Building Theoretical Foundations for a Modern Islamic City in the Urban Age

Building Theoretical Foundations for a Modern Islamic City in the Urban Age

The challenge of creating Islamic cities is one that is becoming ever more urgent and which requires the jettisoning of failed western architectural philosophies for ones imbued with the spirit of Islam, says João Silva Jordão

Urbanism at its apex explores the interaction between the built environment and the social environment, building the foundations for building more functional, prosperous and just cities. It also studies conflicts regarding power, wealth and space and how these dynamics in turn affect the urban fabric, and more precisely how these conflicts condition and are themselves shaped by the cities we live in. The city represents increased physical movement, rapid change, the intertwining of different human interests and the need for the many to share confined spaces. The word urbanity simultaneously denotes that which relates to the urban environment as well as describing civic behaviour. In Greek, the city is the Polis, the etymological source of the word politics, and its Latin equivalent, Civitas, denotes citizenship. Abstracting political science from urbanism, which is to say, limiting urbanism to the study of the built environment, is equivalent to reducing the study of the city to its physical form without addressing its immaterial factors as well as its complex social and economic dimensions. In the same way that ‘war is too important to be left to the generals’, urbanism is too multi-disciplinary to be left exclusively to architects. It is not by chance that one of the academics most cited by contemporary urban planners is a geographer whose work revolves around economics and sociology, David Harvey.

Therefore, the word “city” and the academic discipline that studies it, “urbanism”, does not only refer to the built environment- the city is a nexus of visible and invisible dynamics and its reality is made up of everything in between. Increasingly, human life takes place on the theatre that is the urban stage, and the problems that affect urban life grow as the city expands and becomes more complex. About half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this figure is estimated to rise to 70% by 2050. Solutions to urban problems cannot be limited to transforming the built environment. The key to resolving urban conflicts, poverty, inequality, segregation and suffering is at once imminently architectural as well as political, and it is only through reforming the political processes that permeate the city and in particular its planning and management instruments that a fairer city can be achieved. It is in this sense that the concept of the “Right to the City” emerges as a central analytical approach – because the right to the city considers access to material and social goods, and at the same time, considers the degree of influence that inhabitants have on the urban decision-making processes that affect their lives. The “Right to the City” is equivalent to the right to political inclusion, though tailored to the specificities of the urban context.

In this sense David Harvey (1973: 97-98) argues that our understanding of social justice “must expand to consider conflicts over the location of power and authority to make decisions, the distribution of influence, the granting of bylaws, the institutions built to regulate and control activities… We are looking, to put it briefly, for a specification of a fair distribution, through fair processes”.

With this in mind, urbanism naturally emerges as one of the most central disciplines of the 21st century, largely as a result of fast-paced urbanisation. At the heart of the urban issue are the difficulties related to the adaptation of human life to the city, the need to develop governance methods that can guarantee civil rights and reduce socioeconomic inequality, as well as the challenges related to the proliferation of slums, lack of key infrastructure and the growth of poverty and exclusion. The pandemic has severely aggravated these issues, in particular in the so-called “developing economies”. Urbanism is therefore inevitably political and multidisciplinary- it is not, and indeed cannot be politically neutral because it involves ethical issues such as the struggle around the struggles over access to political power and the struggle between contradictory and opposing interests.

Modernist Urbanism and its Highly Ambiguous Legacy

We must have the discernment to distinguish someone who can be considered a pioneer from someone whose work and legacy is effectively positive and canonical. This differentiation must indeed be made when it comes to the pioneers of Modernist architecture and urbanism- as ground-breaking as their work was, some of the elements of their thought and practice need to be not only criticised, but at times fully questioned and even rejected.

Modern urban planning is riddled with foundational mistakes and often produces grave planning errors that then take a huge amount of time, effort and money to correct. Many of these errors are largely due to the traditions defended and practiced by Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, among other Modernist architects of course. We must not let the cult of personality that has formed around Niemeyer and Le Corbusier prevent us from critically evaluating their works and the overall legacy of the Modernist movement.

It is fair to say that Modernist architecture and urbanism has left an ambiguous legacy. Our assessment of architectural and urban models must necessarily transcend the theoretical plane, because it is precisely through urban and territorial planning that societies put their ideology into practice. It is through territorial planning that social planning materialises. It is through spatial planning that social relations are solidified. It is through them that social theory is imprinted into the territory. The implementation of the project marks the transition between the realm of the hypothetical and the realm of the real. In this sense, aesthetic considerations must be complemented and even subordinated by economic, social and political realities.

The quality of a project cannot be evaluated taking only into account a subjective appreciation of its aesthetic or theoretical value- it has to be based, above all, on the analysis of its real effect on society. This may seem like a given, but it really isn’t. The debate over what kind of city we want to live in must also revolve around the evaluation of the instruments we use to build the said city. And while the Modernist movement does have considerations over aesthetics and basic concepts of functionality at its core, it can be found wanting in its ability to deal with the more complex socio-economic and political dimensions that pertain to the urban environment.

The Modernist movement is often criticised, sometimes seriously, sometimes satirically, because of its apparent obsession with concrete. This critique is not just a treatise on which building material is most conducive to building harmonious cities. Criticising the obsession with concrete is also to criticise the tendency that developed from the 1950’s to ignore the urban lessons of the past, to neglect other types of construction materials, leaving the historic centres to rot in favour of the construction of suburban housing, which more often than not are endless fields of tower blocks with little to no access to basic services, without architectural diversity and with little to none of the aesthetic diversity which is essential for humans to establish points of reference and build a real rapport with the built environment that surrounds them. These inorganic cities, like the satellites of Cairo or the city of Brasilia itself, which is the embodiment of Niemeyer’s work and philosophy, are two of the great urban failures of the 20th century and demonstrate this urban planning method taken to the extreme.

The construction of urban nuclei that orbited around the church or mosque, the square and the market gave way to non-nuclei that does not orbit around anything in particular. The human scale is lost, and if there is a discernible new centre, it is the roads and highways that accommodate cars, which are now essential to get from place A to B, as the humungous scale that everything is built to diminishes the role of the pedestrian, which is to say, disempowers humans from living functional lives unless they are constantly aided by the power of the machine. Curved streets with straight buildings suddenly gave way to straight streets with repetitive buildings. The large housing towers proliferate and take over the horizon and the periphery of cities, and at times even take over urban centres too. Under the old pretext used by Haussmann, who rebuilt Paris and fathered its immense boulevards, who claimed to have redesigned Paris in the name of promoting healthiness and ‘urban order’, a novel strain of ghettos was born in the modern age. Under these circumstances the city loses its urbanity, and in doing so effectively becomes less of a city as such, instead becoming a disconnected mosaic of buildings that do not interact rationally with each other. In the modern city the housing tower block reigns supreme. Modernist architecture is inhumane because that’s what it always sought to be. Aesthetic becomes an end and not a means, the building becomes something that human life must adapt to instead of the building adapting to human life.

On paper many Modernist projects look truly functional, rational and visually appealing. But in reality, they often produce ghettos, solidify social stratification and spatial segregation, debasing the city and towering over its inhabitants in a dystopian-like fashion.

Modernist architecture promotes fast construction and the use of cheap materials. However, in an attempt to fill the housing shortages evident in the post-World War II world, many Western cities produced neighbourhoods filled with “affordable housing” that would later come to dominate the landscape itself. The construction of cheap, inhumane and disjointed buildings was a response to a temporary problem the disastrous results of which are very much long-term. Perhaps one of the lessons to be learnt here is that building incrementally, but better, is preferable to building in building of lesser quality in large quantities.

Classical urbanism promoted incremental, thoughtful urban development, where the initial design can and should be modified as a result of the knowledge acquired during the building process itself. In contrast, the Modernist tradition favours rigid planning and an intransigent building process. The terrain is adapted to match the project, rather than adapting the project to the terrain.

But the critique of the Modernist tradition cannot be limited to an assessment of the typology of buildings or their articulation with each other. We need to evaluate and reform the planning instruments themselves in all their complexity, benefiting participatory planning over “enlightened” technocracy, favouring organic and incremental development over uncompromising and intransigent bulldozing. After all, as David Harvey (2008, 1) reminds us, “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

In a rapidly urbanising world where more than half of the world’s population already resides in urban centres, the question of what kind of city do we want is equivalent to the question of what kind of society we want. Furthermore, the type of city that we have and will have is in turn shaped by architectural and urban traditions, as well as the instruments of planning and territorial planning, instruments that must be flexible and in constant dialogue with the communities whose lives they affect.

Rejecting the Unislamic and Wholly Detestable Malthusianism Narrative

A surprising amount of urban planning policies are now geared towards retrograde, anti-growth Malthusian policies under the guise of “sustainable development”. Agenda 21 initiatives are at the vanguard of this (though it by no means encompasses the breadth of these policies), such is their scope and such is their pervasive presence in virtually all walks modern life.

The basic definition of the concept of sustainability revolves around the practices that drive economic development, as illustrated by the following definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations, 1987). The United Nations argues that sustainability has to be understood with its three mutually interconnected and complementary pillars; economic development, social development and environmental protection (United Nations, 2005).

Far from being an exclusively contemporary theme, the concept of sustainability, particularly in its aspect related to human demography, already occupied a central place in the culture and beliefs of ancient civilisations. The Babylonian myth of Atra-hasis portrayed a measure implemented by the “deities” to reduce the noise produced by humanity, an excessive noise produced by there being too many people, through the imposition of prohibitions on human reproduction and specifically by placing limits on the reproductive rights of women of lower classes (Leick , 2001: 82-83). The need for infertile women, or women whose babies are stolen by demons, is also mentioned as an important factor for ecological balance (Leick, 2011: 183). We therefore note the existence of a myth where the demographic dimension of humanity affects the way it interacts with its environment, in this case represented by greater noise, an effect which then results in the imposition of measures of demographic containment by figures with authority, in this case, the “deities”.

One of the most contemporary pioneers of the concern for environmental sustainability was Thomas Robert Malthus, whose theory of overpopulation would guide generations of ecological thinkers. Malthus’ theories are gaining greater prominence in the 21st century because of the demographic growth that technological advances have allowed, together with increased tensions around natural resources and the worsening of political and social conflicts. Malthus’ infamous declaration, that “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth in producing subsistence for man, that premature death will have to in one form or another visit the human race” (Malthus, 1798, pp 44) generated an intense debate about demography and its economic consequences, which in turn fostered the emergence of various political paradigms. In particular, his thesis came to define a whole discourse of institutions that specialise in economic and social development. Malthus’ concerns about the sustainability of human population growth quickly gained political dimensions (Lahart; Barta and Batson, 2008). In the contemporary world, Neo-Malthusian alarmism has become pervasive throughout the right and left political spectrum.

One exponent of such concerns was Julian Huxley (1947), the first director of UNESCO and a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who argued that “The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore… they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation”. Huxley open advocacy for sterilisation as well as conditioned access to hospital care as a means of demographic containment is by today’s standards nothing short of appalling.

Concerns over overpopulation have also had a profound influence on eugenics, a pseudo-scientific trend pioneered by one Francis Galton whose official aims were to improve the human race through control of reproduction and genetic manipulation. This scientific trend in turn profoundly influenced Nazi euthanasia and genocide policies as well as the philosophy of international organizations such as UNESCO. As Huxley (1946, pp 21) mentions: “Thus even though it is quite true that any radical eugenic policy will be for many years politically and psychologically impossible, it will be important for Unesco to see that the eugenic problem is examined with the greatest care, and that the public mind is informed of the issues at stake so that much that now is unthinkable may at least become thinkable”.

The Club of Rome’s 1972 report “Limits to Growth” restored the centrality of the Malthusian paradigm using the argument that population growth is exponential while technological advances and the increase in the capacity to respond to the population’s needs is linear. In this context, not only is economic development considered a major factor; human agency as a whole is framed in the question of sustainability, as mentioned by King and Schneider (1993, pp 115): “In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill. In their totality and in their interactions these phenomena do constitute a common threat which demands the solidarity of all peoples. But in designating them as the enemy, we fall into the trap about which we have already warned, namely mistaking symptoms for causes. All these dangers are caused by human intervention and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy, then, is humanity itself”. This concept adds a strategic dimension to the issue of sustainability, stipulating that social cohesion must emanate from the common perception that ecological sustainability can only be established through a battle against ourselves, this battle being an attempt to reform and moderate human agency whilst seeing humanity as a whole as its own biggest enemy.

The identification of a common enemy is often used as a means to galvanise a certain group, solidifying its identity and rallying it towards a certain set of actions. This concept, however, indicates that only through the identification of the self as the enemy, both individually and collectively, can a common contemporary political purpose be found. On the one hand, this concept represents the adaptation of existential questions from the individual forum to a collective scale by means of the debate over sustainability and ecology. In this sense, the debate pertaining to ecological gained a near-metaphysical dimension by proposing that the individual must find purpose by identifying himself as the enemy, echoing Cicero when he said that “man is his own worst enemy”. However, the extent to which this concept can be used by pernicious political agents should be quite obvious as it can be used to legitimise oppressive and unjust policies that will ultimately benefit those who drive them.

One can therefore designate many of the Club of Rome concepts as neo-Malthusian. However, one of the variables that changed drastically since Malthus’ time, a change that he could not have foreseen, was the technological advances that, contrary to Malthus’ vision, evolved not in a linear way, but in an exponential way, in such a way that it will have increased the “earth’s carrying capacity”, that is, to increase our planet’s capacity to house more and more inhabitants. As mentioned by Simon and Kahn, cited by Aligica (2009, pp 75):

“Our conclusions are reassuring, though not grounds for complacency. Global problems due to physical conditions (as distinguished from those caused by institutional and political conditions) are always possible, but are likely to be less pressing in the future than in the past. Environmental, resource, and population stresses are diminishing, and with the passage of time will have less influence than now upon the quality of human life on our planet. Because of increases in knowledge, the earth’s “carrying capacity” has been increasing throughout the decades and centuries and millennia to such an extent that the term “carrying capacity” has by now no useful meaning. These trends strongly suggest a progressive improvement and enrichment of the earth’s natural resource base, and of mankind’s lot on earth.”

Constructing an Islamic Pro-Urbanism and Rejecting Anarcho-Primitivist Anti-Urbanism

Another bane of modern urbanism is an unholy alliance between the more sections of the sustainable development movement and regressive anarcho-primitivists. Together these forces make for a particular blend of anti-urbanism which sees cities as being inherently negative, and specifically, as being counter to human nature, soul-crushing, inherently oppressive, inevitably dirty and perhaps the most erroneous of all ubiquitous anti-urban concepts- that the city and the urban model as a whole is unecological. All these concepts are quite easy to pick apart, however insofar as what concerns the main objective of this piece- which is to build the philosophical axes along which we can build modern Islamic cities, it is interesting to note, as I have done previously (Silva Jordão, 2018, pp.155), that some of the anti-urban visions that permeate modern popular culture actually come from ancient texts such as The Holy Bible:

“One must also note the latent religious connotations often found in works that espouse anti-urbanism, which are plentiful. On several occasions The Holy Bible depicts cities as cesspools of sin and damnation. In our collective subconscious, all cities can be deemed to be replicas of “Babylon the Great, the Mother of the Abominations of the Earth”. As is pointed out by Crook (1997, 3):

“Cities, like human beings, do not get a very good press in the Bible. Their origins were in sin, rebellion and violence, and they continued in this vein. They were concentrations of oppression, corruption and bloodshed, as well as paganism and immorality.”

Though many have pointed out that it would be simplistic and even incorrect to say that the Bible only portrays cities negatively (see for example Jacobson, 1994 and Stockwell, 2015), it would be fair to say that some of the negative connotations attached to cities within the Bible have evolved and been recycled in popular culture throughout the ages.”

The relationship between cities and religions and the religious experience is much more nuanced, however, as I also mention (Silva Jordão, 2018, pp. 156):

“Though as we can see, not only would it be unjust to say that cities are necessarily soul-crushing and anti-spiritual, we can go further and say that cities are inherently spiritual. As Stockwell mentions:

Ancient cities were by definition religious and theological. Almost all of them had holy places, ziggurats, temples, or sacred shrines in the central places of the city. (2015, 10)

To say that the city is primarily a religious phenomenon will surprise even the most seasoned urbanists. However, it was the capacity of the primordial building, the temple of Eridu, which some claim was the first city in the history of humankind, to attract visitors and then to make people want to live near it, that ultimately resulted in the formation the first recognisable city centre (Leick, 2001). This temple produced the phenomenon which drew members of agrarian societies to a single place: thus, the gravitational power of places of cult preceded demographic density, and the need for density preceded the building of infrastructures which could then accommodate it. In the primordial city, the temple is the first and central building, and other structures are merely its accessories.”

Towards a Modern (but not Modernist) Islamic City:

Is it not fascinating that Islam, often seen as a religion of and for Arab Bedouins of the desert, carries within its very foundational text, The Glorious Quran, a beautiful chapter that imbues The City with an obviously positive connotation in a chapter that is called, literally, “The City”, (Surat Al Balad, 90)? This chapter is often interpreted as an ode to the very Holy City of Mecca, though it can also be seen as being a concise summary of the core Islamic principles along with an ode to the very concept of the urban itself. This chapter says (using the Sahee International translation, and removing the often counter-productive addendums):

“I swear by this city

And you, are free of restriction in this city

And the father1 and that which was born,

We have certainly created man into hardship.

Does he think that never will anyone overcome him?

He says, “I have spent wealth in abundance.”

Does he think that no one has seen him?

Have We not made for him two eyes?

And a tongue and two lips?

And have shown him the two ways?

But he has not broken through the difficult pass.

And what can make you know what the difficult pass?

It is the freeing of a slave

Or feeding on a day of severe hunger

An orphan of near relationship

Or a needy person in misery

And then being among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to compassion.

Those are the companions of the right.

But they who disbelieved in Our signs – those are the companions of the left.

Over them will be fire closed in.”

So what would an Islamic City be like?

Firstly, the Modern Islamic City should be forward-looking. Though this may seem like a minor point, it is not.

Secondly, the Islamic city must of course be, well, Islamic. Though this may seem obvious in theory, in practice, it means that we must strive to imbue the values and concepts of Islam into the very fabric of the City.

Thirdly, it is very important to make the distinction between the kind of cities that we have had at present and historically in Islamic civilisations, as well as the cities in which Muslims are or become the majority and a vision of what an urban planning practice that is actually Islamic is or would be. Though our considerations regarding The Islamic City cannot be fully divorced from considerations regarding what Muslims have done in way of urbanism in the past and present, we must go further and be more ambitious, and really think of The Islamic City as the vehicle through which the very essence of the philosophy of Islam takes physical urban form as well as the prime arena for the ideal Islamic society to live in. The Islamic City must therefore be an embodiment of Islam itself.

One of the largest issues with urban development in the Islamic world is that it is adopting, albeit with a decades-long delay, some Modernist practices which are being either scrapped or limited in the Western World from whence they came and where they were first pioneered. While the West is adopting New Urbanism, characterised by more varied fractal-like urban zoning that allows for closer access to different uses and activities, restriction of vehicles in favour of more walkable neighbourhoods along with increasing participatory policies and democratic instruments, even if these are still of a somewhat limited scope, the fast-paced urbanisation seen throughout the Islamic world is still mostly driven by ultra-centralised planning and Modernist approaches to zoning and building scale. Though the need for key-infrastructure development, which more often than not has to be driven by a technocratic, centralised approach, cannot be overlooked, perhaps a more balanced approach would not only prove more successful in the medium to long term, it would also go a long way in preserving some of the positive aspects that we still find in Islamic cities, particularly in the historic city centres of old cities throughout the Islamic world. To bulldoze these historic city centres in favour of Modernist planning and brutalist architecture would be killing the goose that gives the golden egg, much like Le Corbusier’s lunatic plan to bulldoze central Paris in favour of Modernist mega-blocks, a plan that thankfully did not go ahead, of course. In this context, the old city-centres, the so-called Medinas that we so often find, characterised by crescent-shaped, narrow streets, relatively limited verticalisation and the proximity to commerce is a ubiquitous richness that we still have- and must preserve at all costs- throughout the Islamic urban world.

Another worrying trend is the concept of building cities virtually from scratch. Although some examples, such as Dubai’s incredible rise from a nearly deserted place to world-class megacity, cannot and should not be completely dismissed, it is also important to note that building cities from scratch carries both urbanistic and economic risks. Saudi Arabia’s plan for a brand-new megacity, NEOM, is perhaps the best example of an urban-planning approach that favours building anew rather than fixing what is already there. This approach might very well be feasible for Saudi Arabia, which has a relatively low population and urban population density, along with incredible financial power- however, the majority of the Islamic world would do best to take its limited financial resources and invest it in incrementally improving its already existing urban landscapes. This is particularly true in large cities and megacities across the Islamic world which are in dire need of key infrastructure development such as base public utilities, schools, hospitals and water treatment, provision and sewage systems. Improving areas that already inhabited can be tricky, especially in highly-dense urban centres, however it is still much more efficient than having to build everything from scratch.

It is not only quite clear building brand new cities from the ground up is obviously much more expensive, but we can also see that existing projects of the sort have something other than the citizen’s welfare in view, such as is the case in Egypt’s plan for a brand-new capital city. It is often much more a case of using public money for the comfort of its ruling class which prefers to be housed far away from the general population., Given that Cairo is also one of the world’s most congested and problematic megacities and taking account of the general state of the current capital’s infrastructure, this new investment has to be seen as nothing other than a detestable concoction of urbanistic negligence and perverse political expedience. It is interesting to note that Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is also building a new capital, albeit using the rationale that its current capital, Jakarta, is literally sinking, while Pakistan did the exact same thing by moving its capital from Karachi to the newly built capital city of Islamabad.

In conclusion, perhaps the most imminent priority when it comes to urban planning and urban policies within the Islamic world is to make sure that limited financial resources are used to improve and build upon existing densely urban areas that are in dire need of infrastructure and development. Furthermore, accommodating large populations should be seen as a duty rather than as a burden while rejecting the anti-natalist and Malthusian intrusions that have become central to the concepts and policies of supranational organisations should be seen as an ethical imperative. Lastly, Islamic urban development should learn from the mistakes of Western urban development, such as the overly centralised and rigid Modernist planning, rather than replicating them at a time when the West itself seems to be moving on from them.

Editorial Note:

Some sections of this piece have been inspired or translated from my own original work in my Portuguese-speaking-Blog, Casa das Aranhas, (Silva Jordão, 2012 and Silva Jordão, 2013), while some concept have been adapted from my own academic piece called “Beyond Self-Hating Urbanism…”, (Silva Jordão, 2018) and the piece is extensively quoted on account of its relative uniqueness and relevance for the theme of this particular article.

João Silva Jordão is a Muslim convert, political activist and PhD candidate in urbanism. He has a particular interest in trying to analyse modern problems using the timeless paradigm that is Islam. In his activism he takes a particular interest in studying mechanisms that allow for the generation of more just cities and develops mechanisms for the incremental verticalisation of city centres.



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