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Towns have usually accommodated great social diversity, making them places of magnificent human achievements as well as sometimes-violent struggles over resources and power. The words town and city are largely interchangeable, with the former used more in Britain than in the United States, where it is typically reserved for smaller settlements. The names are applied to places with substantial clusters of residents and buildings as well as complex social and economic structures. In some times and places, towns have been independent and self-governing; in others, they have been granted limited self-government.

The earliest towns emerged in the Middle East and are known only from archaeological evidence. Jericho is sometimes identified as the first town, around 7000 BCE, but many scholars believe that the first true towns were those that arose after the development of agriculture, beginning with Sumerian cities such as Ur, around 3000 BCE. At later dates, towns also developed in productive agricultural regions of Egypt, India, China, and Mesoamerica. Early towns were typically ceremonial centers, home to priests, soldiers, and administrators as well as skilled artisans who made luxury goods for members of the ruling class. Often the demand for luxuries stimulated long-distance trade, and some towns became centers of commerce, in which merchants were among the most wealthy and powerful residents. Coastal towns devoted to trade and commerce first flourished around the eastern Mediterranean in the Phoenician and Greek civilizations, which were later conquered by the Roman Empire. After Rome lost control of the Mediterranean around the fifth century CE, and Muslim invaders subsequently conquered much of the region, many Mediterranean towns became important Islamic administrative and commercial centers, whereas Christian Europe became a much more exclusively rural civilization. Although Italian commercial towns such as Venice and Amalfi revived by the tenth century, towns remained marginal to the rural and feudal society of medieval Europe. Partial exceptions were northern Italy and the Low Countries, where commercial towns ruled much of the countryside. These towns and regions dominated the European cultural revival known as the Renaissance, which began in the fourteenth century.


For several centuries more, Europe, like the rest of the world, remained a place where a tiny percentage of the population lived in towns, and economies as well as political power were rural-based, with the great majority of the population working in subsistence agriculture, producing a small surplus that supported priestly, warrior, and ruling elites. These elites were sometimes based in towns, and here and there cities grew to great size, for example ancient Rome, medieval Baghdad, Tenochtitlan in Mexico, and several Chinese capitals.

A fundamental change in the role of towns came with urbanizationthat is, when larger percentages of a regions or nations population came to live in them. This shift coincided with the growth of large-scale industry, beginning in eighteenth-century England and spreading across much of Europe, and beyond, in the nineteenth century. Many towns grew rapidly as rural migrants arrived in search of work in the new factories or in other trades stimulated by urban growth and industrial wealth. Around 1800 London became the first European city with a million inhabitants; a century later, at least eight more had crossed that threshold, and Londons six million made it far larger than any city in history. Outside of Europe, North America experienced the most dramatic nineteenth-century urban growth. The twentieth century, especially its second half, saw rapid urbanization in other regions, notably East Asia. Whereas the worlds population was still 70 percent rural in 1950, sometime around 2007, town dwellers became a majority. By then, twenty cities, most of them in Asia, had at least ten million inhabitants.

In many poor countries, urban growth has been concentrated in a single city, typically the capital, with floods of migrants drawn by rural overpopulation, political turmoil, and the collapse of agricultural or subsistence economies. In one respect this recent phase differs fundamentally from nineteenth-century Europe: This is often urbanization without industrialization. That had been the exception in nineteenth-century Europe, characteristic of only a few of Europes poorest cities, such as Naples and Dublin. By the late twentieth century, however, as political and economic turmoil continued to push rural people toward large cities in their home countries or foreign ones, they arrived in places where there were few industrial jobs, and they joined a vast informal sector of intermittent, insecure, and often illegal work. Following a long tradition, these migrants see towns as places of opportunity, but most of them have little chance for security or prosperity.


From their earliest origins, towns have been associated with complex social structures and a diversity of occupations and roles. Far more than the countryside, towns have usually encompassed extremes of wealth and poverty, with rulers and wealthy merchants living near their slaves, servants, and laborers. As a result, towns have typically been centers of economic dynamism, cultural innovation, and social and political tensions. These urban phenomena have interested social scientists since the eighteenth century, when Adam Smiths theory of the division of labor explained the great economic potential inherent in the occupational specialization found in towns. Many liberal theorists following Smith have also contended that towns fostered individual opportunity and individual identities, thus promoting economic growth as well as new doctrines of citizenship and human rights that challenged traditional barriers of caste and status. However, Karl Marx and other socialists (including Vladimir Lenin), observing the concentration of poverty and misery among urban factory workers and casual laborers, predicted that revolutionary change would begin in towns, where oppressed classes would forge bonds of solidarity.

The combination of urban growth and the breakdown of traditional hierarchies has encouraged the urban upper classes to live apart from their poorer neighbors. The modern town has thus been characterized by horizontal segregation, following two basic patterns that have developed in different times and places. In one, the prestigious town center, the traditional site of palaces and shrines, is reserved for the wealthy, and the poor live on the urban edge in suburbs or shantytowns. This arrangement became typical of many European cities (Paris is the best known) as well as former colonial cities in Asia and Latin America. Alternatively, in some places the city center became a stronghold of business and employment, not a prestigious residential district, and the wealthy moved out to suburbs. This pattern emerged in eighteenth-century England and became even more typical of the United States, where premodern urban traditions are scant. By the end of the twentieth century, suburbanization had become increasingly apparent elsewhere, as communications and transportation technology made it easy for elites to live far from their workplaces. The urban core may remain as an office center, but surrounding areas have become poor, even largely abandoned in the case of the most devastated U.S. cities. Many cities in the United States saw rapid change in the decades after World War II (19391945), as white working-class residents moved to the suburbs in large numbers, and industrial jobs either followed or left the area entirely. Left behind in the inner cities were concentrations of poverty, unemployment, and minority groups (mainly African Americans), with high crime rates and poor schools continuing to push upwardly mobile residents outward while making life more difficult for those left behind. By the end of the century, similar problems were becoming apparent in major cities of other wealthy countries, such as Britain and France, sometimes in poor suburbs rather than inner cities. At the same time, a countervailing trend has been the gentrification that has created or expanded enclaves of wealthy inner-city residents, sometimes dislodging but not necessarily reducing the concentrations of poverty.

SEE ALSO Segregation, Residential; Sociology, Urban; Suburbs


Bairoch, Paul. 1988. Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn of History to the Present. Trans. Christopher Braider. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Hohenberg, Paul M., and Lynn Hollen Lees. 1995. The Making of Urban Europe, 10001994. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

LeGates, Richard T., and Frederic Stout, eds. 2007. The City Reader. 4th ed. New York: Routledge.

Brian Ladd

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towns. Since Britain was the first country in the world to urbanize, i.e. to have over half its population living in towns, but also for many centuries lagged behind other European countries in the degree of its urbanization, there is an interesting paradox at the heart of British urban history. It is also bedevilled by semantic debate: what is a town? Much older literature concentrated on legal status and discussed ‘boroughs’, whereas recent scholars stress more social and economic criteria. The best definition is perhaps that of Susan Reynolds, that a town is a permanent human settlement which forms a social unit distinct from the surrounding countryside, and in which a significant proportion of its population lives off non-agricultural occupations.

Though there were large settlements in Iron Age Britain, true urbanism began with the Roman occupation of southern Britain. Leading Romano-British towns included a strikingly high proportion of those towns which topped urban league tables until the industrial revolution—London, Lincoln, York, Winchester, Canterbury, etc. Though they are often seen as primarily administrative and social rather than economic centres, which ceased to be towns when Roman administration collapsed in the 5th cent., that may be too simple. Their strategic positions, and their reoccupation in the Middle Ages (with one or two exceptions like Silchester and Wroxeter), suggest that they were as well sited as they could be in relation to the economic exploitation of British pre-industrial conditions.

Some Roman towns may have continued, under native leadership and invading Anglo-Saxons, as ‘central places’, with royal palaces or religious centres, but true town life seems to have revived in the 7th and 8th cents. Large trading towns (wics or emporia) developed both alongside old Roman fortified sites (London, York, and Southampton) and in at least one case on a new, non-Roman site (Ipswich). Meanwhile small towns developed inland around royal and ecclesiastical centres, especially after the foundation of cathedrals and major churches. Urban life may have been disrupted by the Viking raids and conquests of the 8th and 9th cents., and King Alfred initiated or developed a system of fortified settlements (burhs) to resist them; but the Vikings themselves stimulated urban growth and trade in eastern England. Under the kings of united England (954–1066) existing towns flourished and new towns were founded.

The Normans after 1066 further developed towns in England and also in south Wales, many of them dominated or protected by a castle, while in Scotland towns emerged in the 11th and 12th cents. A developing commercial economy in the 12th and 13th cents. led to the expansion of many towns and the creation of many new ones, including hundreds of small market centres. Large towns acquired communal defences and chartered privileges, and London rapidly acquired a unique status as a capital city and the only British town comparable to the great continental towns. Its population may have reached 80,000–100,000 by 1300, while towns as a whole may have accounted for 15 per cent of the English population; the proportion was much lower in Wales and Scotland. The Black Death of 1348–50 killed a high proportion of townspeople, and some historians have seen it as ushering in a period of late medieval urban decay. However, there is much evidence that many towns, though reduced in size, flourished, and certainly liberties were granted to many towns by both English and Scottish monarchs.

The 16th and 17th cents. saw some recovery in the size of towns, since although their mortality rates were high (bubonic plague returned periodically until the 1660s), they attracted large numbers of immigrants. The most outstanding case was that of London, which grew rapidly both in absolute and in relative terms, becoming by 1700 the largest town in western Europe and at least 20 times as large as any other English town. In the 18th cent., however, industrial and commercial development, including better communications, allowed many other towns to grow rapidly. This huge urban growth disrupted old institutions and attitudes and led to the municipal reforms from the 1830s onwards.

In the 19th and 20th cents. towns continued to grow in relative as well as absolute terms, while nearly all British people have come to share an essentially urban culture, whether or not they live in towns. The total urban population of England and Wales reached 54 per cent by 1851, 78 per cent by 1901, and 81 per cent by 1951 (for Scotland similar calculations give 52 per cent by 1851 and 65 per cent by 1891). With proportions so high, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate urban from national history, and it becomes possible to write national history from an urban perspective.

David M. Palliser


Clark, P., and and Slack, P. , English Towns in Transition 1500–1700 (Oxford, 1976);
Corfield, P. J. , The Impact of English Towns, 1700–1800 (Oxford, 1982);
Reynolds, S. , An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns (Oxford, 1977);
Waller, P. J. , Town, City and Nation: England 1850–1914 (Oxford, 1983).

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largest cities

largest cities UN estimates for ‘urban agglomerations’, which take no account of administrative boundaries.



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