Urban Revolution

The urban revolution refers to the emergence of urban life and the concomitant transformation of human settlements from simple agrarian based systems to complex and hierarchical systems of manufacturing and trade. The term also refers to the present era of metropolitan or megalopolis growth, the development of exurbs, and the explosion of primate or mega cities. Archeologist V. Gordon Childe coined the term urban revolution to explain the series of stages in the development of cities that preceded the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. For Childe, the first revolution – the ‘‘Agricultural Revolution’’ – occurred when hunting and gathering societies mastered the skill of food production and began to live in stable and sedentary groups. The second revolution – the ‘‘Urban Revolution’’ – began during the fourth and third millennia BCE in the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Near East. The urban revolution ushered in a new era of population growth, complex urban development, and the development of such institutions as the bureaucratic state, warfare, architecture, and writing. For Henri Lefebvre (2003), the urban revolution not only signifies a long historical shift from an agricultural to an industrial to an urban world, but also refers to a shift in the internal organization of the city, from the political city of pre medieval times to the mercantile, then industrial, city to the present phase, where the ‘‘urban’’ becomes a global trend. Today, many scholars use the term urban revolution to connote profound changes in the social organization of societies, but they disagree over the conceptualization, causes, and trajectory of the change.

One major point of debate focuses on issues of conceptualization and addresses questions about when, where, and why the first cities arose. In his oft cited essay ‘‘The Urban Revolution,’’ Childe (1950) described the features of early communities in Mesopotamia that marked the beginning of urban settlements. First, a key feature of the first cities was their immense population size, up to 20,000 residents, and their dense geographic concentration. A second major feature was the production of an agricultural surplus. This important development spearheaded several other changes, including the establishment of specialized groups such as craftsmen, transport workers, merchants, officials, and priests. Third, farmers and peasants gradually came under the control of the city through a system of taxation to support government activity, including standing armies. Fourth, the financing and construction of large public works, and other monuments and temples, came to ‘‘symbolize the concentration of the social surplus.’’ Fifth, the production of agricultural surplus created problems over the allocation and control of wealth, leading to the emergence of social stratification. Priests, military leaders, and other elites formed a ‘‘ruling class’’ that exempted themselves from physical labor and pursued ‘‘intellectual tasks.’’ Sixth, to control and regulate the growth of surplus, the ruling classes invented systems of recording, numerical calculation, and writing. Seventh, the first cities were the birthplaces of modern science, as the invention of writing ‘‘enabled the leisured clerks to proceed to the elaboration of exact and predictive sciences – arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.’’ Eighth, the specialization of labor gave ‘‘a new direction to artistic expression’’ by providing a cultural foundation for artists and craftspeople to cultivate sophisticated styles and traditions. Ninth, the concentration of surplus helped encourage and expand trade, a development that led to ‘‘the importation of raw material, needed for industry or cult and not available locally.’’ Tenth, membership in the community was no longer based on kinship but on residence.

Childe’s thesis was highly controversial when it was published and the causes and nature of the urban revolution remain hotly debated. On the one hand, Childe offered a powerful theory of urbanization based on the specialization of work, the differentiation of the division of labor, and the interdependence of skills and tasks. These social relations provide the basis for the development of modern industrial societies. On the other hand, scholars have argued that Childe’s thesis embraces a macro evolutionary orientation that ignores the diversity of human settlements around the world. Others have maintained that Childe’s theory employs an overly deterministic view of urbanization that downplays the important role of culture in development of complex societies. One major criticism is that Childe’s thesis is tautological and employs functionalistic assumptions to legitimate its arguments. It is not clear, for example, if the specialized division of labor promoted the early development of cities, or if the social complexity of cities encouraged the growth of a differentiated division of labor. It is also not clear if urbanization was the result or the cause of changes in the social relations of production and technological innovations.

These problems flow into a second point of debate, the periodization and trajectories of the urban revolution. Evidence from archeologists and sociologists suggests that urban development is discontinuous and contingent. While Childe argued that a precondition of cities is an agricultural surplus, others have suggested that human control over rivers and mastery of irrigation led to the development of cities. Other critics such as Jane Jacobs argued that early commercial centers such as those in Catal Hyuk in present day Turkey developed as centers of trade in the absence of agricultural surplus. Anthropologists have long maintained that ancient civilizations in North America developed complex and sophisticated systems of trade and commerce along the Mississippi River without knowledge of farming. One of the oldest cities, Jericho, had a thriving urban culture based on trade and crafts production over four millennia ago, many centuries before the development of agricultural surplus in the region. In short, Childe’s thesis suggests an interpretation of early urbanization in Mesopotamian cities. It’s generalizability to other regions and time periods remains in question. Still, Childe’s ideas offer an incisive and poignant perspective which generations of scholars have utilized to understand the historical development of human societies.

Third, scholars argue that there is not one urban revolution but several. A ‘‘Second Urban Revolution,’’ for example, began about 1750 as the Industrial Revolution generated rapid urban growth in Europe. The economy, physical form, and culture of cities changed dramatically as feudal power broke down and trade and travel increased. Increasing size, density, and diversity of cities combined with the growth of commerce to make urban life more rational, anonymous, and depersonalized. Since about 1950, a ‘‘Third Urban Revolution’’ has been occurring in less developed countries, where most of the world’s largest cities are located. The increasing number of primate or mega cities of more than 8 million inhabitants illustrates profound demographic and population trends of the past century. In 1950, only two cities, London and New York, were that size. In 1975, there were 11 mega cities, including 6 in the industrialized countries. In 1995, there were 23 total, with 17 in the developing countries. In 2015, the projected number of mega cities is 36, with 30 of them in the developing world and most in Asia. In short, the urban revolution is a global trend that is taking place at different speeds on different continents. Any convincing attempt to understand and explain these important changes has to offer a coherent conceptualization of urban revolution; an account of causal logic; a clear set of propositions about historical periodization; a specification of impacts; and a sound explanation about the trajectory of the process itself.


  1. Asher, F. (2002) The Third Urban Revolution of Modernity. In: Eckardt, F. & Hassenpflug, D. (Eds.), Consumption and the Post Industrial City. Peter Lang, Frankfurt.
  2. Childe, V. G. (1950) The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21 (April): 3-17.
  3. Davis, K. D. (1965) The Urbanization of the Human Population. Scientific American (September). Scientific American, New York.
  4. Lefebvre, H. (2003 [1970]) The Urban Revolution. Trans. Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  5. Pirenne, H. (1925) Medieval Cities. Princeton University, Princeton.

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