Urban History 2017
by Dr James Greenhalgh
As I am fond of telling my third year urban history students, for the last two centuries the process of urbanisation – namely, the expansion of settlements in industrialised societies and the concomitant developments in areas such as culture, technology and politics – has been one of, if not the defining factor in shaping the history of the western world. Though cities have always been arenas in which the story of human society has unfolded, post-war historians recognised that the rapidly expanding cities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had themselves shaped historical developments in unique ways. It was with this in mind that, a little over fifty years ago, H. J. Dyos and a group of like-minded historians began meeting yearly as the Urban History Group (UHG). A small offshoot of the much larger Economic History Society conference, this year the meeting of the UHG took place at Royal Holloway University in London and welcomed nearly 100 scholars to two days of discussion and papers. This year’s theme was Boundaries and Jurisdictions and the conference hosted papers by historians and geographers working on everywhere (and everywhen) from early-modern China to contemporary Britain. As usual, there were a mix of sessions, with notably themed contributions from the Victoria and Albert Museum, UCL’s Space Syntax Lab and the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, alongside those put together by the organisers and other members of the UHG. In common with recent conferences, the UHG once again proved to be a great starting point for many newer historians of the urban, providing the opportunity for first year PhD students and new researchers to present in specifically organised sessions. Encouraging and supporting the development of young scholars is, in many ways, one of the UHG’s core purposes and consistently provides a stream of excellent new researchers with the opportunity to present their work in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
There were, of course, far too many papers to really comment on here, but of note was the plenary given by Professor Richard Rodger on the current AHRC funded project ‘Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History’ and earlier ‘Visualising Urban Geographies’. These projects have involved the mapping of a vast amount of data onto historical maps of Edinburgh to create a resource that allows historians to examine the lives of inhabitants and the practices municipal governance throughout the last five hundred years. This was a timely piece of work from Prof. Rodger; indeed, the potential and pitfalls of the emerging ‘big data’ resources, facilitated by the digitisation of large quantities of historical information, has proved to be one of the consistent discussions within the humanities over the last decade. Here, Prof. Rodger showed how historical assumptions based on acceptance of traditional jurisdictional boundaries as meaningful, particularly those created by municipal administration, might be challenged by the data presented in various online maps the team had created. The increasing availability of this type of resource may yet have an impact on the types of and approaches to research taken by scholars. This goes beyond the crude, yet revealing, notion that digitisation makes life ‘easier’ for scholars, who no longer have to laboriously plot data points with pen and paper, nor always have to wade through piles of files, and asks questions about how we might open up new avenues of historical enquiry. As Rodger and several of the respondents to the papers were at pains to stress, the usefulness of big data sets need not lie solely in augmenting current methods, but in opening up whole new ways of interrogating the past. The implications of this type of resource for historians of the urban realm are thus profoundly challenging, but simultaneously very exciting. They represent the possibilities that developing technologies offer to the next generation of scholars in order that they might begin to challenge existing ideas about the past.