Many ancient cities were cleverly designed. Some of you probably remember learning about this in the Classics course you took because the teacher was cool. Yeah, I forgot most of what I learned in that class as well. Here’s some examples to refresh your memory. The ancient Greeks had Hippodamus, who in the 5th century B.C supposedly built one of the first towns in the world to have a grid-like, orthogonal plan. The Romans had aqueducts that brought fresh, limitless water from the mountains into their cities. And, following in Hippodamus’s footsteps a century later, Alexander laid out plans for his own city—-Alexandria, which according to Wikipedia, was
“the grandest example of idealized urban planning of the ancient Hellenistic world.”
So, how can studying ancient cities help us out today? Well, scientists at ASU are trying to gather clues from maps and archaeological finds that would help them understand how these old cities incorporated urban access. See, people living in modern cities today have unequal access to services like schools, grocery stores, and hospitals. In most urban centers, these services are usually walking distance for those who live near the center. But the further out you live, the more likely you are to be in a food desert—an area that may be 5-10 miles from the closest market. People living in these areas are thus forced to purchase their goods at whatever happens to be within walking distance, which is usually crummy convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. This complicated issue is apparent in many cities today, and is one that can’t be easily solved.
Sometimes you must first look into the past before solving the future. Researchers, led by ASU’s political scientist Abby York, are comparing service access in 30 ancient and historical non-Western cities. Taken from ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability news site, York says in an interview,
“We’re taking techniques that were developed for modern cities and applying them to historic and archeological cities that have less data. This allows us to work across disciplines in ways that really no one else is doing. We’re even going further and applying sustainability concepts in these different historical and archaeological contexts.”
What are the major accomplishments they hope to achieve from this project? The ASU team believes that a new understanding of historic cities will help city planners, leaders, and policymakers improve the unequal access problems in modern-day metropolises. ASU’s School of Sustainability looks like it’s doing a great job fulfilling the role to solve our world’s biggest issues.