How can research on past urban adaptations be made useful for sustainability science?

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Non-technical summary Cities in the distant past - as documented by archaeologists and historians - provide an extensive record of urban successes and failures, yet this information has had little impact on the field of sustainability science. I explore two reasons for this situation. First, these scholars have often failed to synthesize their data scientifically, and, second, they have not approached the transfer of past knowledge to present research in a rigorous manner. I organize discussion of these issues around three arguments for the present value of past cities: the urban trajectory argument, the sample size argument, and the laboratory argument. Technical summary I explore the different ways historical and archaeological data can be deployed to contribute to research on urban sustainability science, emphasizing issues of argumentation and epistemology. I organize the discussion around three types of argument. The urban trajectory argument exploits the long time series of early cities and urban regions to examine change at a long time scale. The sample size argument views the role of early cities as adding to the known sample of settlements to increase understanding of urban similarities and differences. The laboratory argument uses data from past cities to explicitly test models derived from contemporary cities. Each argument is examined for three contrasting epistemological approaches: heuristic analogs, case studies, and quantitative studies. These approaches form a continuum leading from lesser to greater scientific rigor and from qualitative to quantitative frameworks. Much past-to-present argumentation requires inductive logic, also called reasoning by analogy. Sustainability scientists have confused this general form of argument with its weakest version, known as heuristic analogs. I stress ways to improve methods of argumentation, particularly by moving research along the continuum from weaker to stronger arguments. Social media summary Better methods of argument allow the past record of urban success and failure to contribute to urban sustainability science.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere4
JournalGlobal Sustainability
StatePublished - Feb 7 2023


  • human behavior
  • urban systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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