(Urbanization): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

For centuries small (er) towns have been the bedrock of global urban systems. Yet small(er) towns have received sporadic attention  and the conventional narrative, particularly for the modern period, has been usually pessimistic. This proposed session aims to investigate the dynamism of small(er) towns from the Middle Ages to the present, looking at the European experience in global perspective.


For centuries small(er) towns have been the bedrock of global urban systems. In Northern Europe around 1500 80 per cent of urban centres were small towns. China had a multitude of small towns by the high Middle Ages. The medieval Islamic world included an uneven carpet of small market and fortress towns. Yet compared to larger urban centres small(er) towns have received sporadic attention from historians and the conventional narrative, particularly for the modern period, has been generally pessimistic with small towns portrayed as losers. Sessions at recent EAUH conferences have started to highlight the significant role of European small towns, but more long-term analysis is needed, as well as global perspectives.  Recent events ( Brexit in the UK, the French gilets jaunes), indicate that small towns retain an important political capacity. And there is considerable evidence that at certain periods small towns have been major centres of economic innovation, cultural creativity and regional integration.

The proposed session aims to promote more comparative analysis of the development of small(er) towns from the Middle Ages to the present time, looking at the European experience in a global perspective. We  welcome contributions from European and non-European researchers. Broadly speaking we are thinking of towns of less than 10,000 in the premodern era and less than 30,000 in more recent times.

We welcome contributions focusing on some of the following questions (though other interesting proposals are not excluded).

  1. In what periods do small towns enjoy strong economic growth, serve as innovative cultural or political centres? Can we identify particular types of dynamic small towns?
  2. Is small town dynamism self-generated, due, eg, to local elites? Or is the stimulus derived from the hinterland- eg  impact of rural lords, agricultural change, immigration? Or does it come from urban ‘trickledown’, from economic transfer, migration etc from bigger cities.
  3. The  impacts of small town dynamism?  On the built environment, governance? In the long-term can small towns generate continuing success, reinventing themselves on their own terms?  Or are they destined to be short term success stories or if successful to cease to be small towns.

  • Spokesperson: Peter Clark, University of Helsinki
  • Co-organizer(s): William Rowe, Johns Hopkins University | Luďa Klusáková, Charles University Prague
  • Keywords: Dynamism| Small| Global
  • Time period: All periods
  • Topic(s): Economic | Architecture and urbanism
  • Study area: More than one continent