What is a city.

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What is a city? Take a minute, and really think it through. To what end have we tended to gather in larger and larger settlements, to enter into more complex and problematic relationships with each other, to construct these hives of human activity, these cities?

Are cities the material framework of social life or the grouping of humanity into rather dense concentrations? Or rather, are cities both; a complex interplay between these two definitions?

Very few people ever stop to ask themselves this question let alone spend much time actually considering a response. And yet, it is our collective but unconscious response to this question that lies at the heart of how we construct and produce our cities. A city’s architecture speaks more clearly and lastingly to the priorities and sensibilities of entire eras, cultures and civilisations than any word. Its layout is a mirror imprint of our dominant philosophies and sense of our own place in the universe; its streets and neighbourhoods a clearer reflection of the character of a people, its inhabitants than any survey. Its temper and mood more articulately described through the attitude struck by the average passing pedestrian than any constitution could possibly do. More than this, however, our cities stand at the core of what it means to be a human being.


Why the City

Human beings are an especially social species. We rely from the moment of birth on our relationships with others to survive. We rely from our earliest memories on those around us, and as we grow, on our exchanges with others to fully develop and to find meaning in life. And so it is that we have also been gathering together in larger and more complex groups ever since we first climbed out of the trees and began to stride gingerly across the savannah. We’ve moved from small farming communities of just a handful of families into larger villages and finally, into the city. Yet, despite our tendencies to gather we have, until quite recently in human history, remained a predominantly rural sort. The industrialisation of the planet as is now taking place, however, has changed all this. As I sit here, furiously typing, varying estimates put the tipping point of this now centuries-long flood of humanity out of the fields and off the farms and into the city at about now; indeed, a majority of human beings on the planet do now, or will very shortly, live in cities.Favela

It is in the earliest permanent settlements, fed by emerging agricultural efficiencies, that the human imagination began to emerge and where arts, politics, and culture can all find common ancestry.[i] Our first cities were at the first markets, gathering places that existed so as to maximize exchange possibilities and to minimise travel. They were essentially a means to overcome the inefficiencies of travel and communication over long distances, and as these early cities grew and expanded, they drew from further and further afield.[ii] By bringing more strangers together, these early concentrations grew greater and greater senses of identity, both of the individual but perhaps more importantly for earlier human communities, senses of collective identities.

These early cities were at their very cores public places, human places because they were also walking places, places where streets played an integral role.[iii] Much of life spilled out into the streets where the inhabitants of the city met each other, had face-to-face encounters, negotiated, walked and mingled. Human densities in these early cities were such that the streets were common meeting and play places, market places, and also traffic places. (Vehicles of all sorts have always plied the passageways of our cities, and this network is integral to the functioning of a city, but transportation within the city was seen and indeed experienced merely as a means to an end, a means to enable and facilitate exchange.[iv]) children playing in the streetCity streets were always understood to be public spaces, and so they were; they were fully human ecologies. It was in the streets that identities were constructed, where children played and were socialised, where community was grown.[v] Indeed, as dynamic places, they enabled and encouraged human contact, contact that forced us to acknowledge and try and live in peace with the difference all around us. They were places to interact and build the common narrative and social trust that enables us to see beyond ourselves and immediate others to encompass wider and wider ranges of people.[vi] 

And so cities, more than anything, are social places. But they are also physical places. Places that not only reflect our attitudes and values, our priorities, the way we deal with each other, but help shape these relationships as well. It is in the architecture of a city, in its spatial layout, in its public places, in the strangers and in the friends that we meet on the street, in the course of our everyday lives that we learn about ourselves. Indeed, cities are places, the milieu within which our ways of life are constructed and reconstructed, and within which individuals are socialised intocity street an appreciation of who they are and what is expected of them. And these interactions are only possible in public, in the streets.

Public Places, Private Spaces

Modern cities, particularly in their western form, however, are increasingly segregated, mono-zone environments no longer able to express any combination of fundamental human qualities, where public exchange is marginalised and at once rendered private. The market function of street space has shrunk back, receded completely from the public realm of the road to the private sphere, from the street merchant to the indoor malls and shopping centre. The loss of the street as a legitimate place of commerce in much of the western world has reduced the probability of human encounter and has thus further degraded the street as a social meeting place. With fewer reasons to be on the street, we have retreat indoors choosing the detached stimulation of the television screen for the demanding and intimate interaction of real live human beings. And so, of the three public uses for street space in the mythical and much hypothesised, pre-modern city, all that is left is traffic. The automobile has for all intents driven the human being from the roadway and with her the social, public character of the street. It has claimed the entirety of the space for itself and has replaced the flâneur, the loafer and idler, the child playing a game with the growling motorist, with an uninterested traveler but never a resident. With the domination by the car of the street it has ceased to be a place, a destination and has instead become a corridor of movement, a route, a space for moving through. Some may object that there are places where the car has not conquered, where the pedestrian still reigns, and while I most certainly acknowledge these peculiarities, I must insist that the reader recall the old adage about exceptions.

Much of what had traditionally been places for ‘public life’ has become strictly controlled and segregated by this process of de facto privatisation, suburbsboth from without by physical design, but perhaps more consequentially, from within.[vii] Streets were often widened so as to better facilitate the movement of traffic, sidewalks disappear in new suburban developments and homes are turned inwards replacing the social space of the porch with large garages.[viii] The loose social and community ties that used to grow by virtue of having to share public places with someone else, having to negotiate the use of that space directly with a stranger has largely disappeared from all but the densest of city neighbourhoods, and so too the organic nature of urban life. Where once streets were a place of contestation, places with constantly changing meanings, tempos and ethos through which we had to find our way, they have become sanitised places. Where once as humans we were forced to deal one another face-to-face, now as drivers and pedestrians we are freed of this need. Where once streets were places of anarchic self-government, they have become now spaces of regimented government.

Discipline and disappearing democracy

Whenever government takes over your decisions, you can’t develop your own evaluations anymore… But whenever you have the freedom to make  your own choice, you learn what it is to be civilised.[ix]~~Hans Monderman

Whereas people moving about the city are in essence social beings, living and moving in an environment, those in cars are not. trafficOur modern transportation with its heavy, to the point of almost complete, reliance on the private automobile, has cut out a great number of us from the experience of the city. In cars we move through our environment. They transform us from urban dwellers to urban travelers. They separate us from place and they isolate us from the exchange opportunities that still exist on the streets of the city. They turn places into spaces. Cities that have been disciplined by the automobile encourage our movement to shift from foot, where we must actually move in the city, to car where we move through the city from door-to-door without ever having to interact with anyone even remotely challenging. We are no longer alive and interacting with our environment, but divorced from it. The random yet routine encounters and shared experiences that form the inter-subjective meaning that is so essential not simply to city life but also to cultural and democratic life give way to competitive and often aggravated battles for road space as cars jostle for seconds gained and inches won. We are no longer integrated but rather divided by our street space; the shared meaning and common understanding that are grown out of the repeated negotiations that take place between strangers, that emerge from these encounters, out of the otherwise mundane and pedestrian, if you’ll pardon the pun, act of walking, is lost.

And so with this, much of the ever-changing forms of human exchange that occurs in public, indeed the very essence of city-life, has withered up and died. This reduction in public life has an immeasurable yet nonetheless real impact on the quality of urban life, and indeed, of democratic life. Our ability to be part of a larger whole has been so degraded, our individual identities so stroked and coddled that we are unable to negotiate our way through the city without recourse to a formalised set of rules and laws. Indeed, our movements and actions in public have become so codified as to make any truly spontaneous encounters between people practically impossible. The rules are predetermined, the winners and losers written into the laws themselves. As stated so eloquently and succinctly by Hans Monderman above, as we have become a society of drivers, so too have we become, essentially, now a society of un-thinkers. Democracy, and democratic government more specifically, requires that we, the people, be thinkers. Civilisation demands it. However, having been stripped of our ability to make decisions and negotiate our place in society with those around us, we risk losing it.

The mechanical city

The mechanistic thinking that has come to dominate the western psyche has turned cities into machines, economic engines dominated both in our imaginations and in actuality by the discursive obsession with economic growth. And with it a new speed with which we are made to move through life has become an assault on the connections we, as humans, need to be fully realised.[x] It makes them impossible. speeding through the cityThe speed at which modern life is lived has divorced us from the rhythms of social, urban life, and has focused us on the future, on the being somewhere else. Yet all those things that bind us together and define us, the glue of social capital – our family, friends, community – require time and ‘presentness’.[xi] Lack of it leaves little space in one’s life to make these connections let alone ponder the bigger things, the bigger questions that lie at the heart of our way of living. We have become unable, or perhaps even sometimes unwilling, to be reflective and confront at its core our relationship to our environment and to each other. We as a society have seemingly lost, or at least accepted a profound reduction in our ability to be in the present, to be alive and interacting with our environment, with others, and most sadly, with ourselves.

The modern city, like contemporary capitalism, is driven not simply by efficiency, but more tangibly by mobility and speed.[xii] One need look no further than Robert Moses’ and his legacy on New York [xiii] or the web-like bands of concrete that enmesh the Los Angeles area in perpetual gridlock to catch even a glimpse of this dream. los angeles turnpikeWe have become a culture captured by the promises of mobility and convenience, by the belief that these twin pillars of our post-modern age are indeed ends in and of themselves. We drive miles upon miles along congested roads, circle parking lots in search of the most convenient spot, brave crowded big-box stores and enormous line ups for the convenience of having to only make one trip to the store! We have been encouraged to be transient, to get up and move, and so have become rootless. Our cities have been transformed into sprawling nowhere, not cities so much anymore as enormous highways chocked with cars and lined in gaudy rows of malls, each one more similar than the last, each one more of the same than the last. We live in the city, but we are no longer of the city.  

The modern human, homo-machina has transformed the city from a public place, a democratic place, a place of mutual understanding and accommodation into privatised space, segregated space. The transformation of places to spaces takes place in its emptying of meaning, in its ceasing to be a destination and becoming simply a space that can be occupied only in transit. Place is grounded in its geography, its physicality and space is the liberation from these shackles, it is the absence of physicality. We have been uprooted, made mobile, and not simply liberated from our geography, but also by way of privatisation of public space, freed from our ownership and responsibility for the shared space of the city.

In the process, our streets have been re-ordered and our built environments degraded. The very idea of the city as a central context in which we as humans can be fully realised has been rejected. Much of the public spaces in which our humanness had been developed, where the existential questions of “how” and “why” were answered have disappeared as it is turned from shared into single-use space. And in all of this we have lost, or rather have forgotten, what it is that makes us human. We have neglected our interactions. Streets are not valued as places to meet and interact, and people are not valued much beyond what they can consume. monopoly boardOur accounting is in things, not people nor of the street as a place that sustains a healthy human society. The mechanistic mind has conceived of each and every element of the city as a reducible, rational component of a larger, yet infinitely less complex, economy, ignoring that they are each an integral, non-reducible part of a larger social eco-system. Streets have become corridors of movement rather than living places; and so with the banishment of the human, so the banishment of complexity from life.

Only by re-orienting our social ethos, founded in the myths of freedom as unlimited mobility, in efficiency and speed as end goals, and more profoundly, renewing the view that the city is an interactive people place, a living place, a place of relationships can we hope to achieve some of the goals of shared space. This, however, may prove no easy task.


I have indeed sketched a rather gleaming portrait of an imagined past and in turn, a particularly gloomy cast has been put on the so-called modern city, disciplined by the automobile. And a great many objections might, and even should be raised against the glaring holes in my mythologizing. But forgive me dear reader since I am only attempting to provide a general context in which to situate the connections I believe exist between the health of a society and the health of its cities. On the more microscopic level, I wanted to highlight the role of the city in the construction of self, in our identities and how we approach the world; and not as it may first appear, to blindly overwhelm the reader with exalting eulogies for a brighter, more humane time. The main goal of this essay is to provide a theoretical foil, an un-cut stone from which I will be carving out subsequent critiques; not, as would necessitate the casting out of this entire effort, a complete or accurate portrait of the city through the ages.

Cities have been and continue to be dirty, violent, and at times despairing places. One needs not have read more than a few pages of a Dickens novel or simply taken a short stroll down along E. Hastings in Vancouver’s eastside to know this. east hastingsLet us not (over)indulge in the reification of the city as ideal; but do let’s always keep in mind that they are the most liberating social arrangements available to us. Cities are places where identities can be cast aside and reconstructed, where multiple selves are possible, where we can be invisible amidst the crowds. Cities are where cultures meet, norms and values clash, and understanding is cultivated. Cities are ‘melting pots’, to commandeer a phrase, and have played host to some of the great human migrations of the past centuries. They house great numbers of immigrants and simmering hostilities, their streets have been used as battlefields for the settling of lingering scores and old feuds, and at the same time have been the sites of great social transformation. From revolutions to trade unionism to civil rights marches in the modern era, cities have also incubators of more than moral ills and disease. They are also seats of civilisation, of culture, of learning, and have provided the material and spiritual frame for the continued elevation of the human being.

This essay is an indictment of the modernist urban planning regime that has concerned itself with issues of movement and enabling mobility, efficiency in other words, but that has done so at the expense of how well a city encourages exchange between its inhabitants; at the expense, in other words, of the essence of city life. Moving from the question of “How does this improve the efficiency of the city?” to something more along the lines of “How does this improve opportunities for exchange?” is the first step in the reclaiming of the city for the human being. We must embrace a new ethos, one with a renewed view of the urban experience as being unique, spontaneous, interactive. We need to focus more on creating people places, places of relationships and as we know, cars and the traffic that is the natural consequence of our reliance on them as our primary mode of transport, obstruct these relationships.

This essay argues for the person. I want to identify the most basic unit of the city and indeed, of democracy, and campaign for their priority in all discussion of the city. The first step in a rejuvenation of our democracy, of civil engagement is the return of more than just the public realm, but also the return of the discursive realm. Public space should serve those three basic purposes of traffic, market, and as a meeting place again; the ancient agora arisen from the smouldering ashes of a modern car park. woonerfOne way to begin this process is to return neighbourhood streets to the realm of spontaneity, unpredictability, of risk. It is the cornerstone of life, and the relentless effort over the past fifty years to rid our society of any possibility of risk has had some deleterious results on society as a whole. Indeed, one of the greatest cultural challenges facing the restoration of city space as public space is the understanding and acceptance of risk.[xiv] But that is for a future discussion.

So, as we near the end of this narrative, we must return once more to the question posed at the beginning of the essay.

Is a city a thing, a machine, a physical entity, the material structure of economic production? Or, is a city, more fundamentally, a collection of human beings gathered, drawn together with the sole purpose of those exchanges which enable our social and economic development? More than that, is the city not also the place of politics, of culture, of democracy? Is it not the collective and mutual exchanges of ideas thoughts and opinions made possible by our congregating together in cities that underwrite civilisation?

The answer is for you to decide.


[i] Mumford, Lewis. The City in History. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1961.

[ii] Engwicht, David. Reclaiming our cities and towns : better living with less traffic. Philadelphia: New Society Publishing, 1993.


[iii] Newman, Peter. “Walking in a Historical, International and Contemporary Context.” Sustainable Transport. Ed.

     Rodney Tolley. New York: Woodhead Publishing Limited, 2003.


[iv] Reese, William. “Ecological Footprints and Urban Transportation.” Sustainable Transport. Ed.

     Rodney Tolley. New York: Woodhead Publishing Limited, 2003.


[v] Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Jacobs’ work offers an

     extended and nuanced discussion of vibrant street life.



[vi] One could also use the term social capital in the widest possible sense to include all those connections and

     relationships that form the foundation for some level of social trust that must exist for cities to function. While

     there is extensive literature and research on the subject of ‘Social Capital’, I am relying here on the work of

     Robert Putnam Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.


[vii] Here I am referring loosely to the internalisation of rules and norms that have shaped our perceptions about the

     use of public space. Much of this analysis draws heavily from Michel Foucault’s work around the idea of

     governmentality, which will be dealt with in upcoming essays. Sauter, Daniel. “Perceptions of Walking –

     Ideologies of Perception.” Sustainable Transport. Ed. Rodney Tolley. New York: Woodhead Publishing Limited,



[viii] The Car and the City: The Automobile, The Built Environment, and Daily Urban Life. Wachs, Martins and  

      Margaret  Crawford eds., Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992.



[ix] Quote taken from Clarke, Emily. “What’s Next for Shared Space? We Look at the UK Experience.” Traffic

     Engineering & Control. 49.6 (2008): 205


[x]Engwicht. Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine. Harcourt, Grace & World: New York, 1967.


[xi] Honoré, Carl. In Praise of Slowness. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.


[xii] Paterson, Matthew. Automobile Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


[xiii] Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker. New York: Knopf, 1974. Moses was noted for having said, “when you live in an over-built metropolis, you have to hack your way through it with a meat ax.”


[xiv] Adams, John. Risk. London: UCL Press, 1995


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  • Comment Link Chloe Edbrooke Thursday, 08 April 2010 02:12 posted by Chloe Edbrooke

    This article is wonderful. Very thought-provoking, thank you for writing it.

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