Fire and Flammable Cities: Urban Environment and Culture in History

May 15, 2008 - May 17, 2008

Conference at the GHI | Convener: Uwe Lübken (GHI), Greg Bankoff (University of Hull), Jordan Sand (Georgetown University)

Proposals are invited for an international multi-disciplinary conference on the comparative history of uncontrolled fire in large urban settlements around the world. Through a focus on fire, we hope to illuminate a host of issues surrounding urban cultures and the environmental significance of cities.

Preindustrial cities burned frequently. Yet many prospered, and some grew to populations of over a million inhabitants. Although new building and extinguishing technologies and the rise of fire insurance fundamentally altered the relationship between cities and fire beginning in the seventeenth century, many cities remained largely wood-built into the twentieth century. Some still are.

The English-language historiography on urban fire history is strongly weighted toward Europe and the United States. The conveners therefore look forward particularly to contributions on cities in the non-Western world in addition to proposals on European and North American cities. Comparison of differing urban morphologies, types of building material, social systems, cultural attitudes, and methods for coping with disaster in diverse locations should make this conference a significant first step toward a truly global history of urban fire.

We seek fresh thinking on a range of interconnected questions including:


    • Architecture. Why were flammable materials used and until when did they continue to be used? What was the relationship between fire hazard and city planning?
    • Habitation and urban morphology. How did density and other aspects of construction and habitation encourage or inhibit the spread of fires?
    • Environment and economy. What were the effects of climate and seasonal weather patterns? How did urban fires affect rural areas, as sources of lumber and fuel, as part of the urban economy, etc.?
    • Social factors contributing to fire. How did fires start? Were there incentives to start uncontrolled fires? What role did changes in the use of controlled fire have on the problem of uncontrolled fire?
    • Social effects of fire. Who was most affected? Who lost most and who benefited? How did citizens cope with fire?
    • Management of fire. Who fought fires and how? How did government and urban residents cope with the risk of uncontrolled fire and with the aftermath of large fires? How were fires recorded? How were they understood? What was done about arson?
    • Politics and social change affecting fire regimes. What was the impact of war in regimes of fire management? What social, political, or economic factors brought about change in the regime of fire management?

    Of course, individual papers cannot address all of these questions—nor is this list intended to exclude other possible questions. We are interested, however, in papers that will draw from the archive of particular cities and at the same time offer broad insights on the historical relationships between urban habitation, urban governance and urban environments. We also encourage proposals that incorporate transregional or global economic and environmental issues. By addressing a common core group of questions for global comparison, we hope to be able to map regional patterns and determine in a nuanced way for the first time what roles climate, economy, government and culture have played in fire regimes in different parts of the world. Presenters must commit themselves to intensive collaboration with the editors and other participants toward publication of a coherent and wide-ranging global study.

    Please send a proposal of no more than 500 words and a brief CV via email to Ms. Bärbel Thomas at the GHI.

    The deadline for submission of proposals is August 15, 2007. Participants will be notified by the end of September.

    The conference will be held in English and focus on the discussion of precirculated papers of about 7,000 to 8,000 words (due by April 15, 2008). The GHI will cover the cost for travel and accommodations of participants.

    If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email:

    Greg Bankoff - Uwe Luebken - Jordan Sand