Cities as a Place

In one way, cities are vast, complex machines that produce goods and services, but that way of conceiving the city overlooks genuine emotional qualities that define almost any location. Most people would argue that cities have personalities, qualities that define them as a place. People who live in particular cities often develop a sort of tribal attitude toward their city. This attitude is reflected most visibly in the genuine, emotional attachment citizens have to their sports teams. It is not uncommon for citizens of a city to take great offense at derogatory remarks directed toward “their city,” especially if those remarks come from an outsider.

How we know what we know about cities is primarily bound up in the symbolism of cities provided us through countless media. Often people have enormous storehouses of knowledge about specific places (New York, Paris, Hollywood), even though they have never even visited. We also have powerful ideas about generic places, “small towns,” “the suburbs,” “the ghetto,” yet though we may not have visited these places either. This knowledge is imperfect and may very well be dangerously inaccurate to both those people who live in these places and us. We must recognize how our understanding of places has been constructed, and we must seek to understand what purposes these constructions serve.

Geographer Donald Meinig proposed that Americans have particularly strong ideas and emotions about three unique, but generic landscapes: The New England Village, Small Town America, and the California Suburb (Meinig’s Three Landscapes).

Meinig’s first symbolic landscape is the sleepy New England Village, with its steepled white church and cluster of tidy homes surrounded by hardwood forests is powerfully evocative of a lifestyle centered around family, hard work, prosperity, Christianity, and community. He called its rival from the American Midwest Main Street USA. This landscape is found in countless small towns, and symbolizes order, thrift, industry, capitalism, and practicality. It is less cohesive and less religious than the New England Village, and more focused on business and government. Finally, Meinig points to the California Suburb as the last of the significant urban landscapes deeply embedded in the national consciousness. Suburban California symbolizes the good-life: backyard cookouts with the family and neighbors, a prosperous, healthy lifestyle, centered on family leisure.

So powerful are these images that they often appear as settings for novels, movies, television shows as well as political or product advertising campaigns.

Cultural Reflections in Urban Landscapes

The built environment is a product of socio-economic, cultural, and political forces. Every urban system has its own ‘genetic code,’ expressed in architectural and spatial forms that reflect a community’s values and identity. Each community chooses specific physical characteristics, producing the unique character of its city. This ‘communal eye’ exemplifies the city’s architectural legacy and gives a sense of place.

In old Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, unique buildings decorated with geometric patterns, create a distinctive visual character unique to the city. Another example is Egypt’s Nubian village, where the building materials and colors are unique and reflect the vernacular architecture of the region.

However, current architectural practices, in almost every city in the world, do not respect the past identities and traditions of our cities. Most projects bear little or no relationship to the surrounding urban context, the city’s genetic code. Architects only follow international architectural movements such as “Modern architecture,” “Postmodernism,” “High-Technology,” and “Deconstructionism.” The result is a fragmented and discontinuous dialogue among buildings, destroying a city’s communal memory.

Street art and graffiti have been filling this gap, explaining the conflict between the traditional culture and contemporary sociopolitical issues of cities. Street artists are repurposing city walls to highlight heritage, history, and identity and, in some cases, to humanize this struggle. Each city has a unique wall art that has become part of its overall genetic code. Some of the art in Santiago, for example, highlights Chilean identity. Another example is how wall art was used during the Egyptian revolution to memorialize the events. In March 2012, young graffiti artists launched the “No Walls” movement when the Egyptian authorities constructed several concrete walls to block important street junctions to control peaceful demonstrations.

Many scholars of urban morphology suggest that the street network of any city is made up of a dual network −the foreground network, consisting of the main streets in the urban system, and background network, made up of alleyways or smaller streets. The foreground network, or the leading street network, usually have a universal form, a ‘deformed wheel’ structure composed of small semi-grid street pattern in the center (hub) linked with at least one ring road (rim) through diagonal streets (spokes). However, the form of the background network differs from a city to another; therefore, it is this network that gives a city its spatial identity.

Many cities such as London, Tokyo, and Cairo have a similar universal street pattern of a ‘deformed wheel’ in the foreground network despite having different background networks, possibly as a result of cultural differences or contributing to the creation of those cultural differences. In short, the background network reflects the unique structure of each city, and could be considered its genetic code.

Economic Development and City Infrastructure

The evidence of the definite link between urban areas and economic development is overwhelming. With just 54 percent of the world’s population, cities account for more than 80 percent of global GDP. In virtually all cases, the contribution of urban areas to national income is more significant than their share of the national population. For instance, Paris accounts for 16 percent of the population of France, but generates 27 percent of GDP.

Similarly, Kinshasa and metro Manila account for 13 percent and 12 percent of the population of their respective countries, but generate 85 percent and 47 percent of the income of the democratic republic of Congo and Philippines respectively. The ratio of the share of urban areas’ income to share of the population is more considerable for cities in developing countries vis-à-vis those of developed countries. This is an indication that the transformative force of urbanization is likely to be higher in developing countries, with possible implications for harnessing the positive nature of urbanization.

The higher productivity of urban areas stems from agglomeration economies, which are the benefits firms and businesses derive from locating near to their customers and suppliers to reduce transport and communication costs. They also include proximity to a vast labor pool, competitors within the same industry, and firms in other industries.

These economic gains from agglomeration can be summarized as three essential functions: matching, sharing, and learning. First, cities enable businesses to match their distinctive requirements for labor, premises, and suppliers better than smaller towns because a more extensive choice is available. Better matching means greater flexibility, higher productivity, and more vigorous growth. Second, cities give firms access to a bigger and improved range of shared services, infrastructure, and external connectivity to national and global customers because of the scale economies for providers. Third, firms benefit from the superior flows of information and ideas in cities, promoting more learning and innovation. Proximity facilitates the communication of complex ideas between firms, research centers, and investors. Proximity also enables formal and informal networks of experts to emerge, which promotes comparison, competition, and collaboration. It is not surprising, therefore, that large cities are the most likely places to spur the creation of young high growth firms, sometimes described as “gazelles.” It is cheaper and easier to provide infrastructure and public services in cities. The cost of delivering services such as water, housing, and education is 30-50 percent less expensive in concentrated population centers than in sparsely populated areas.

The benefits of agglomeration can be offset by rising congestion, pollution, pressure on natural resources, higher labor, and property costs. More significant policing costs occasioned higher levels of crime and insecurity, often in the form of negative externalities or agglomeration diseconomies. These inefficiencies grow with city size, especially if urbanization is not adequately managed, and if cities are deprived of essential public infrastructure. The immediate effect of dysfunctional systems, gridlock, and physical deterioration may be to deter private investment, reduce urban productivity, and hold back growth. Cities can become victims of their success, and the transformative force of urbanization can diminish.

The dramatic changes in the spatial form of cities, brought about by rapid urbanization over time, present significant challenges and opportunities. Whereas new spatial configurations play a crucial role in creating prosperity, there is an urgent demand for more integrated planning, robust financial planning, service delivery, and strategic policy decisions. These interventions are necessary if cities are to be sustainable, inclusive, and ensure a high quality of life for all. Urban areas worldwide continue to expand, giving rise to an increase in both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

With cities growing beyond their administrative and physical boundaries, conventional governing structures and institutions become outdated. This trend has led to expansion not just in terms of population settlement and spatial sprawl, but has altered the social and economic spheres of influence of urban residents. In other words, the functional areas of cities and the people that live and work within them are transcending physical boundaries.

Cities have extensive labor, real estate, industrial, agricultural, financial, and service markets that spread over the jurisdictional territories of several municipalities. In some cases, cities have spread across international boundaries plagued with fragmentation, congestion, degradation of environmental resources, and weak regulatory frameworks. City leaders struggle to address demands from citizens who live, work, and move across urban regions irrespective of municipal jurisdictional boundaries. The development of complex interconnected urban areas introduces the possibility of reinventing new mechanisms of governance.

A city’s physical form, its built environment characteristics, the extent and pattern of open spaces together with the relationship of its density to destinations and transportation corridors, all interact with natural and other urban features to constrain transport options, energy use, drainage, and future patterns of growth. It takes careful, proper coordination, location, and design (including mixed uses) to reap the benefits more compact urban patterns can bring to the environment (such as reduced harmful emissions) and quality of life.

Urban space can be a strategic entry point for driving sustainable development. However, this requires innovative and responsive urban planning and design, that utilizes density, minimizes transport needs and service delivery costs, optimizes land-use, enhances mobility and space for civic and economic activities, and provides areas for recreation, cultural, and social interaction to improve the quality of life. By adopting relevant laws and regulations, city planners are revisiting the compact and mixed land-use city, reasserting notions of urban planning that address the new challenges and realities of scale, with urban region-wide mobility and infrastructure demands.

The need to move from sectoral interventions to strategic urban planning and more comprehensive urban policy platforms is crucial in transforming city form. For example, transport planning was often isolated from land- use planning, and this sectoral divide has caused wasteful investment with long-term negative consequences for a range of issues, including residential development, commuting, and energy consumption. Transit and land- use integration is one of the most promising means of reversing the trend of automobile-dependent sprawl and placing cities on a sustainable pathway.

The more compact a city, the more productive and innovative it is, and the lower it is per capita resource use and emissions. City planners have recognized the need to advance higher density, mixed-use, inclusive, walkable, bikeable, and public transport-oriented cities. Accordingly, sustainable and energy-efficient cities, low carbon, with renewable energy at scale, are re-informing decision making on the built environment.

Despite shifts in planning thought, whereby compact cities and densification strategies have entered mainstream urban planning practice, the market has resisted such approaches, and consumer tastes have persisted for low-density residential land. Developers of suburbia and exurbia continue to subdivide the land and build housing, often creating single-purpose communities. The new urbanists have criticized the physical patterns of suburban development and car-dependent subdivisions that separate malls, workspaces, and residential uses by highways and arterial roads. City leaders and planning professionals have responded and greatly enhanced new community design standards. Smart growth is an approach to planning that focuses on rejuvenating inner-city areas and older suburbs, and remediating brownfields. Where new suburbs are developed, the goal is to design them to be town-centered, transit and pedestrian-oriented, less automobile-dependent, mixed-use housing, and commercial and retail uses that use cleaner energy and other green technologies.

The tension in planning practice needs to be better acknowledged and further discussed if sustainable cities are to be realized. The forces that continue to drive the physical form of many cities, despite the best intentions of planning, present challenges that need to be at the forefront of any discussion on the sustainable development goals of cities. Some pertinent issues, which suggest the need for rethinking past patterns of urbanization and addressing them include:

  • Competing jurisdictions between cities, towns and surrounding peri-urban areas whereby authorities compete with each other to attract suburban development
  • The actual costs to the economy and society of fragmented land use and car-dependent spatial development; and
  • How to come up with affordable alternatives to accommodate the additional 2.5 billion people that would reside in cities by 2050.

In reality, it is mainly these outer suburbs, edge cities, and outer city nodes in more significant city regions where new economic growth and jobs are being created, and where much of this new population will be accommodated. While densification strategies and more robust compact city planning in existing city spaces will help absorb a portion of this growth, the critical challenge facing planners is how to accommodate new growth beyond the existing core and suburbs. This will largely depend on local governments’ ability to overcome fragmentation in local political institutions, and a more coherent legislation and governance framework, which addresses urban complexities spread over different administrative boundaries.


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Introduction to Human Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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