Friday, October 29, 2010

What is a city?

This is one of my half-baked ideas from when I wrote the posts on Speck's document, expanded into a "I didn't have time to write you a short blog post, so I wrote you a long one" post.

So, what is a city?

This seemingly silly question is important because it cuts deep into a lot of the important ideas behind plans like Speck's and highlights the source of the complaints about it: Why do it?  Why have cities?  If we can't define what we're trying to have here, we can't have a constructive discussion about it.

The dictionary defines a city simply as "a place bigger than a town" whereas a town is "a place that isn't rural."  OK, that's totally useless, so here is my definition: 

"A city is a place where humans chose to live closely together.  They do so to engage in trade and for economic opportunities, for convenience, and to participate in the development, expression, and consumption of culture.  The economic basis for the city and its expression of culture -which can only occur in an economically prosperous climate- defines the settlement and contributes to the unique characteristics of a city as well as the cohesiveness of its citizenry."  

This definition held well for thousands of years, but over time, it has started to fall apart a bit as technologies have changed.  Where does it still hold, where has it lost ground, and what does that mean?  After the jump.

A brief history of cities


When you hear the word "safety" and "city," is that a positive or negative connection?  Probably negative.  Today, cities are often magnets for poverty and crime (we'll get back to that).  However, prior to the invention of gunpowder, a walled city provided safety from external threats.  Cities were built in strategic mountain passes, on hills overlooking rivers, whatever a good, defensible place might be.  The capital of the Roman Empire was purportedly moved from Rome to Constantinople because the latter, a peninsula, was far more defensible than the location along the Tiber.  Even some American cities, like Detroit, grew out of strategic fortifications.

Today, this point is a non-issue for Americans.  There are no roving barbarian hordes, and just about anywhere is at equal risk from air attacks at any time.  ICBMs don't respect city walls.

Economic Center

Economically speaking, ability to trade (along with the ability to be defensible) has been the basis for cities since the dawn of civilization.  Many cities grew up at the end of the navigable parts of rivers (London, Albany), others in places with excellent harbors (Boston, New York).  Others had critical access to important natural resources, or were the market town for rural goods.  Improved technologies in the industrial age changed the rules a bit.  Suddenly, the Erie Canal made New York America's foremost metropolis:  Now, a city that always had a world-class deep-water port had access to all the resources of the hinterlands of New York State.  And, those same towns would now be supplied with goods coming through the port of New York.  Boston, which was founded on a good harbor with adequate fresh water and a defensible peninsula but on the barely-a-brook Charles River, suffered.  Chicago was born because it was on an easy place to make portage from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River - canals and railroads made that journey easier still and made Chicago a trade hub and a metropolis.  The Industrial Revolution, beginning here with water-powered textile mills, expanded into the coal and steel producing regions of the Northeast.  The cities in the Lehigh Valley grew up around steel, Detroit grew explosively around the auto industry.

Modern transportation has shrunk the world considerably and removed much of the focus around access to major navigable water systems - airports and interstates can be built virtually anywhere.  There are major American cities in places that were essentially uninhabitable (due to lack of access to food and clean water) and incredibly remote only 100 years ago.  Cities now exist on economies that are completely unrelated to their geography, like Boston or San Francisco, and their focus on high tech.  Of course, both of these cities also have large tourism industries related to their history and especially their waterfronts.  And, there still are us people out there that would prefer trees and water to Las Vegas' desert landscape.

Convenience / Economic Opportunity

The compact urban center with its jobs and infrastructure has major draws, and major drawbacks like pollution, noise, lack of space, cost.  These problems became far worse during the Industrial Revolution, when the population switched from a rural one to an industrial one, concentrating people into tiny tenements around polluting factories.  However, first, with the invention of mass transit, then the automobile, and partially compounded by fear of modern weapons (which can do huge amounts of damage to densely populated areas), people found ways to keep many of the conveniences of the city while avoiding many of the drawbacks: live further out, commute in (I'll discuss this more later).  This changed the idea of a city in drastic ways - my post a few months ago about the preservation movement discussed Lowell in the 60s focusing on becoming more focused on jobs, and trying purposefully to lose people, especially poor ones.

Cultural Center

Why do I say production of culture is part of the definition of a city?  It's not just because I've played too much Sid Meyer's Civilization IV.  If culture is the highest product of a successful economy, then it can only exist within a highly successful economy.  If a small town is economically productive, it likely will grow into a city.  If the town is marginally productive, it will both not grow into a city, and its residents will be too busy working for the level of leisure time and wealth for luxuries needed to support advanced cultures.  Sure, there are artists' colonies around (Lenox, MA) - but the economically successful ones get all their money from major cities.  Of course there is culture in primitive civilizations, but there is, to my knowledge, no "creative economy."

As for cohesiveness and identity, a place producing economic activity and culture is a place a person can be proud of.  There is a sense of belonging, and as time goes on, a connection to the shared history of that place.  "I'm a New Yorker."  I think it's harder to say "I'm proud to live in a subdivision of identical homes for people with identical skin color of identical income levels behind identical Wal-Marts and Applebees."

"Cities of To-morrow"

Ebenezer Howard published a book at the end of the 1890s that was influential in the Garden City movement, which, aside from implementation in Great Britain and supposedly places like North Billerica in the United States (purported to be one of America's first suburbs, of course, a suburb of Lowell), lead to the modern suburb.  His famous magnet diagram still holds value today:

As you can see, he held the Garden City to be the ideal - no negative column.  In fact, most of his positives hold true for the American suburb, in its ideal form.  However, the automobile was in its infancy, and the migration of much of the population away from independent farmer to factory cog (or burger flipper) was still taking place.  It could probably be argued that the streetcar suburb, a la Tyler Park, was actually closer to what he had in mind - and is the model that today's New Urbanism is actually going for.  I'm also not sure if he realized what would happen to cities and the country as people moved to the "Town-Country" en masse.

We Must Destroy the City to Save It

As suburbanization became possible, those with the desire, means, and privilege to escape the inner city did so, taking much of the money, stores, institutions, and later, jobs, with them.  Economic opportunity faded from the city along with money to be spent on infrastructure, services, or new businesses.  The people that were left behind were increasingly poor (as they didn't have the means to leave), which only served to push more people out, causing a cycle that partially because of certain policies enacted at the time and partially due to social tensions, is now referred to as White Flight.  Of course, they were moving to former farmlands, destroying the country as well.

Furthermore, the focus on the automobile and the desire to try to curb the urban decay that was resulting from the growing concentration of poverty, lead to misguided Urban Renewal policies including massive housing projects that only concentrated poverty and crime further and urban highway construction, that only destroyed neighborhoods and allowed further suburbanization (urban sprawl).  Many of these ideas were based on Modernist ideas, like the Towers in the Park of Le Corbusier.  I can't find the exact quote or who to attribute it to, but the section title was a feeling many like Le Corbusier had been holding for years (the car did not create the slum, but it allowed it to spread, and for people to move far away from it).

While this was going on, there were big changes to our economy as well, as we moved into the post-industrial era.  Foreign competition is often unbeatable by cities traditionally bound to manufacturing.  Many of the Northeast's cities lost virtually their entire economies to competition elsewhere - Lowell included.  When that happens, what happens to the city?  Well, in the case of Detroit and much of the Rust Belt, the city dies.  In the case of Boston, it re-invents itself around something else - higher education and the resulting high-tech sector.  My opinion is Lowell still exists largely because shrinking distances gobbled it up into the Boston economy.  This is oversimplified, but it is what makes the difference between Lowell, and industrial cities further away from successful modern economies, like the towns of Upstate New York.

And at the same time, the shrinking of the world due to changes in transportation and communication technologies now meant you didn't have to live in New York City to see a world-class play or hear a world-class concert, if you have a television, or a car.  Our affluent society means people almost all the way to the bottom have these things.

Why do we still have cities?

It's an interesting question.  Blows to urban areas continue today.  After 9/11, the wisdom of large office buildings was questioned (To be fair, many urbanists question skyscrapers as well - for ecological and social reasons).  Telecommuting gives people the option to not commute to work at all.  This saves time, gasoline...all in exchange for human contact.  Yet, Manhattan still exists.  It still has as many people as the entirety of Middlesex County, from Lowell to Cambridge and Somerville.  It still is the financial center of the hemisphere - not some suburban beltway around a decayed downtown like 128 had begun to do to Boston.  And New York City proper has as many people as Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined.  Something is making many of those people chose to live there.  Certainly, many people in the South Bronx would live elsewhere if they could, for example, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a poor part of Manhattan today.

I already said that the same forces that drew people to the suburbs took many of the jobs and cultural institutions with them, but clearly not all of them.  At least not for all cities.  There is still a tangibility aspect that people miss, a sense of belonging and community, and producers and serious consumers of culture do still tend to congregate together, and that is frequently in population centers.  Young people still crave the excitement, as that Rush song spoke to 30 years ago:

What next?

On the flip-side of all this desire to put a new spin on a romanticized past urban model, There is something somewhat condescending about the educated, affluent proponents of New Urbanism desiring a near-freeze on urban planning ca 1890.  That is, after the electric trolley made it possible for a middle class to live on more land further from the city center but before the automobile destabilized the city.  While they (me) can pine for that character-rich Victorian home, is there realization that this model requires the working class to live in tenements?  I'm not so sure, and I'm not so sure how to reconcile this issue.  Perhaps it is because compact communities have a diversity to them that is considered a way to raise all boats?  This is fundamentally different from that Randy Newman line: "I’m glad I’m living in the land of the free / Where the rich just get richer / And the poor you don’t ever have to see." 

Related, it also bothers me that many compact communities today are largely outdoor malls and entertainment zones, or should I say Lifestyle Centres: they have become full of high-end consumerist stores, with little trace of a "real" economic center, one where daily goods are produced and sold, and daily services can be found, populated by the diverse populace required to make such a place operate.

Then, of course, there is the environmental argument, which I think will be at least as important as the "suburbs are boring, morally questionable, and a false promise" argument:  Our lifestyles are highly dependent on acres and acres of cheap, open land to build on, and the cheap fuel and plentiful construction funds that makes getting from one single-use, single-income zone to another.  If and when that stops, and theories like Peak Oil say it will sooner rather than later, those of us living within walking distance of other zoning types like many people in Lowell do are going to have a serious leg up .


  1. No where has Ebenezer Howard's vision for America come true than the Chrysler Town & Country minivan. With it's plush interior and generous leg room....kidding.
    I feel people from Lowell have that same "I'm a New Yorker" attitude. I've heard succesful people remark "I'm just a kid from the highlands" What makes these people want to leave Lowell? The suburban dream, keeping up with the Jones's, fear of the Lowell public schools? The Sun doesn't do a good enough job highlighting LHS's success stories. Every year they have kids going to the Ivy's and other great institutions.
    I remember going to college and feeling a little inferior to kids that grew up in suburbs and went to private high schools. Then one day I was in my marketing class and the professor asked if anyone could tell him what a "mom and pop" business was. A girl from some wealthy MA town said "you mean like On The Run at the Mobil station?". It was then that I realized the suburbs weren't as cool as I thought.

  2. Obviously I didn't go to an Ivy school with my misspelling of nowhere.

  3. and it's instead of its