theworldisurban.com

thoughts on our urban future

The City

“City” is a very common term that people use all the time.  But did you know that “city” is not something that is particularly clearly defined?

In New York City, people talk about “going into the city” and by that they mean in to Manhattan even if they live in any of the other four boroughs that make up the city.  This is also a common expression in London, although I think it might be more common to say you are “going in to town” than “into the city” because “the city” generally refers to the square mile which is something specific (although far less than London itself).

Demographia has a handy cheat sheet that attempts to explore some of the confusion in regards to the definition.  Wikipedia also has a go at it and attempts to address differences between cities and towns country by country.  To try and rationalize it, the definitions tend to break down as follows:

  • City as a municipality or local authority area
  • City as a metropolitan area (and by metropolitan area meaning an entire labor market or the area from which an urban area draws its employees)
  • City as an urban area (and by urban area meaning an area of continuous urban development, although to me this raises any number of additional questions about the definition of ‘urban development’)
  • City, Chinese translation – this requires an entire additional explanation and definition which you can find from the demographia cheat sheet

Trying to provide a universal description of ‘city’ is perhaps misguided.  After all, even with the above definitions, it is obvious from my initial examples, that “city” is actually something that can be defined by a local socio-cultural definition.  Most people understand in their own minds what a city is.  They have an internal measure for when they call something a small city or a large city or even a mid-sized city.  Except the thing is, that internal measure will be different for each individual and then perhaps wildly different if you start to compare individuals from different places in the world.

Sometimes we can get so caught up with technical definitions for things, that we neglect the softer definitions.  I would love to see a study about people’s perception of cities.  I have done some of these exercises myself with students where you show them pictures of progressive density.  Where do you feel comfortable?  At what point do you consider this to be large?  What’s interesting is that even from a diverse group of international students, you start to find trends.  But peoples perceptions of space and density have nothing to do with geo-political boundaries or their understanding of ‘continuous development’.  It’s more instinctual than that.  And certainly more interesting.

I don’t know- how do you feel about the term ‘city’?  Where do you use it?  When do you think something is less than a city?  Can you give some examples?  For me, London is a city but Cambridge seems like a very small city and possible more like a very large town sometimes.  But no, I’d probably still call it a tiny city.  But then places like Aberystwyth, Scunthorpe, and Hartlepool don’t seem like cities to me and are more like towns, yet they have many similar qualities to the smaller cities in my mind.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel it like a sort of intuition.  Density surely has something to do with it, but where that minimum threshold lies is not at all clear.  And then there are areas of ‘continuous urban development’ like the stretch between Detroit and Ann Arbor which isn’t actually a city and  yet by some definitions above certainly seems like it should be and far surpasses in population some small cities.

And then this leads me to think of parts of the world where the density far surpasses my experience level for density.  Would they find our small cities to be non-cities?

Did you know that ‘the city’ was so complicated??

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1 Comment

  1. It seems to me in areas like the mid-Atlantic US we’d have one city from Boston to DC if we used urban development – so it has to do with population density over an arbitrary threshhold and political and governmental limits — so say I – worth about 2 cents. It also “feels” kke a city – has a certain energy and pace.

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