Urbanization is a defining feature of modernity and its history. Although the majority of the world population did not live in towns and cities before 2008, the experience of urban life offers a very useful perspective on the making of the modern world. Centres of political power, cultural influence, and economic activities, towns and cities have long played a critical role in global history. As a result, urban disasters often threatened the long-term trajectories of cities and states alike as their human and material toll reverberated for years and decades thereafter. From San Francisco in the 1900s to Beirut in the late-twentieth century, the capacity of urban settlements to recover from environmental catastrophes, industrial accidents, economic decline, and from the ravages of war revealed the strengths and the weaknesses of their social fabric. In dramatic circumstances, urban reconstruction also brings to light many issues of great importance to modern historians: the link between the built environment and local identity, the nature of social cohesion, the relationship between state and civil society, the emergence of transnational solidarity, etc.
This 30 CATS second-year option module will introduce students to urban history by focussing on the most extreme examples of urban crises in the twentieth and twenty-first century. It will combine general and comparative discussions with individual case-studies that will inform our collective reflection. Those will include cities destroyed by earthquakes (Valparaiso, 1906; Tokyo, 1923; San Juan – Argentina, 1944, or Mexico City, 1986); hurricanes (New Orleans, 2005); fires (1871; San Francisco, 1906; Salonika, 1917) or accidents (Halifax, 1917). We will also consider the dramatic impact of deindustrialization and economic decline (Camden, NJ). Inevitably, of course, this module will deal with post-conflict reconstructions including in the aftermath of the First World War (Reims and Lviv); the Spanish Civil War (Barcelona); the Second World War (Coventry, Leningrad); the Lebanese Civil War (Beirut) and the collapse of Yugoslavia (Sarajevo). It will also consider the urban experiences of – and urban responses to – environmental and public health crises including heat waves and pandemics.
The module will also go beyond urban history to introduce students to the history of humanitarian action. We will indeed highlight the roles played in urban recovery by a host of local, national and transnational charitable initiatives. The module will therefore trace the origins of humanitarianism and of humanitarian NGOs. It will also underline the interdisciplinary nature of a field of enquiry where historians often collaborate and learn from urban planners, architects, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and public health experts.
This module has been revised after a 2-year hiatus and will include new materials and case-studies. We will systematically strive to “emplace” our discussions, particularly during the seminars. We will consider how the contemporary urban fabric of our lives, not least of course in Coventry itself, reveals the experience and legacies of devastation and reconstruction.
The module will also give us the chance to document and reflect on our very own urban experiences of old and new vulnerabilities. Specifically, we’ll bring the skills and questions of the urbanist to bear on the contemporary history of Covid-19.