Urban Open Space and Governance in Ancient Mesoamerica

Alexandra L. Norwood, Michael E. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Analyzing the nature of governance of early states and cities is a major challenge for archaeology today. Blanton and Fargher’s (Blanton and Fargher, 2008) influential model of early state governance has proven difficult to operationalize using archaeological data. In this paper, we explore a possible material correlate of collective and autocratic governance: the amount of formal open space in a capital city. We use a sample of premodern Mesoamerican cities to evaluate whether or not these spaces functioned as public goods provided by collective governments. Our assumption is that a positive relationship between the amount of public space and the size of cities indicates that plazas functioned as public goods. In our sample of Mesoamerican cities, we find that the plaza-city size relationship does indeed imply that plazas were public goods. This finding is inconsistent with prior analysis of an expanded cross-cultural sample where no such relationship existed, suggesting that the relationship between the formal public space and the form of governance may be culturally specific to Mesoamerica. These results reflect the complexity of the dynamics of early cities and their governance and suggest that the classification of public goods must be attentive to cross-cultural variation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)939-961
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Collective action
  • Comparative urbanism
  • Governance
  • Mesoamerica
  • Plazas

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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