr Christiane Schaefer (Indo-European Languages); Prof. Carina Jahani (Iranian Languages); Dr Forogh Hashabeiky (Iranian Languages); Dr Behrooz Barjasteh Delforooz (Iranian Archaeology and Languages); Prof. Ingela Nilsson (Byzantinology); Doc. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska

(Art History); Doc. Witold Witakowski (Semitic languages and culture); Cand. Mag. Jakob Andersson (Assyriology).

Stockholm University, Department of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology: Prof. Karin Holmgren (Climate Change); Cand Mag. Dr Martin Finné (Climate sources); Resilience Centre Prof. Thomas Elmquist (Urban Ecology); Prof. Carole Crumley (Historical Ecology); Dr Stephan Barthel (Social Ecological systems).

Royal University of Technology Stockholm: Prof. Sverker Sörlin (Environmental History); Prof. Göran Finnveden (Division of Environmental Strategies Research). University of Oslo: Prof. Bernt Brendemoen, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages. University of Vienna: Prof. Claudia Römer, Department of Oriental Studies, University of Vienna, Austria.

Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz: Prof. Lars Johanson and Dr Heidi Stein Department of Oriental Studies.

Aberdeen University: Prof. Neil Price (Cognitive archaeology); Dr Charlotte Hillerdal (Viking Age urbanism).

Pretoria University: Prof. Innocent Pikirayi (Medieval Urbanism Southern Africa) University of the Witwatersrand: Dr Munyaradzi Manyanga (Historical ecology Southern Africa).

Cape Town University: Dr Shadreck Chirikure (Settlement archaeology and metal working, Southern Africa).

Affiliated Institutions

Uppsala University, Faculty of Arts, Faculty of Language
Royal University of Technology Stockholm/KTH
Aberdeen University
University of Pretoria
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Stockholm University, Department of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology
University of Olso
University of Vienna
University of the Witwatersrand
Cape Town University