In the seemingly long space of human history urbanization is a comparatively recent phenomenon, although we are now living in a rapidly urbanizing world. In fact, the city has become a dominant factor of modern civilization. But during most of human history, from the hunting-gathering stage of perhaps 6,000 years ago to the beginning of the 19th century, a very small percentage of world’s inhabitants lived in settlements which may be defined as urban places.
It is estimated that less than 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban places of 5,000 persons or more around the year 1800 or nearly 200 years ago. By 1900 the proportion had risen to over 13 percent. Currently the percentage is close to 45. The projections for the beginning of the 21st century point out to a world in which more than a half of its population will be living in urban places.
A distinction between villages and urban settlements has been made earlier. A town or a city undoubtedly is a more complex settlement than the village, performing several types of non-agricultural or secondary functions, like marketing, warehousing, processing, wholesaling and retail merchandising of goods brought from the farming communities. Such activities tend to increase the size of urban settlements.
Within the towns specific areas are usually given to specialized economic functions, for example several Chinese towns have a “cotton street,” or “copper beaters” alley and Indian towns have a “silversmith’s bazaar,” although a single main street may usually possess such functions in branching alleys, while the major street contains most of the retail merchandising stores. Far more than American towns, the Asian towns may combine economic activities and residence in the same building and shopkeepers may live over, and behind their stores.
There is usually no clear demarcation between the town and the city except for the size and complexity of functions. The size consideration also varies with nations. Several nations do not officially employ the term “town” at all. In India places to qualify for an urban status (town or city) is that it must contain 5,000 or more inhabitants, except in certain cases, and three-fourths of its labor-force is engaged in non-agricultural activities. Such urban places that contain more than 100,000 people are designated “cities” in many nations, although the precise definitions of a city may vary from country to country.
The city is generally a much more complex affair than the town. Not only it accommodates a much larger population, it performs a complex range of economic functions—from warehousing, and retail services, to production of goods, banking, trading, recreational, and a variety of commercial, administrative, and other services.
Its settlement pattern is more comprehensive, and in some cases more complex. Asian cities may not clearly possess the functional zonation of American towns, although the range of economic activities may be quite large. Population densities tend to be much higher, particularly in their old section. The “new” or Westernized section tends to possess a greater clarity of functions, is more modern in appearance, and may contain “high rise” structures, open spaces and well-regulated traffic avenues.
During the colonial period of their history, Asian cities acquired some of the European-style commercial, residential and administrative functions, what may be called the “new” sections, while the “old” sections of the city present a striking contrast to these “newer” Westernized sections.
The Indigenous “Old” Sections:
The older, indigenous sections of the cities in Asia, known generally as the “old city” (in China known as the “Inner City”), are packed into a small place, usually a few kilometers in circumference, but house a majority of the city’s population. Except for East Asian cities of Japan and China, the street pattern of Asian cities is generally confused and irregular, containing narrow streets, made narrower by protruding open shop-fronts on the ground floor.
The “old” city contains mostly one or two-story brick structures, and is generally surrounded by an outer moat, broken by walks and a few gates. The street pattern reflects the original defense consideration of containing residences, administrative offices, and religious shrines within the wall.
Though essentially residential in character, the “old city” shares its limited space with commercial and manufacturing uses. Thus a jumble of confusing streets, cul-de- sacs, alleys, and byways gives access to residences, to commercial uses, and to smaller manufacturing units which often encroach on the public right of way. Outside the wall the “old city,” pattern is more regular.
This pattern is repeated in countless towns and cities of Southern Asia and Southwest Asia. Old Delhi (Shahja- hanabad of the 17th century), Old Jerusalem, Saana (Yemen), old sections of Istanbul, the older walled sections of Tehran, Damashq (Damascus) are some notable examples of such a pattern. The older sections of the Chinese and Japanese cities and cities in Southeast Asia (and to a lesser extent in Southern India) are, however, laid out on a more regular and clearly-defined gridiron pattern.
Thus, the older sections of Tokyo, Beijing, and Jakarta show a coherent and mostly symmetrical street pattern. There is lesser intermixing of functions, the crowding is less intense than in the cities of Southern Asia and Southwest Asia and the streets are generally wider. Although there is a combination of commercial shop-front story with residences above them on some streets, there is generally a separation of the commercial and the residential zones in cities of East Asia. The residences are made of wood in Japan and of brick and wood in China, and bamboo and wood in Indonesia.
An important element in the design of medieval cities that has much to determine the character of modern cities was the surrounding wall or a series of walls as they repeatedly outgrew their “shell,” built primarily for defense. Perhaps some port cities also possessed walls, on rivers or on the sea.
Gates, bastions, battlements and encircling moats were a part of the wall-complex. Within the surrounding wall, the more affluent classes first built adobe residences or kiln-burnt brick or stone residences though the use of burnt brick is older in India than in China. In parts of Southeast Asia wood or bamboo palisades were common until the arrival of the Europeans.
Most old towns still retain their walls, though most have crumbled and breached in modern times to permit modern transport to pass through. Generally speaking, most old cities now contain several newly-built suburbs outside the walls. Although colonial towns were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Europeans and had walls built around them, some had walls constructed around the port and garrison cities.
Fort St. George of Madras (now Chennai), the Intramunos at Manila are examples of this type. Although the concept of walled cities finally succumbed to the realities of modern times. Its legacies remain. The cities have now expanded their earlier confines and gradually stretched out to newer suburbs to include European Westernized extensions.
Population densities in the “old” section of Asian cities have, over the years become very high. Parts of Kolkata, and Tokyo contain nearly half a million persons per sq mile. The original land uses have often yielded to newer functions over the ever-increasing human pressure. The dwelling units are often converted into stores or small factories, or subdivided to house more families. Thus, the high density of residences has been compounded by a mixture of land uses: residential, commercial and industrial. In general, however, the residential areas of cities lack in shopping facilities, open spaces, and such amenities as adequate water supply and sewage.
Within the cities communities are usually segregated by subdivisions or neighborhoods (known in South Asia as mohallas) by caste, religion, occupation and ethnicity, resulting in an essential lack of social cohesion. While this is particularly true in Southern Asia, most cities of Southeast Asia also contain neighborhoods where the Chinese are concentrated in the “Chinatowns Indians, Japanese, Chinese, Persians, Filipinos, Turks, and Arabs usually segregate themselves in their exclusive enclaves within the Asian cities.
The hub of the retail merchandise is always the centrally-located bazaar, the souk in Southwest Asia or the chauk in India and Pakistan. It is crowded with countless small retail stores dealing in food, cloth, hardware, jewelry, and other consumer goods. Bankers, moneylenders, health practitioners, dentists, public letter writers all congregate here.
Upper rooms of buildings are used as dwelling units. In larger cities, specialized services and goods tend to be concentrated in specific areas around the main bazaar, or in the side alleys and develop into shopping centers or small bazaars such as cloth merchants’ shopping area or a grain exchange, a street of brassware stores, or a gold and silversmiths’ alley or a pottery makers’ shops.
In these small bazaars craftsmen perform their work and display their wares in a open-front shop. There are also the ubiquitous cart peddlers, and sidewalk hawkers who do their work (ranging from corn roasting to fixing eye glasses and tooth extracting) in the customers’ presence, giving them a chance to supervise the activity.
In most bazaars, particularly in China, and India indigenous-style restaurants display their foods and do the cooking next to the street passers-by who may make choice not generally available to Americans or Europeans in their hometowns.
An Asian bazaar offers quite a different look than the retail and merchandising section of an American market town. The colorful, if chaotic intermixture of transport, commercial, and residential functions, the intensity of human drama is a fascinating contrast to the spacious, well-laid out pattern of an American town.
The density of streets and the functional mix in the old streets are further compounded by the diversity of transportation in the larger towns and cities, though this may not be the same in smaller towns. Pedestrian traffic in larger cities is generally dense, although it fluctuates at different times of the day. Modes of transportation are many and varied—human, animal and vehicular.
Between the sluggish donkey and the rapid commuter train (as in Tokyo, Mumbai, and other metropolises on the continent) are: tonga, pedicab, motorcycle rickshaw, bicycle, ox cart, taxi, private automobile, hand cart, trucks of several types, bus, and street car as the important modes of transportation of men and goods.
The chaotic mixture of land uses produced by such diverse modes of transportation creates a melange of facilities, sharing the right-of-way in generally an uncontrolled manner in the old sections of the cities, especially in the cities of South Asia and Southwest Asia. This is generally not the case in the newer sections of the cities.
In Chinese cities there is an overwhelming concentration of bicycles, although pedicabs and automobiles are becoming increasingly common in most of Asia’s larger towns and cities. In the cities of Central Asian Republics, where cities are wider and better laid-out, older sections have mostly disappeared, traffic flows are smoother and more regulated. In general, however, the scene of old parts of Asian cities is confusing and chaotic.
Modern Westernized Sections:
In contrast to the hodgepodge settlement patterns of the “old city” are the modern, well laid-out sections of the Asian cities. These were built during the 20th century to house the colonial rulers, the local civil administrators and the growing elite. Such sections are usually set apart from the old city as in Jakarta (Batavia of colonial days) and New Delhi, and contain such settlements as civil lines, railway colonies, military or garrison towns in South Asia, and other newer colonies. These sections present an aspect of comparative spaciousness, comfort, greenery, peace and functional zonation.
The tree-lined buildings are broad and surfaced, and normally follow a gridiron pattern. Buildings are usually constructed of bricks and are frequently surrounded by large fences and landscaped lawns. House lots are distinctly marked and land use zonation is generally enforced.
Modernization has been slowly changing the urban landscapes everywhere in Asia, although much of the transformation has occurred during the last half a century. Modern developments in civil and military administration, transport, agricultural processing, mineral exploitation, and petroleum refining have created new settlements that have acquired the status of towns. These activities gather around them service functions and small populations.
This is particularly true of railroad centers where service functions tend to congregate. These modern settlements are located outside of but close to the old city which have no room for these proliferating, specialized functions within the old, crowded parts of the cities. In India and China some of the modern highways have increasingly penetrated the old walled cities, and railway stations are normally located nearby but outside the old cities.
In the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf the modern elements of planned, well laid-out street patterns have taken place during the last four-five decades, due largely to the settlements of the American and European workers in oil refineries and the modernization schemes adopted by the native rulers. These new, modern patterns are particularly noticeable in cities like Kuwait, Dhahran, Doha, Dubai, Riyadh, Oatar, and Bahrain. Much of modernization has occurred outside the “old cities.
An important facet of modernization in Asian cities has been the growth of high- rise buildings during the last half a century, which are usually located in the “new” sections of the cities. A few notable examples of cities containing high-rise buildings used mainly as apartments and offices are: Tokyo, and Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Jakarta, Bangkok, Mumbai, New Delhi, Tehran, Singapore, and Hong Kong, although most other larger cities also contain areas of high-rise buildings.
In Beijing, and other larger cities in China, and in Central Asian Republics most civilian employees (and factory workers) are housed mostly in high-rise buildings. In Hong Kong administration had to build several high-rise housing colonies to accommodate the influx of refugees from China mainland during the 1950s and 1960s on limited space that was available in the British colony.
A noticeable feature of several cities has been the mushrooming growth of shantytowns (bustees or jhuggies in India and Pakistan) during the last forty years. These are composed of cells of makeshift hovels which house thousands of squatters created by the large and continuing stream of migrants from the countryside.
Unable to afford housing in the “old city,” the migrants spread out in shantytowns, which are usually strung along the edges of the built up areas, but also in the municipal areas of the city. These resident squatters (illegal occupants) generally choose vacant land of the city, such as parks, abandoned sites, and railroad plazas and sidings. Squatters’ housing usually consists of galvanized iron-roofed tenements, or one-roomed structures of mud walls.
These appear in clusters of a few to several thousand units each housing one to several families, thereby producing very high density areas with few public amenities. Shantytowns are more common in southern and Southeast Asian cities. They have added to the existing urban problems of congestion, transportation, public services, and proper functional zonation, and often impede official efforts toward rational urban planning.
In Jakarta and Tehran the administrations have been trying to accommodate the inhabitants of shanty towns and the homeless in government housing but have not met with much success. Municipal authorities have attempted to contain or eliminate the shantytowns by dismantling these in India and Pakistan, only to discover their reappearance soon after.