The relationship between the challenge to design towards improved sustainability for today’s cities with lost urban traditions in human history is not obvious. TruLife views the long history of urbanisation as a major research resource of evidence on urban developmental trajectories. Today’s sustainability concerns may inform our investigations of past urban traditions to generate better usable knowledge, while better knowledge of past trajectories may inform how we can intervene in urban development processes. We see great benefit in studying just how different and diverse cities have been. Over two millennia of city building by the ancient Maya in the tropics of Central America demonstrated just that. To identify the challenges and opportunities of learning from rigorous comparisons throughout urban history TruLife asks: “Can studying the diversity of long-term urban traditions effectively inform designing for sustainable urban futures?”

TruLife aims to formulate concrete suggestions and ideas for collaborative research related to urban design. We focus on the case of pre-Columbian Maya tropical urbanism through three interconnected lenses: (1) Waste Management and Decay; (2) Spatial Practice; (3) Food Security. These are the themes of three academic workshops, which will be followed by a programme of public engagement structured around an Urban Design Ideas Competition and an exhibition of shortlisted contributions.

Below we include the full description of TruLife’s objectives as assessed and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

An AHRC-funded international Research Network

Facing the challenge of increasing urbanisation, strategies for future city development are not considering the long urban past. Archaeologists of ancient cities recognise that long-term urban processes can teach us about diverse human-environment interactions. Thus, TruLife’s core research question is:

Can studying the diversity of long-term urban traditions, exemplified by pre-Columbian Maya tropical cities, effectively inform designing for sustainable urban futures?


Research activities

Under the current Cross-Council Enquiry Highlight Notice, TruLife will create a humanities led network of researchers that incorporates the environmental and social sciences. They will convene in three workshops dedicated to pivotal concerns ubiquitous to building sustainable cities:

A) Food Security; B) Decay and Waste Management; C) Spatial Practice

TruLife’s workshops establish concrete foundations for comparative frames of reference, associated terms, data, and analysis relevant to pertinent topics, which will be widely disseminated.



The longest time span and most diverse cases of urban developmental pathways are being recorded by archaeologists. This significantly expanded evidence base of urban scenarios is currently not used in designs for sustainable urban life. A lack of comparative frames of reference (including commensurable methods and data presentation) causes the absence of direct, mutually informing dialogues.

With a focus on the well-documented 2,500 year history of the Maya Neotropical urban tradition, workable, high-potential outcomes for wide-ranging research and innovative design applications can be achieved. Maya urbanism offers an elucidating case. It flourished without the ‘human-animal grazing complex’ Old World urban growth relies on. This contrast asks crucial questions about critical differences in human-environment interactions. Maya everyday urban life and development thrived in different urban ecological relations and metabolic processes to those of globalised temperate-climate models. European colonisation replaced Maya urban configurations with such models, causing the loss of key practices, including its long-term adaptability to change. Dependence on grazing animals results in declining soil fertility, soil erosion, massive deforestation, and misdirected investments (e.g. growing crops to feed cattle), all of which pose a global threat to humanity.

Urban design and environmental engineering aspire to balance ecological relations of cities to attain more sustainable social life. The usability of ideas derived from TruLife’s cross-disciplinary encounters follows from both a better appreciation of archaeological contributions outside the discipline and allowing environmental and urban social science to influence archaeological investigation.


Dissemination and Impact

TruLife will examine the relevance of long-term Maya tropical cities to offering critical contexts and alternatives to current discussions on strategies for urban futures, disseminating results in a special issue of an international journal (TruLife has links to Journal of Urbanism and Ecology and Society) and abridged methodological pointers on an existing research website.

Developing a brief for a Design Ideas Competition will test the ability of new insights and frames of reference in areas of shared concern. The competition and resulting exhibition will be organised with non-academic project partners creating a powerful arena of knowledge exchange and impact, both of research and impacting subsequent research scopes.



The network comprises an international membership with a strategic UK base (12 in 6 countries), expert invitees (6), and non-academic project partners (2). Diverse membership, including links to related NGOs, steering group, and external partners ensure the quality and broad leverage for TruLife’s outputs. Impact activities concern urban populations, urban professionals, students, and a knowledgeable public.