Sustainable agrarian urbanism: The low-density cities of the Mayas and Aztecs

Christian Isendahl, Michael Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

125 Scopus citations


Maya and Aztec cities exhibited a distinctive kind of low-density urbanism common in ancient Mesoamerica. The non-monumental components of these cities differed from the high-density ancient and historical cities in the Old World that are often considered the norm for pre-modern urbanism. Distinctive features include the practice of intensive agricultural cultivation within urban settlements, residential zones that were dispersed and unplanned, and the arrangement of houses into spatial clusters that served as urban neighborhoods. The residential areas of Maya and Aztec cities resembled modern peri-urban zones and informal settlements. Because of the benefits of smallholder intensive urban agriculture, cities thrived for many centuries, and some were successful for millennia. On the basis of this longevity, we argue that these were sustainable cities, and their form and dynamics may hold lessons for understanding contemporary urbanization processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)132-143
Number of pages12
StatePublished - Apr 2013


  • Ancient cities
  • Archaeology
  • Aztec
  • Maya
  • Urban agriculture
  • Urban sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Urban Studies
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management


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