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Global Urban History Project

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Dream Conversations

In 2020, at a GUHP open house, someone asked, "What do you want to talk about most in global urban history - what is your 'Dream Conversation?'" Our answer? In 2021, we launched a series of virtual events at which members hold field-challenging conversations about urban history, theory, and methodology. Conversations are member-driven, and we invite proposals for additional conversations. If you are interested in initiating and coordinating a conversation, we are interested in hearing from you! Please review the Dream Conversation Guidelines and contact GUHP coordinator Carl Nightingale to discuss adding a new conversation to the series.

Dream Conversations Past Events

Upcoming Events
2024 Dream Conversations: Narrating Urban Lives

Active Conversations

Theory photo

Theory For, Of, and By Urban Historians

Urban historians are importers of theory, rarely producers or exporters. While we engage deeply in basic research, we contribute less to  the big concepts we use – including “city,” “urban,” and “urbanization.” Global urban historians rely even more on imported theory for notions of the “global,” “globalization,” global city, and “global” or “planetary urbanization.” Most of our interpretive vocabulary – urban and global - originates elsewhere: in the work of sociologists, geographers, and economists, and in the work of literary and cultural studies, political science, and scholars of design, architecture, and planning. While urban historians have produced an enormous secondary literature, we have taken much of this imported theoretical vocabulary for granted: it even feels like our own.

We invite scholars from across urban history and beyond to join us in a systematic theoretical discussion of our own: for, of, and even by urban historians. What would happen if urban historians took an inventory of our theoretical vocabulary, checked its archaeology, reassessed its usefulness, exposed its blind spots, rediscovered alternatives we overlooked- especially from scholarship in the global south? Should we recalibrate the proportion of concepts from different sources, search elsewhere for useful theory, ask what we might do without theory, or even generate concepts of our own more useful to us as primary researchers?

Co-Coordinators: Carl Nightingale, Rosemary Wakeman, and Alexia Yates


Cities and the Anthropocene

Can global urban historians engage the concept of the Anthropocene? To write urban history from the Anthropocene may involve reimagining our discipline. Temporal, spatial, theoretical, disciplinary, and political challenges are at stake. 
Temporally, we need to operate at once on deep geological time, on the multi-cyclical time of the Sun’s relationship to Earth, on the patient time of the biosphere's ebb and flow, on the "deep" time of humans' relationship to other lifeforms, on the contingent time of tectonic shift and volcanism, on the accelerating time of anthropogenic transformation, and on the choppier, far less predictable time of human politics. Spatially, thinking about cities as creations and creators of the Anthropocene allows us to think of the built environment and its socio-cultural histories through materials like dust, sand, cement, and hydrocarbons and through connections to Earthly spaces like fields, forests, grasslands, mountains, marshes, rivers, estuaries, oceans, and the atmosphere. Theoretically, cities of the Anthropocene are by definition global and planetary. What, therefore, should urban historians do with concepts like “the global city” and “planetary urbanization” that come from the social sciences and that typically do not address longer temporalities nor engage the complexities historians bring to the study of change? If cross-disciplinary questions within the social sciences and humanities are vexed enough, what of those between urban history, climate science, and geology?
Finally, we must keep our eye squarely focused on cities’ role in human and environmental justice. As we build a global history informed by the Anthropocene and climate change, we must retain our focus on realities of resource scarcity, displacement, land submergence, migration, the transnational movement of minerals, materials, goods, ideas, people, and capital, and extensions of imperial state power. 

Co-Coordinators: Carl Nightingale, Toby Lincoln, Mark Williams, and Sam Grinsell

Past Conversations

Frantz Fanon in Algiers

Cities, Empires, and (Dis)Contents


One of the most fascinating and impactful developments in the fields of empire studies and colonialism in the past decade or so has been the rise of interest in inter- and trans-imperial and -colonial histories. Far transcending an older interest in competition and conflict between empires, these histories study a wide range of relationships between empires’ governments and peoples. Filling empirical lacunas, this scholarship pushes back against and goes beyond what one may call “methodological empire-ism:” historians’ well-established (and ultimately politically rooted) tendency to study single empires.

This historiographic development is the base of our conversation, titled “Cities, Empire, and its (Dis)contents, c. 1500-2000.” Our central question is: how do inter-, trans-, post-, and comparative imperial case studies of “the global urban” fit into, question, complicate, and/or further the afore-noted historiographic development, and vice versa? Possible examples are: anti-colonial & decolonizing networks, methods & memories; inter-city competitions and hierarchies; inter-municipal relationships; compared urban “citizenship”; cities dia- or synchronically governed by multiple empires; internationally governed cities; and compared ambivalences, e.g. cities as sites of peak resistance and repression or of great imperial confidence and doubt.


Co-Coordinators: Cyrus Schayegh, Geert Castryck, Kristie P Flannery, Anna Ross, Stephen Legg, Anindita Ghosh, Joseph Prestel, Camille Cordier, Su Lin Lewis, Dries Lyna

Kings Fountain

Cities and Inequalities


Inequality has been at the forefront of debates across the social sciences and humanities in recent years. Pushed by the publication of Thomas Piketty’s landmark book Capital, some scholars have even identified an “inequality industry.” From the rise of right-wing populism to vaccine hesitancy in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, an enormous array of political, social, and cultural phenomena has been attributed to various forms and kinds of inequality. Rural–urban as well as intra-urban societal dynamics have rightly held a prominent place in such debates: As economic powerhouses and lodestars of labor migration, cities and urbanization have long fed socio-economic inequality within countries through rural–urban divides. Indeed, the history of cities as very unequal places in themselves and generators of not only local but regional and even global social differentiation reaches centuries into the past. 


Historians have long examined questions of inequality within the geographic and thematic confines of their respective sub-fields. Urban historians, labor historians, gender historians, scholars of consumer and material culture, of the political history of empire, of race and ethnicity, have generated deep and rich discussions about human experiences with power, discrimination, and disparity in living conditions. With very few exceptions, though, such works tend to conform to the boundaries of national, or possibly imperial histories. Additionally, forays into comparative, transnational or trans-imperial, or global analyses tend to still seek a regional, societal, or cultural-specific anchor lest they be dismissed as too broad, overgeneralizing, or imprecise. It has fallen to social scientists, therefore, to propose bolder theories and analytical models that can help explain global phenomena of inequality and their local manifestations. 


Co-Coordinators: Mariana Dantas, Michael Goebel, Emma Hart, Constanza Benavides-Castro