There appears to be a general agreement that there has been a continuous history of urban development since 4000 B.C. when early cities probably started in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), although individual, incipient cities existed at Jericho perhaps two thousand years prior to the Mesopotamian cities of Babylon, Akkad, Ur, and Nineveh, and in Egypt. Numerous excavations m the western parts of Indian subcontinent particularly in the lower Indus Basin of Pakistan indicate that a flourishing and widespread urbanization existed as early as 2500 B.C. which had perhaps connections with the Mesopotamian cities.
Some of these cities like Mohenjo-Daro had a population of over 40,000, and the earlier Mesopotamian cities contained 50,000 to 70,000 persons, and were laid-out on a grid system like the present day American cities. Our records of city development during the ancient times are fragmentary and discontinuous. Despite Asia’s current and historic low urbanization levels, the continent holds the distinction of containing some of the oldest and largest cities in the world, such as Beijing, Delhi and Jerusalem.
Several splendid and great cities such as Varanasi, Patliputra (India), Beijing (China), Jerusalem, and Baghdad (Iraq) flourished long before the Christian era and survive until the present day. A contemporary Chinese traveler reported that Patliputra in North India had a population of over half a million in the 4th century B.C.
The process of urbanization was perhaps accelerated during the medieval times with the paving of roads, and ease of sea travel throughout most of China, India, Japan and the Middle East, and some of the truly magnificent cities were established such as Istanbul, Baghdad, Tehran, Makkah, Jerusalem, Damashq in the Middle East, and Lahore, Delhi, Allahabad, Agra, and Ujjain in the Indian subcontinent.
Several cities continued to flourish through the centuries to the medieval times. Changan, the capital of the Tang dynasty in China had probably a population of 800,000 in 750 A.D. Baghdad had become the world’s largest city during the 9th and 10th centuries and claimed over one million inhabitants at that time.
Kaifeng, the capital of most of China during the 13th century, was another large city which had a population of nearly half a million when Marco Polo, the Italian traveler visited China in the 13th century. Beijing in the 15th century probably had a population of over half a million, and was the largest city in the world for several centuries from 16th to 18th century, while Nanking and Hanchow were other great cities. By the late 18th century Yedo in Japan precursor of the present-day Tokyo, had emerged as the largest city in the world. Both Tokyo and Beijing remained world’s leading cities until the present day.
Over the centuries several types of towns, particularly administrative, and religious centers increased in numbers, as the total population of Asia’s nations and regions grew, although many of the ancient past towns disappeared, with the setting up of harbors, and their changed political fortunes.
The Asian cities are generally laid-out on some form of grid-pattern, prescribed by the town builders’ long time ago. Most of the street designers of early towns in India adhered to the regulations advocated by Shilpashastra (an ancient architecture treatise) and Chinese towns adopted the rectangular grid pattern of which Beijing is a fine example.
Although these basic patterns preset, at least in the Indian subcontinent, later developments during the medieval times, resulting from the accretion of intertwining streets, crowded and confused the initial patterns. The design of the towns in parts of southeast was simpler, as their growth occurred mostly during the period of European contact, although the Europeans did not exercise much control over the actual pattern of settlement except for the plantations and newer sections of the towns.
Initially, the towns were normally built on spacious sites required for the grid pattern, modified on irregular topography. The river basins thus became the most suitable sites for the towns to be located, and for them to grow, and establish commercial links on land thorough water-borne transportation. Waterways were the basic source of water supply, and initially the only means of transport access.
As most towns and cities had originated as settlement not primarily engaged in agricultural activities, the main function of the early towns was that of marketing. Beyond the purely commercial functions they were also transport terminals or way stations for both land and water transport, mining settlements, military garrisons. In due course, they acquired administrative functions. Some became places of religious pilgrimages, hill resorts, and manufacturing towns. With the passage of time, however, cities were becoming multifunctional, and began to acquire increasingly a greater functional zonation in their internal morphology.
For example, grain ships clustered together or dealers in construction materials often occupied a particular section of the city, transport operators and their equipment were usually located on the city’s outskirts whereas retailers of textile, jewelry, food, and other consumer items were normally found in the main bazaar of the old sections of the city.
Such functional zonation established within the cities during the medieval and later the colonial times persisted to the present day. The Chinese and Japanese cities have more
formal and intricate pattern of zoning, just as most cities m Southwest and South Asia have a confusing street design and absence of formal controls, essentially a carryover of the medieval times. The newer sections of the cities, particularly set up during the colonial period, reflect the more formal and regulated zoning controls.
The rapid growth of market towns during the colonial history of several Asian nations was undoubtedly facilitated by the paving of roads and the introduction of railroads when the Industrial Revolution arrived. Urbanization process was thus pushed forward by the concentration of markets, labor and capital. The most spectacular growth of urbanization occurred after World War I, and since the World War II, as the handicraft industries of the countryside withered and the impoverished artisans and agricultural labor of the countryside flocked to the developing cities.