(2017) What is a City?

Friday 13 October 2017, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

What is a City?

This question is coming back to my mind once and again, no matter how much stuff from the urban studies field I have read over the last 25 years. The sociological approach to the definition of cities is deeply influenced by the views of the founders (Marx-Engels, Durkheim and Weber) but perhaps the Chicago School representatives (Park, Burgess, Wirth, etc.) were more successful when it came to set a dominant standard in academia. Yesterday I attended a seminar where three established professors (sociologist, architect and anthropologist-landscape planner, all cis-male and white) presented their reflections about contemporary cities, especially focusing on the Swedish context.

I agreed with some of their criticisms to current and prevailing market-led urban planning, increasing forms of socio-spatial segregation and the ecological contradictions of urban growth. I disagreed with their notions of density, hegemony and rururbanity, but a thorough discussion of these topics will lead me too far by now. What I want to question here is their definition of cities. On the one hand, both the architect and the sociologist still felt tied to Wirth’s view –city as a highly spatially concentrated and socially heterogeneous population. While one preferred ‘proximity’ instead of ‘density’ to nuance his understanding of the spatial concentration, the other emphasised the feature of ‘simultaneity’. Social heterogeneity or diversity was named by both as ‘social differences’. On the other hand, the anthropologist took a much more ambiguous route. For him the boundaries between the urban and the rural always were and still are very blurred, which makes a straightforward definition of cities a very utopian, and perhaps pointless, task.

These conceptions evoked in me a sort of flashback to the 1970s when Marxist scholars inspired a paradigmatic turn in the discipline of urban studies. Castells wrote The Urban Question, Lefebvre was still developing his dialectical ideas about ‘the urban’ and Harvey started his interrogations of urban capitalism and social justice. From an alternative viewpoint, Jane Jacobs promoted her “eyes on the street” insight (as a sharp reaction to both garden-city ideas and bulldozer-like modernist planning). They all, and others, suggested a completely different definition of cities and urban life. Instead of summarising in detail their contributions, I will just present my own which is strongly influenced by these mentioned authors.

In short, a city is a socio-spatial product of processes by which large numbers of people were mostly forced to move to dense settlements over long historical periods, to remain there and also to experience further residential moves within its metropolitan boundaries, according to the outcomes of struggles between the social groups constrained by their embeddedness in specific hierarchical structures of power, wealth and culture. Gender, ethnic and class conflicts are at the core of these struggles. The spatial and social features of cities are socially produced, shaped, configured, perceived, conceived, planned, managed, governed and changed in different manners, but they all are, in turn, strongly conditioned by macro political and economic processes. State form and municipal powers (or autonomy) are crucial, although insufficient, to delineate the administrative and political jurisdiction of cities. Geographical dimensions of spatialities (locations, landmarks, flows of mobility and commuting, types of buildings, urban layout, etc.) are also crucial, although insufficient, to figure out the extension and influence of cities -its metropolitan reach. The dominant economic system (usually, capitalism, especially when operating at a global scale) is probably the most crucial phenomenon to take into account when understanding the social structures of cities, their internal differentiation across various scapes (communities, neighbourhoods, functional areas, etc.), urban policies, how the population is housed, the available welfare facilities and the forms of urban development (and decline). Energy and food consumption, types of transport and general infrastructures, relationships with the surrounding nature (hinterland, agricultural surface, water supplies, etc.), and internal greenery, are nonetheless essential dimensions of how cities fit in the unstable and damaged ecology of our overheated planet. The interplay of all these spheres and their shifting manifestations over time make what I call a city or, if you wish, with a more sociological touch, urban life.

To distil the definition in order to just give a ‘neutral’ and very general starting point seems to me a superficial and misleading approach. Significant social processes that make things happen and key contents (even the contradictory ones) of those processes from the angle of social sciences, must be part of the concept, in my opinion. Wirth’s pioneering article (Urbanism as a way of life) and Park’s and Mumford’s attempts, to mention just a few, are still very valuable pieces of urban scholarship, so are Lefebvre’s lengthy discussions on the urban and, especially, ‘planetary urbanisation’ (i.e. how many so-called rural areas, in particular the metropolitan sprawl, are increasingly shaped and deeply transformed by the influence exerted by urban activities, industrialisation and urbanites). However, too much emphasis on social ‘differences’ (cultural diversity or, as Richard Sennet likes to put it, a place where strangers meet) within the urban scenarios tends to obfuscate the equally needed sensitivity about economic inequalities, political domination, and contestation to them, if we want to explain what is going on in cities.

Finally, we are obliged to distinguish both singularities and trends. This means, first, that there is a great array of cities all over the world, from the megalopolis and large conurbations, metropolitan regions with or without abundant shanty-settlements, and the so-called global cities (where the leading functions of control over production and finances are mostly located), to middle-size and even small towns. Secondly, beyond the mantra of inter-city inevitable competition to lure capital and prevent shrinking or degrowth, we need to acknowledge that cities and citizens belong nowadays to a more interdependent world, although still signed by violently defended state-borders against certain social groups (and almost never opposed to the circulation of money). Thus, they are forced to cooperate and very often they do it on the basis of their particular assets. Among these assets, some are more materially rooted (as iconic buildings, plazas, parks, train stations, etc.) whereas others are more intangible but not the least important to recreate the cultural, social and political character of urban life.

In practice, aiming at critically theorising cities, the above implies that we should get rid from the notion that encapsulates every city in a kind of bubble with some mysterious historical fate or vague cultural identity (city branding and marketing is the main strategy that relies on and reproduces urban ideology). Some cities are definitely more influential than others in terms of planning tendencies, policy measures, attractive activities and so on. Economic globalisation, planetary gentrification and urban tourism are examples of these trends. Notwithstanding, a full knowledge of the local resistances to those processes and the communitarian-grassroots organisations-networks that operate in each city may illuminate more about the specific evolution and governance of cities, than just taken for granted role models, so much biased, from the global North (New York, Berlin, London, Barcelona, etc.). In this respect, a true holistic approach to cities must also incorporate urban expressions from the global South as well, although I would apply to them the same combination of aspects that I have mentioned in my more abstract definition.

To conclude, I still believe that Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), written even before he started collaborating with Marx, is the best early writing of urban sociology where (UK) cities as social, political and economic products are depicted in-depth. A shorter formula was proposed, in a more poetic way, by Bertolt Brecht’s outstanding poem A Worker Reads History:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

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