Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Alexander Cowan

The key to much of the social change experienced in Europe between the Renaissance and the present lies in the process of urbanization. This may be defined in three separate but linked ways. It is the process by which individual urban centers grew larger, both in terms of numbers of inhabitants, and in terms of the total space occupied. Secondly, urbanization is the process by which the proportion of the population of a given region engaged in urban economic activities and living in urban centers increases. Lastly, it is the process by which the urban becomes the dominant feature of all landscapes: physical, economic, political, social, and cultural.

The process of European urbanization was neither new in the sixteenth century nor did it progress at the same rate and in the same way in every part of Europe. Much depended on economic and demographic change, and on the size, character, and location of individual urban centers. Some general trends can be identified. By contrast with conditions in 1500, when a relatively small proportion of the European population lived in urban centers and carried out activities that were identifiably urban (with the exception of northern and central Italy and the Netherlands), the map of Europe at the end of the twentieth century was dominated by networks of urban centers, whose collective populations represented a high proportion of the continent's total inhabitants. Most of this change had taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century and was linked in some way with the economic growth associated with industrialization.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, two developments may be said to have signaled the end of the urbanization process in the classic sense. The first is the development of metropolitan areas. These were first seen around the great European capital cities, London, Paris, and Berlin, toward the end of the nineteenth century, but later came to characterize whole regions, within which individual urban centers close to each other expanded to such a degree that their economic functions, and sometimes even their individual identities, merged to become part of a greater urban whole. The Ruhr valley in Germany, the agglomeration around Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing in France, and the region based on the Rivers Tyne and Wear in the northeast of England all exemplify this trend.

The second development is associated with the first and may be called de-urbanization. This process is a form of reversal of the urban growth of earlier periods, which had taken place in the form of an expansion of the urban core within a rural context. De-urbanization, by contrast, places the focus on the simultaneous expansion of urban housing and economic activity in a number of locations that are related to the old urban center but are no longer part of it. Suburbs, industrial estates, science parks, and new out-of-town shopping centers designed to meet demand from regional customers with their own transport have all changed the role of the classic urban center. Population figures for the urban core have signaled a downturn, while those for the outer suburbs continue to rise. Between 1921 and 1931, the population of Paris fell from 3 million to 2.89 million. It is now more appropriate to refer to an urbanized society rather than to urban society, and for this reason, this article will focus largely on the period between the Renaissance and the middle of the twentieth century.

Social historians have approached the urbanization process in several different ways. Many have chosen to emphasize a break between the premodern and the modern urban center, brought about by industrialization. In these terms, all sense of community was lost when the majority of the urban population was subjected to the disciplines of capitalism, the scale of the urban area had grown to such an extent that it was no longer possible to conceive of the town as a single entity, and the leadership of the social elite and organized religion no longer exercised a strong influence over townspeople. Others have sought to identify the aspects of urban society that have persisted in spite of changes in the scale and organization of industrial production, particularly in their exploration of changes in urban culture.

Some of these contrasting approaches may be explained by the comparative speed with which industrialization affected urban centers in different parts of Europe. It began intensively in Britain and the Low Countries at the turn of the eighteenth century, extended more slowly to France and Germany during the nineteenth century, and reached Italy, Spain and central Europe only toward the end of the 1800s. As a result, changes to social organization, social interaction, and the use of space in individual urban centers varied according to the size of the population, the scale and timing of economic and political pressures, whether or not a center carried out a specialized rather than a generalized urban function, and where a particular center belonged within its regional hierarchy. In many urban centers, some of which had been at the forefront of economic development between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, little changed in terms of their size, their use of space, and their prevailing architectural appearance until the later twentieth century or until they experienced extensive damage during World War II. They had been left to one side by industrialization.


The organization of any urban society is shaped by the size of the urban center and by its role within a wider urban network. This applied as much to the twentieth century as it did to the sixteenth, with two important differences. The first is one of scale. A small town in the 1500s could have a population as low as two thousand or less, but, like the Sicilian town of Gangi, still house a range of artisans, shopkeepers, rentiers, and merchants, all of whom provided the basic elements of industrial production and commercial exchange necessary to define it as an urban center. A modern equivalent, Carpentras, in the south of France, with twenty-four thousand inhabitants in the late twentieth century, may have been many times larger but offered little more in terms of economic functions. The same contrasts of scale can be seen by comparing Venice (190,000 at the end of the sixteenth century), with Birmingham, at present England's second city (roughly 1 million in 1991). In terms of its economic complexity, and still more of its international cultural importance, Venice ranks far higher than Birmingham, but on a much smaller demographic base.

The second difference in context relates to the organization of urban networks. All urban centers in premodern Europe were part of urban networks, usually local or regional. Within these networks, towns were placed in a hierarchy, usually determined by their size, the complexity of their economic activity, and their distance from other centers of similar size. Towns at the head of regional networks belonged in turn to looser collections of international trading centers through which they exported and imported goods, money, ideas, and people. They were the intermediaries between the rural hinterland, the population of smaller towns, and other parts of Europe and beyond. The role of hierarchies and networks differed little in the twentieth century, except for their scale, now worldwide, the speed of communications, and the size of urban hierarchies, which often extended far beyond the traditional region across national boundaries. Differences in the quality of facilities and the range of opportunities within these groupings remained.

The experience of individual towns was also shaped by specialization levels. While commercial exchange, supported by some industrial production, remained the raison d'être for all urban centers throughout the period, many towns belonged to specific categories, which, at different times, contributed to their rapid growth or stagnation, and by requiring particular kinds of labor force not only engendered particular kinds of elites, but also gave a specific character to their economies. Some categories remained important, such as port cities like Genoa and Hamburg, and administrative centers like Toulouse, once the home of one of France's regional parlements, now the capital of the region of Midi-Pyrenées. Other categories grew in importance: centers of industrial production such as Hondeschoote in the Netherlands were comparatively rare before industrialization, but came to typify the towns of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Others were quite new. Spa towns, such as Evian-les-Bains (France), Baden-Baden (Germany) and Spa (Belgium), where the wealthy from town and countryside came to settle for the season under the pretext of taking the mineral waters for their health, flourished in the later nineteenth century.

Changing patterns of tourism moved the focus away from cultural visits to the big city such as Vienna, Venice, Paris, or London, to new centers dependent for their economic well being on the seasonal arrival of visitors. From the 1930s, resorts catering to a working-class market, such as San Sebastian and Blackpool, joined Nice and other towns on the Côte d'Azur, which had become a source of winter sun and entertainment for the wealthy of northern Europe two generations earlier. Finally, capital cities, which brought together almost all these specialized functions, not only grew in proportion to the expansion of the territorial states of which they were the administrative and political centers, but in many cases came to dominate the urban organization of the entire state. Berlin, which became the German capital only in 1870, exceptionally shared some of this power with other cities which earlier had exercised a dominant regional role.


The process of urbanization was frequently expressed by changes in the use of urban space. Naturally, the overall surface occupied by urban activities expanded as a response to demographic growth and changes to the economy, but the most striking changes in the use of space took place in the old medieval urban core.

Changes to the medieval core, sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The medieval core was frequently defined by the presence of fortifications, both walls and waterways, separating the physical concentration of urban housing and activity from the countryside. Within this core, street patterns had developed in a haphazard way, interrupted by occasional attempts at formal planning. People and goods moved between marketplaces, gates, and harbors and between their homes and key buildings such as churches, civic buildings, and guildhalls as best as they could. There was much competition between livestock, the transport of goods and people, and the appropriation of spaces outside shops and workshops as extensions of places in which to work, store goods, or sell commodities. Occasionally, this could lead to violence, as in the case of a Barcelonan silversmith who was arrested in 1622 for throwing a knife at the driver of the inquisitor's coach because the latter had brushed against him as he worked in a very narrow street. Larger spaces, such as market squares and the areas in front of public buildings, accommodated multiple activities which either overlapped, or monopolized the spaces at predetermined times, such as the annual assembly of burghers to take the civic oath in German towns, or the twice-yearly race of the palio in Siena.

Social zoning was partial at best. Some preindustrial cities largely conformed to Gideon Sjoberg's model, in which the wealthy lived in the center, close to a concentration of markets and religious and political institutions, while the artisans lived in their own quarter, often close to a river, which provided them with motive power, washing, and waste disposal, and the poor lived on the periphery. Other cities did not follow this model. The wealthy lived cheek by jowl with the poor, differentiated not only by the spaciousness of their housing but also by their presence on the first and second floors of buildings, while those below them in the social hierarchy lived higher up, or behind the main streets in a labyrinth of alleys and courtyards. Spatial discrimination was vertical, not horizontal. Timber buildings with straw roofs, interspersed by the occasional structure in stone, roofed with tiles or slates, remained the norm, with the consequent dangers of fire, such as the conflagration of 1666, which destroyed 13,700 houses in London. These buildings remained relatively low, giving prominence to those few structures whose height could be seen from outside the walls: churches, castles, and civic buildings.

Early pressures arising from the demographic increase of the "long sixteenth century" created few changes to urban spatial organization. Traffic became worse. Buildings were subdivided, and there were attempts by jerry-builders to accommodate tenants in unsafe structures. The main forces of change were not demographic. Demand for housing from the poor brought little income to entrepreneurs.

On the other hand, the individual demands of the wealthy, and the collective needs of the urban authorities and of the developing territorial states from the 1600s succeeded in introducing changes of some importance, even if they did not alter much of the fabric inherited from the Middle Ages. The demand for more comfortable housing in brick or stone with slate or tiled roofs in a style that would convey high social status and enable its inhabitants to travel by coach or on horseback with ease was met by the construction of new quarters, often on land made available by the extension of urban fortifications or, increasingly through the eighteenth century, in areas where the threat of military attack was a distant memory, in suburbs. These new houses were particularly favored by members of the administrative elite. It took much longer for wholesale merchants to give up the traditional links between their homes and their places of work, something graphically illustrated by the spatial distribution of merchant and administrator subscribers for seats in the major theater of eighteenth-century Lyon.

The ideas expressed in the new urban quarters were also superimposed on the old, in the form of new streets cut through the medieval fabric to link key buildings with gates, ports, or barracks, such as the Via Toledo in Naples, constructed to enable soldiers from the Spanish garrison to move into the city at times of unrest, or the construction of the Uffizi palace in Florence by the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany. These new streets were interrupted by squares decorated with neoclassical monuments and statues, whose main purpose was to increase the visual impact of the imposing buildings beyond. All commercial activity was rigorously excluded.

Turin experienced this kind of redevelopment on the largest scale, but these developments were gradually introduced all over Europe, first in capital cities and major trading and administrative centers, later in smaller towns on a scale determined by the ability of the municipal authorities to finance their aspirations. Most towns and cities therefore entered the nineteenth century with a combination of the old medieval core, increasingly inhabited by the poor, and more spacious buildings set along broader streets, interspersed with squares. Early attempts at street lighting and the provision of reliable water supplies had met with only limited success.

The nineteenth century: City planning and Haussmanization. The demographic expansion of Europe's capitals and commercial centers later in the nineteenth century placed strains on the urban fabric of a kind hitherto unknown. Most of the surplus population was housed in new suburban areas, some of which were also initially places of refuge for the wealthy from the smell, congestion, and disease of the old town centers, but the biggest changes to the use of space took place within the centers of towns themselves. This reflected two trends. The first was the gradual adoption of the urban core as a central business district, in which residential housing and small-scale industry gave way to buildings associated with commerce (banks, stock exchanges, shops, and offices), entertainment and cultural improvement (theaters, music halls, cinemas, restaurants, museums, and art galleries), and, usually to one side of these other services, railway stations, whose architecture signaled their high economic and social importance. Within this complex, many of the old public buildings inherited from the past—churches, cathedrals, town halls, and guildhalls—retained their place, if not their centrality.

The second trend reflected a new interest in town planning, which brought together moralists, architects, engineers, and the urban authorities in a common project to create a center that could accommodate the new needs of the economy and society. They were driven both by fear and by ambition. The rapid rise in the population of cities like London, Paris, and Berlin created a spectre of unrest and social upheaval. The new industrial workforce, mostly living and working on the edge of the urban area, not only outnumbered the wealthier members of society, but had demonstrated its power in unrest across Europe from the end of the eighteenth century. Epidemic disease (bubonic plague from the Middle Ages until the early eighteenth century, and cholera for much of the nineteenth) was a constant worry, not only because of the high mortality levels during outbreaks, but also because of its capacity to spread throughout the urban area. In two successive days in July 1835, 210 and 173 cholera victims were buried in Marseilles alone.

This ambition to create a new urban environment to match the wealth and power of its rulers was shared throughout Europe, but found its greatest expression in the Paris of Emperor Napoleon III, whose prefect, Baron Haussmann, transformed the city. Haussmann's guiding principle was to facilitate the circulation of people, money, goods, and traffic. This required the construction of broad new streets, the boulevards, to link key points in the city, cutting through old residential areas and leveling inclines in order to bring this about. These new streets were designed to create better circulation of the air to combat disease and pollution, to introduce more greenery, and, below ground, to ensure an effective system of fresh water and sewers. They also opened up the possibility of building comfortable new housing for the wealthy.

Haussmann's plans were emulated elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. Often the money, the political will, and the willingness of landowners and investors to participate were lacking. New streets such as Kingsway and Oxford Street in London were driven through older housing to open up the area to commercial development. In many smaller centers, the Parisian model was only realized in the form of a square or a single new street. Even in Paris, the overall plan was never fully effective. The areas between the boulevards, such as the district of the Arts-et-Métiers in the third arrondissement, retained much of their earlier form.

The movement to "clean up" the old town centers also elicited a response around the end of the nineteenth century, which can now be seen as the birth of heritage awareness. A major debate was opened in Florence in 1900 by an open letter to the municipality, signed by the heads of leading British museums and art galleries and drawing attention to the dangers to the city's cultural heritage and the potential loss of income from a growing tourist industry if the construction of new streets and buildings continued to bring about the loss of its architectural glories.

The twentieth century. New responses to the continued growth of the urban population developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Late-nineteenth-century developments in iron-framed building design were extended as a result of the widespread use of reinforced concrete. The work of the French architect Le Corbusier popularized the concepts of concentrating the population into tower blocks surrounded by green spaces and served by roads linking different parts of the city. It was not, however, until the widespread destruction caused by bombing by both sides during World War II that these new ideas were put into practice on a large scale. In England alone, the centers of Coventry, Plymouth, Exeter, Hull, and Southampton required complete reconstruction.

From the 1960s, one of the most important factors in altering the use of space was the increasing use of the car to move into and around town centers. New buildings were planned to incorporate underground parking spaces for residents and office workers. Many of London's squares retained their external appearance while masking car parks below. Additional tunnels, expressways, and elevated motorways were also constructed to increase traffic flow through town centers, such as the expressway constructed along the right bank of the Seine in Paris.

The planners' dream of separating pedestrians from wheeled traffic, which had been first considered in sixteenth-century projects for ideal cities by Leonardo da Vinci and Serlio, came several stages nearer to reality with the introduction of pedestrianized shopping precincts. The initial concrete plazas set back from the older street plan at different levels were followed by extensive covered precincts, which attempted to reproduce the atmosphere of the marketplace while retaining all the benefits of air-conditioning. Later, motor traffic was excluded from large parts of town centers, and the streets paved over in order to encourage undisturbed shopping in competition with large out-of-town developments. Often, it was those remains of the preindustrial center which had fortuitously survived, such as the quarter of St.-Georges in Toulouse, which became a new pedestrian focus of recreational shopping.


Social historians define the composition of European urban society in several overlapping ways. Statistical analysis of taxpayers provides the evidence for a hierarchy of wealth and for a partial correlation between sources of income and income levels. Occupational analysis offers a measure of economic and social complexity, but its utility is limited by the superimposition of categories by government and municipal agencies, by the use of similar terms over long periods of time to describe forms of work that had changed in terms of both the technology used and dependence levels of the worker, and by the absence of distinctions between one practitioner and another.

Changing definitions of citizenship. Contemporary perceptions of the nature of urban society constantly prove their value but require an understanding of the ideological basis within which they evolved. Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, it was members of urban elites, with a patriarchal and top-down view of society, who uniformly generated perceptions of urban society. Consequently, there is a mismatch between the idea of "society" developed by the early sociologists, who attempted to provide models of the entire urban population, and the view of urban society inherited from the medieval jurists, which limited its membership to the citizens or burghers of a particular urban center. These citizens were all part of a corporate body. They not only belonged to the town, and demonstrated this by paying taxes, taking part in the urban militia, and participating, at least in name, in the political process; collectively they were the town.

A definition of this kind excluded large numbers of the urban population, who by modern conventions would conventionally be considered to be part of the urban society. Very few women were allowed to take up citizen status. When they did so, this was frequently for a limited period of time, until a widow's son came to the age of majority, for instance. In any case, women were only given limited citizen status. They could pay taxes, but they were excluded from the political process, did not swear oaths of allegiance to the city, and could not bear arms in its defence. Many others did not or could not become citizens. It was necessary to be economically independent. Apprentices and servants had neither the means nor the autonomy to fulfill this criterion. The poor and the indigent were socially invisible and often exposed to expulsion in times of crisis. Foreigners were suspect and required lengthy residence before being accepted as citizens. Many, particularly merchants, showed little interest in becoming citizens, whether or not their involvement in their host community was long-term. Religious sensitivities during the Reformation also placed a barrier before outsiders practicing a different faith from the official religion of each town or region. In Strasbourg, non-Lutherans were prevented from becoming burghers. Jewish communities in particular were excluded from full engagement in urban economies, for fear that they would compete with local artisans. Many towns, particularly in Germany and Italy, reinforced this by enclosing Jews in ghettos.

The fiction that urban society comprised only those adult males who had been granted the privileges of citizenship was eroded still further by demographic growth and by a shift in urban government from consensus to authoritarianism, characterized, in many German cities at least, by a change in vocabulary distinguishing members of city councils from other burghers. Pamphlets published during the constitutional crisis in Lübeck in the 1660s now spoke of "rulers" and "subjects," replicating the terms of the ancien régime state. While the concept of citizen unity remained a powerful influence well into the nineteenth century, as urban populations grew larger, the realities of political power led to a tripartite view of society. As before, this emanated from the elite, but was often driven by external value systems shared by all parts of the state. In general terms, the elite feared the threat represented by the poor, many of them recent arrivals, whose behavior and numbers potentially lay outside well-tried systems of control and whose location on the edge of the urban area as well as in its center placed the wealthy in a vulnerable position. The third group identified by the elite was never well defined, using values such as respectability and reliability to associate them with the forces of stability. Such individuals were believed to have a stake in the well-being and peace of their towns, expressing a willingness to oppose the forces of instability, without threatening the position of the elite. The introduction of universal male suffrage in the course of the second half of the nineteenth century was believed to reinforce this role. In the course of the twentieth century, the growing sophistication of social analyses, coupled with the disappearance of a visible elite, and the growth of the middle classes modified views of urban society to an extent that they do not lend themselves easily to clearly identifiable models.

The role of urban elites in urban society. The impact of urban elites, small groupings of wealthy families at the top of the social hierarchy, was considerable on all sizes of urban center until the early years of the twentieth century. Collectively and as individuals, they were responsible for the economic and political organization of each town, the organization of space and the buildings around it, the setting of cultural and charitable norms through patronage, and the integration of each urban center into wider national and international cultural networks. Initiators of substantial change at times, urban elites could also marshal the forces of social conservatism, both in the face of perceived internal threats, such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution, and external threats, such as the railway. A newspaper in Bordeaux, which closely reflected elite opinion, pronounced in 1842 that railway construction was "too advanced for France." The first station opened in the city only in 1902.

Europe's cities experienced many political changes after the Middle Ages but there was substantial continuity in the persistence and organization of urban elites. There were regional variations. The participation of the landed nobility was always much stronger in the towns of Italy, France, and the Iberian Peninsula than it was in the Netherlands or the British Isles. The role of merchants and entrepreneurs in urban elites reflected the extent to which individual urban centers owed their economic expansion to commerce and industry. Mercantile elites were prominent in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and Hamburg, while in those cities whose earlier commercial success they had overtaken, such as Lübeck and Venice, there was a growing rentier element, based on income from land and housing. Some similar comparisons can be drawn from France in the nineteenth century, where merchants dominated Marseilles and Caen, but Nice moved in the opposite direction from its earlier German counterparts, changing from a rentier town to a wine-exporting port and tourist center.

New administrative centers, such as Valladolid, Dijon, and Barcelona, brought lawyers and other officeholders to prominence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, relegating merchants to a subsidiary position within the elite. In the case of the capital cities, this process was both stimulated and distorted by the presence of princely courts, whose members comprised a kind of parallel elite. Their role within the city as consumers, patrons, and trendsetters is not to be underestimated. In seventeenth-century Paris it was preeminent. The new quarter of the Marais was constructed to meet the housing needs of leading members of the French aristocracy who attended on the Bourbon kings. Much the same could be said of the Paris of Haussmann, where the courtiers of Napoleon III joined the city's bankers and entrepreneurs to construct new houses along the city's boulevards, and of Habsburg Vienna, where the old ramparts were replaced by the stately splendor of the Ring.

Less complex urban elites acted in order to safeguard their economic and social interests by ensuring that outsiders were excluded or only allowed in according to strict criteria. Unrestricted access was bad for business. Much occupational and professional solidarity was buttressed by a network of intermarriage, a pattern which gave rise to long-standing dynasties, like the Sicilian Muscatello family of Augusta, notaries for five generations between 1774 and 1904, and the merchants and lawyers of the Hamburg Ausinck family, active between 1752 and 1831. Social and economic power was maintained through inheritance by ensuring that the patrimonies of elite families remained within the same circles as much as possible. Certain cultural practices also ensured that only a small minority of newcomers could join the elite. These varied from one century to another. The Tanzstatut (dance law) passed by the Nürnberg city council in 1521 established a list of the families whose members were permitted to attend the dances in the basement of the Town Hall, and whose younger members were consequently admitted to a restricted marriage market. In early-nineteenth-century Sicilian towns, certain cafés, clubs, and reading groups were established, whose membership was open only to the descendants of men whose social privileges had once been established by law. Social unity within urban elites was not always paralleled by political uniformity. In many towns, politics was colored by factional divisions on local—or, in the case of England, national—lines. The long-standing monopoly of the right to participate in politics, however, ensured the exclusion of others.

Such a concentration of social, economic, and political power could not survive the triple processes of industrialization, rapid demographic growth, and electoral reform. The early twentieth century was marked by the introduction of widespread municipal socialism. In any case, urban government had become far too complicated to be undertaken by the representatives of a few wealthy families. They found new roles, or developed existing nonpolitical positions as the leaders of philanthropic or cultural organizations. The rising costs of building and the reorganization of industrial, financial, and commercial enterprises also transferred the role of dominant urban builders from members of the elite to anonymous banks, insurance companies, and industrial conglomerates.


The growing scale of urban life and its impact on the population brought two contrasting culturalresponses. One, identified by Émile Durkheim as anomie, was the loss of any sense that the individual was part of a larger community, leading ultimately to a loss of shared values and to an emphasis on day-to-day survival.

Associational culture. The other response was the growth of associational culture. Associational culture never embraced everyone—its participants were predominantly male and from the stable core of society—but it was an important feature of urban society from the later seventeenth century until the television age. Its roots lay even further back in guilds and religious organizations. Guilds, confraternities, and parishes had provided their members with a sense of common identity, a sense that they differed from nonmembers, a focus, usually a meeting place, rules that regulated their lives, a hierarchy within which they could hope to advance over time, and a set of rituals, which included communal eating and drinking. But membership in a guild or confraternity was also a link with the community as a whole. Both organizations took part in processions and were recognized as part of either the body politic or the ecclesiastical organization of the town.

An overlap between these groups and more specific forms of associational culture began in the seventeenth century. One did not replace the other, unless the journeymen's organizations are included, which developed as a response to the concentration of power among master craftsmen. Early groups developed among the elite and those with aspirations to be seen as gentlemen. They met at coaching inns, where the latest newspapers and pamphlets were first delivered, in order to talk about politics, literature, and science. Others took over the administration of charity from guilds, whose resources had declined, and from the church, particularly in Protestant areas. Religious fragmentation and the growth of secularism also gave rise to groups exhibiting the characteristics of a common focus, rituals, common meeting places, and a sense of distinctive identity. Often these were part of much larger networks, such as the freemasons.

The expansion of the industrial city brought an explosion in associations. Seventy-two patriotic and military groups alone were listed in the eastern French center of Nancy in 1938. There was some correlation between the social status of association members and the extent to which groups emphasized local concerns. The further up the social scale, the more associations embraced members from different parts of the city, with central meeting places. Local meetings were more convenient for those who did not wish to travel. Hence we find the Cercle de la Treille, founded in a restaurant in the Parisian suburb of Bercy in 1881 by a group of wine and spirit retailers, who declared that they wished to meet in the evenings close to their businesses. Employers' organizations were only one type of association. As before, one could join philanthropic groups, some of which were focused on helping the needy, while others, such as the English Literary and Philosophical Societies, organized lecture series and developed libraries in the hope of acculturating the working class. Common interests in sports—cricket, tennis, fishing, and, in the early twentieth century, cycling—engendered other groups. And of course trade union organizations appealing to workers formed dense associational networks that brought members together for everything from entertainment to education. Each association depended on voluntary leadership and on the willingness of its members to devote time to meeting and common activities. Such culture remained an element of urban society throughout the twentieth century, but the increasing competition of other forms of recreation eroded its base. Consumerism had taken over from voluntarism.

Informal and alternative cultures. Associational culture was only one dimension of the urban culture or cultures to which townspeople belonged and which gave them a sense of belonging. There were many other cultural foci with unwritten rules, whose rituals were as recognizable to their members as the dinners celebrated by churchwardens in sixteenth-century London, the initiation rites of the masons, or the minutiae of the annual general meetings of gardeners' clubs or chambers of commerce. The exclusion of women from politics, organized labor, and much religious activity for most of the period was compensated for by other kinds of informal association. Many of these centered on key gendered tasks: childbirth, washing clothes at the communal laundry, collecting water from the well, and shopping at the market or, later on, at the corner shop. While each activity had its own immediate importance, its cultural importance cannot be exaggerated. By engaging in practical activities which led to meetings at a given focus—the bed of the woman giving birth, the river or laundry, the well, the market, or the corner shop—women exchanged information and reinforced given social values just as effectively as all the sermons given to confraternities or the moral blackmail practiced by journeymen and apprentices on their fellow guild members. As economic organization changed so did some of these foci. Middle-class women, in particular, whose main occupations were associated with the home, but for whom the presence of live-in servants provided more leisure, met in each other's houses, in cafés, and in the new department stores.

Immigrant groups provided a constant alternative cultural focus to the cultures of established townspeople. Most of the demographic growth of the urban population, whether in the sixteenth century or the twentieth, was dependant on in-migration. Mortality levels were too high to permit natural replacement, let alone sustained growth. New arrivals often congregated in the same districts as others from the same region and engaged in the same occupations. This contiguity of home and employment reinforced preexisting similarities of language, culinary customs, dress, courtship, religious observance, and daily routine. If migration was intended to be temporary, there were few incentives to alter these practices. The men from the Limousin in central France who came to Paris in the early nineteenth century to work as builders continued to maintain an agrarian routine, rising at five or six in the morning and walking to their place of work. Even when they spoke French instead of their own dialect, they punctuated their words with long silences.

On the other hand, there was a constant tension between the persistence of immigrant customs brought into a town and the integrative mechanisms enabling newcomers to be accepted. Intermarriage with partners of different origins, economic success, and opportunities to live away from immigrant areas all contributed to the dilution of specific immigrant cultures, particularly where there were comparatively few contrasts between the immigrants and the host community. New waves of postcolonial migration to European urban centers during the last third of the twentieth century replicated both patterns of integration and of segregation, with one important difference. The integrative mechanisms came to operate in two directions, enabling elements of immigrant culture, primarily music, dress, and food, to become accepted as part of mainstream urban culture.

The distinction between popular culture and the culture of the wealthy and literate, which had developed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, widened still further as a result of industrialization. At the time when "high culture" (classical music, painting, books, scientific collections, and ideas) was moving out of the private houses of the wealthy into buildings dedicated to the edification of the general public, the conditions of factory work, the location of more and more housing away from the central business district, and a general absence of possibilities for self-improvement prevented more than a minority of workers from taking advantage of the new cultural institutions. Free time was at a premium. There were few incentives for a Viennese jeweller's apprentice working in the suburb of Friedrichsstadt in the early twentieth century, for instance, to make the journey into the center of the city to view the shops in the Kärntner Strasse or to admire the works of Klimt and Schiele in the galleries. It was only when the regulations in Berlin that required all shop windows to be shuttered on Sundays (in order not to disturb the Sabbath) were relaxed that thousands of workers walked in from the suburbs in order to window-shop and visits to city centers became common again.

Night culture. During the Renaissance, the Venetian Republic created a magistracy, the signori della notte, with special responsibility for keeping order between dusk and dawn. This action was a recognition that there were important distinctions between the activities that took place in the city by day and those by night, and consequently between the culture of the day and the culture of the night. The distinction has continued to be one of considerable importance. To its detractors, the culture of the night has always been illicit. The day was to be devoted to work, both practical and intellectual, while the night was to be spent in sleeping or in domestic tasks. Only Sundays and feast days were open to alternative forms of behavior, and these were strictly circumscribed. In the absence of reliable street lighting, travel by night was dangerous and unusual. Any nocturnal activities were consequently beyond the usual social norms and required control. The Venetians arrested men for brawling in the streets, kidnap, rape, and even suborning nuns during Carnival. This suspicion of the culture of the night remained even when working hours had become shorter and many streets were illuminated by gas or electricity. Some anxiety was justified. The night was a time for crime—theft, murder, and prostitution—but as the case of prostitution shows, the illicitness of the culture of the night owes much to its role as a meeting place between the respectable and the suspect. Without the complicity of the young and wealthy, who derived a thrill from visiting certain "dangerous" parts of the city after nightfall, much of the culture of the night, with its drinking haunts, market stalls, and places of entertainment, would not have developed. On the other hand, although the culture of the night can be easily distinguished from the culture of the day, the culture of the day was most important in breaking down differences between the sexes, between people of different social status and origin, or at least to facilitate a common cultural experience, which did much to create a single urban culture in the later twentieth century.

The process of European urbanization serves to emphasize the contrasts between urban and rural social organization both before and after industrialization. Within urban centers, however, the continuities between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries dominated the urban experience. For most of the time, urban dwellers lived in a society whose scale was too large for them to relate to in its entirety, but whose composition enabled them to belong to multiple groupings based on neighborhood, occupation, place of birth, gender, religious affiliation, political or sporting allegiances, or voluntary activity. Each created its own cultural constructs but shared enough of them with others to enable society to function effectively except in times of crisis. This society was constantly shaped on the one hand by the immigrants whose arrival helped to fuel the demographic increases associated with urbanization, and on the other by organs of local and national government, whose priorities reflected the concerns of dominant urban elites. Urbanization reached its peak in the course of the twentieth century, leading to conditions of social overload in terms of population density, demand for services and housing, and an erosion of long-standing social relationships. Since then, urban centers have become even more socially confused as a process of formal or informal deurbanization takes place.

See alsoHousing (volume 5); and other articles in this section.



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

Braunfels, Wolfgang. Urban Design in Western Europe: Regime and Architecture, 900–1900. Translated by Kenneth J. Northcott. Chicago, 1988.

Cowan, Alexander. Urban Europe, 1500–1700. New York, 1998.

De Vries, Jan. European Urbanization, 1500–1800. London, 1984.

Friedrichs, Christopher. The Early Modern City, 1450–1750. New York, 1995.

Sutcliffe, Anthony, ed. Metropolis, 1890–1940. Chicago, 1984.

Social Organization

Blackbourn, David, and R. J. Evans, eds. The German Bourgeoisie: Essays on the Social History of the German Middle Class from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Century. London, 1991.

Crossick, Geoffrey, ed. The Artisan and the European Town, 1500–1900. Aldershot, U.K., 1997.

Crossick, Geoffrey, and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt. The Petite Bourgeoisie in Europe, 1780–1914: Enterprise, Family, and Independence. London, 1995.

Malatesta, Maria, ed. Society and the Professions in Italy, 1860–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Morris, Jonathan. The Political Economy of Shopkeeping in Milan, 1886–1922. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Morris, R. J., and Richard Rodger, eds. The Victorian City: A Reader in British Urban History, 1820–1914. London, 1993.

Wakeman, Rosemary. Modernizing the Provincial City: Toulouse, 1945–1975. Cambridge, Mass, 1997.


Certeau, Michel de, et al. The Practice of Everyday Life. Vol. 2: Living and Cooking. Translated by Timothy J. Tomasik. Minneapolis, Minn., 1998.

Cowan, Alexander, ed. Mediterranean Urban Culture, 1400–1700. Evanston, Ill., 2000.

Gee, Malcolm, Tim Kirk, and Jill Steward, eds. The City in Central Europe: Culture and Society from 1800 to the Present. Brookfield, Vt., 1999.

Schlor, Joachim. Nights in the Big City: Paris, Berlin, London, 1840–1930. London, 1998.