To complement our 50-part series on the history of urbanisation, our readers shared fascinating stories of the cities we didn’t cover – from Bergamo to Isfahan.
Old Adaminaby, Australia
When the Snowy Mountains hydro and irrigation scheme was built in Australia in the 1950s, a whole town was deliberately flooded by a new lake and rebuilt elsewhere. The town of Old Adaminaby was developed in the 1800s and was unique as there are few alpine towns in Australia. The New Adaminaby is a lot smaller and a 1960s architectural nightmare.
The old town re-emerged from the bottom of the lake in the great drought of 2007 bringing back memories for old residents. They say residents never recovered from the relocation and have a deep distrust of outsiders and governments.
Isfahan reached its zenith when Abbas I of Persia moved his capital to the city, turning it into one of the most populated and prosperous cities of the time. Abbas I undertook ambitious urban development and design projects, which resulted in the creation of beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques and even bathhouses. One of these projects was the 90,000m squared Naqsh-e Jahan Maidan, which is still one of the largest squares in the world. Toward the end of the 16th and 17th centuries, Isfahan became an international city. With over 1,800 caravanserais (traditional inns), Isfahan played host to merchants traveling between China and the Ottoman cities, and Russia and the Persian Gulf.
With almost 50 religious colleges, Isfahan became the centre of Shia scholarship but it was also famed for its painters, silk crafters, metalwork and ceramics. Isfahan was known as ‘half of the world’ – a nickname bestowed upon it by a French tourist. It became a model for urban development in other cities like Hyderabad, India, which was known as ‘new Isfahan’.
Contemporary Isfahan, the third most populated city in Iran, has been at the centre of a debate around urban modernisation for years. For 1,500 years Isfahan has repeatedly experienced political and cultural upheavals. But today’s urban youths are trying harder than ever to hold on preserve its ancient heritage while turning it into an international metropolis again. (Ali Reza Eshraghi, via email)
Kaunas boomed in the interwar period, developed in no small part by Jewish investors who built art deco everywhere, transforming a village into a city, the temporary capital of Lithuania while Vilnius was occupied by the Polish. Then invasions by the Soviets, the Nazis, then the Soviets again, devastated the population, wiping out almost all the Jews and sending many Lithuanians to the gulag. Since gaining independence 25 years ago, Lithuania has been struggling with this past and trying to find a way to rebrand the ‘second city’ and counter mass emigration to western Europe. The city recently elected a new mayor and green shoots are showing. (Mark Adam Harold, International Centre for Litvak Photography, via email)
The city on the hill, its suburbs connected to it ‘like fingers to the palm of an open hand’. This was one of the first descriptions of Bergamo in 1516, told by the man of letters and Venetian art collector Marcantonio Michiel a few decades before the construction of the Venetian walls.
The close link with orography, already evoked in 1483 by Marin Sanudo with his ‘city situated on a most wonderful mountain’, is referred to as part of the distinctive character of the city. A powerful metaphor, which employs the ‘simplicity’ of human anatomy to convey the complex territorial relations on which the city was structured. But soon after, with the construction of the city walls between 1561 and 1590, that character would be lost.
The construction of new walls helped to create a different image of the city. It was an episode full of consequences for the history of Bergamo and its urban shape, and laid the foundations for the idea of the old town centre as the ‘upper city’, which is still widely held to this day. (Paolo Vitali, via email)
Cahokia was a pre-Colombian Native American city, with a former population that rivalled contemporary London. It was the centre of a trade network that spread across the eastern half of what is now the US, and had a pyramid as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza at the base. It was a fascinating city, one that is too little known. (Jeff Cupo)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Addis Ababa is a suitable subject for this series. It is a relatively young city, established by Emperor Menelik in 1800s, but has recently opened its new light rail system. In the late 1980s there remained remnants of the villages that grew around grand houses of powerful families linked to the Emperor’s court in the centre of the city. Most of that has been replaced by a version of the global clone city of tower blocks, fancy hotels and ever greater city state power – rather like London. (RobinS)
Seldom has one man had so much influence on the shape of one city. Sir Herbert Manzoni was city engineer and surveyor of Birmingham from 1935 until 1963. During that time, and especially after the second world war, he radically transformed the city.
Manzoni was keen to tackle Birmingham’s slums, and although his diagnosis was correct, his remedy – huge numbers of tower blocks – was not. He also transformed the city centre, building the inner and middle ring roads through historic neighbourhoods and demolishing many Victorian civic buildings including the original Central Library and the Bull Ring Market Hall. Noticeably many of the buildings that replaced them were themselves demolished inside 50 years. (Tom Embury, via email)
Chang’an (Xi’an), China
In China, the ‘city of perpetual peace’, Chang’an (modern Xi’an) had walls up to 12m high in places surrounding an area of 30 sq miles and containing a population of over a million.
It had seven palaces, 111 Buddhist monasteries, 41 Daoist abbeys, 38 family shrines, two official temples, 10 city wards with one or multiple provincial transmission offices, 12 inns, six graveyards, seven official foreign-religion churches. The churches were an indication of how connected the Tang Dynasty capital was to the rest of the world, with the silk road trade routes exporting Chinese goods and knowledge, and enabling visitors and settlers from the West. (savale)
Over the years, apart from sport success, Serbia has developed quite a negative image in the western media, leaving its capital’s rich history somewhat neglected. Regardless, I think that Belgrade has a fascinating story to tell.
Starting in the neothlithic times, Vinča (Vincha), a suburb of Belgrade, was one of the biggest settlements in the region. Over time due to its geographical position, on the hill overlooking the confluence of two rivers (Danube and Sava), Belgrade became a popular spot for setting up military camps and fortresses, making it a military outpost for centuries to come.
Its rule changed many times – from Celts, to Franks, Byzantines, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Ottomans, and Serbs. In the middle ages, it was a border post between two major civilisations: the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Belgrade has developed a very unique culture of ‘survival’ under various regimes. It often suffered, and it was destroyed and re-built over 40 times in its history. (Periša Ražnatović, via email)
Dunedin, New Zealand
If you want to see the consequences of imposing a grid system on a hilly city go to Dunedin, which boasts the world’s steepest navigable street, Baldwin Street, in North East Valley. The valley in question is long, narrow and bounded by steeply rising ridges. A planner in London reputedly doubted the measurements of the rude colonials and imposed a grid system regardless. It works much better in the flat part of the central city and over in the former salt marsh of South Dunedin. It’s just North East Valley where it went wrong. (Muscleguy)
The town called Filadelfia in Calabria, Italy, was named by a Catholic bishop in explicit homage to Pennsylvania’s capital in 1783. It is also built on a regular grid, and embellished by four squares. (Luca Peliti)
Croatia’s third largest city is so small that most Europeans probably would not have heard of it. Those who have may know it under a different, Italian name – Fiume – with both names meaning ‘river’. In its 19th-century heyday, Rijeka/Fiume was a multicultural port for the Hungarian end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a corpus separatum of the Hungarian crown, as it was on all sides surrounded by territory belonging to the Austrian side of the Empire. One can still find Rijeka’s coat of arms on the lavish building of the Hungarian Parliament, and on other public buildings around Budapest.
The late 19th century was a time of growth, entrepreneurship, migration, and industry. Land was reclaimed from the sea, the port was expanded, and public buildings were erected where there was once no more than beaches. The city was deeply international in ethnic composition, as the Italians, Hungarians, Croats, and many others arrived wanting to take part in the expansion. In this period, the city had one of the first industrial-scale oil refineries in Europe, and could boast the creation of the world’s first torpedo. The port served the industry of the Empire, and the migration to America. The most famous ship to travel that American route was the Carpathia, going from Rijeka to New York and back, remembered for being the first ship that came to Titanic’s rescue.
The end of the first world war, though, changed things radically. The city was demanded by Italy as part of its war spoils, and the collapsing Austria-Hungary was unable to fight for it. The representatives of the southern Slavs wanted to create a state from the Slovenian and Croatian-populated parts of Austria-Hungary, Bosnia, and Serbia, and while many of their demands were heeded at the post-war peace conference, there was no solution for multi-ethnic and contested Rijeka. The matter was bitterly fought, and the final decision was to create an independent city state, a solution that no one was particularly happy with. The city itself was divided, and the east side of the river in the city centre remained in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which would soon become known as Yugoslavia.
Independence only lasted a couple of months, and was replaced by one of European history’s oddest episodes, when the city was stormed and taken over by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian poet and proto-fascist revolutionary, and his armed supporters. The city was run as a revolutionary experiment, driving the economy to ruin and exacerbating the political and ethnic divisions. D’Annunzio and his fighters established the Italian Regency of Carnaro (named after the bay area Rijeka is in), but were more interested in revolutionary politics, poetry, and parties, than actually running a city state. Even though D’Annunzio and his men were expelled from the city after a year by Italian bombing, the city’s fate remained tied to the fascists, as independence in name only got replaced by annexation by Italy in 1924. The river dividing the city became the border of Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
During the second world war, the city was occupied by German forces, and finally liberated by Croatian anti-fascists on 3 May 1945. Upon liberation, the bulk of its fascist and anti-communist citizens left, as did most of its Italians. The new communist Yugoslavia tried to restore the city’s industrial legacy, with mixed results. Similarly, the rebuilding process was patchy, with visible wartime scars on the city streets. The war in 1990s Croatia and the transition into the market economy and democratic politics precipitated the decline of the industrial economy, but did not cause physical destruction. If anything, the area was rid of military complexes. What were once military installations are now university grounds – an old military command building is now the Academy for Applied Arts.
The current city is built on legacies of all the totalitarian regimes that tore it apart, the shadows of those who left, the contributions of those who remained and those who arrived after the second word war in search of work. Hence the unusual, Italian-like-but-not-quite, intonation in the way we speak, the remains of Italian and Venetian vocabulary in our own, a handful of bilingual schools, and architectural features that clearly bear the marks of the empires that built them. As for the relevance of the city, the industry has waned and near-disappeared, replaced by hopes for a university-driven and culture-fuelled economy. The future looks uncertain, but definitely more peaceful than the past. (Sanja Badanjak, via email)
Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong
I’m going to suggest the story of the Kowloon Walled City, at its height a political exclave, lawlessly run by the triads. All of its water and electricity was basically illegally piped. It was the most densely populated city in the world with 33,000 within two and a half hectares. Full of factories, illegal dentists’ clinics, butchers, brothels, drug dens, it was demolished in the 1990s and is now a park! (Phyllis Katrina Chan)
Portland, Maine, US
Portland suffered its ‘Great Fire’ in 1866, claimed by many to be the largest urban conflagration sustained in the still-young nation. It destroyed most of the downtown, including nearly 2,000 structures, and displaced 10,0000 residents, even though only two people were reported killed in the blaze.
Reconstruction rapidly followed the removal of much debris, including a great volume of the ruined brick masonry. Debris by the thousands of cartloads was drawn downhill to the waterfront along the shore of the peninsula on which the city had been founded. Much of this debris in the immediate downtown was wasted within the arc of a new rail line in the harbour. The disposal filled much of the lagoon created between the rail line (founded largely on timber pilings just off shore) and the original edge of the harbour, in water that had become too shallow to serve many of the ocean-going vessels of the day.
This new rail line connected the two principle railway systems converging on and serving the busy harbour of Portland. This connection carried traffic until the 1980s when the rail line was taken up, the occasional train progressing slowly down the middle of the street coming to be considered as impediment to economic redevelopment of the by then largely somnolent, but just reawakening, waterfront.
New warehouses and piers were constructed along the rail bed soon after its creation. The arc of the track shaped and prompted the construction of a wide vehicular way, aptly named Commercial Street, to serve these commercial and harbour-side facilities. Infilling the lagoon also created above sea-level real estate, immediately recognised as highly desirable for exploitation by industrial and commercial interests too tightly constrained within the previous limits of the city along its harbour.
Today, the shape of Portland, particularly its waterfront along the harbour, and its vigorous redevelopment in recent decades, arises directly from the construction of the track more than a century and a half ago. (gterrien)
I recall reading about the Department of Main Roads in Sydney working and conspiring with land owners to corner the state government of the day into dismantling the ‘green belt’ that used to exist around Sydney. This ‘green belt’ was modelled on the one around London (I believe) and was supposed to provide protection against unadulterated sprawl which was feared at the time, thus consuming all the fertile farmlands that surrounded Sydney. My recollection of the story was the the DMR built roads where they weren’t allowed to – but encouraged by land owners – and basically said well now we have roads you may as well let land owners subdivide their properties … this commenced the great Sydney land grab of the 1920s. (butlerad)
Merv was once at the heart of the ancient Silk Road connecting European markets with China. Today, only its ruins remain in Turkmenistan’s Mary province. The city first came to prominence under the Arabs in the 7th century, when it served as a base for Islam’s expansion into central Asia. Then, in 1037, the Seljuk Turks took over the city. It is during this period that Merv expanded rapidly and became known as ‘the mother of the world’. Merv is thought to have been the largest city in the world from AD1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000. However, with prosperity came tragedy.
In 1221, Merv opened its gates to Tolui, son of Genghis Khan – chief of the Mongols – and the majority of its inhabitants were killed. Modern historians agree that the event was one of the bloodiest occupations in history. Merv was never again to regain its splendour, and following over a century of Russian, and then Soviet dominion, faded into obscurity. (Bradley Jardine, via email)
With the rise of cities like Dubai and Doha, impressive skylines and iconic architecture have become synonyms for urban development in the Gulf Region. Muscat, the capital city of Oman, chose to follow a different path. Despite the fact that its economic ‘renaissance’ since the 1970s is also based on money generated by fossil fuels, urban planning was guided by social welfare ideals. A land allocation system grants every Omani citizen, female and male alike, a plot of land.
In parallel to demographic growth, the Sultanate faced rapid urbanisation. Over the last 50 years the metropolitan area has grown to an extended urban region of over 100km in length. The former coastal town and mountain oasis have amalgamated into a vast desert sprawl threatening agricultural land and fragile ecosystems. Even though Oman is taking a different path than the countries surrounding it, it has yet to become a model of sustainable spatial development. (Aurel von Richthofen, via email)
— Philip Oldfield (@SustainableTall) April 2, 2016
Our readers also suggested looking at the stories of Ahmedabad, Istanbul, Lahore, Accra, Lisbon, Manchester, Little Rock, Dublin, Yogyakarta, Athens and the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Clearly most of the world’s cities – both thriving and fallen – have a fascinating tale to tell. Thank you to all our readers who followed our Story of Cities series and contributed their own entries.
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.