What Are Cities For?

Kurt recently asked me:

Assuming (1) that you like the outdoors, open spaces, gardening, etc. and (2) that you would prefer high-density urban design to low-density, suburban, car-oriented sprawl, then how would you fuse these two together in an ideal town? If my assumptions are wrong, I realize my question is moot.

I am asking because I like the idea of owning acres of land, but not the idea of having to drive everywhere, and I wonder if those two desires are mutually exclusive.

and it got me thinking about what my ideal city would be like, and how close one can get to that in this lifetime, especially on this continent.  I’m going to make this an exercise in creative idealism.  Kurt’s assumptions are right, and I do feel torn, especially having grown up in a rural area, on 8 acres of oak woodland with a creek running through it.  I am completely sympathetic to the pastoral urge, but that urge is not and never has been satisfied by the suburban existence which has come to typify the American experience in the last half century.

A small urban plaza

James Howard Kunstler is in many (most?) ways a nut, and I think his dark vision of the future represents a spectacular failure of creativity, but I find his critique of suburbia persuasive.  The pre-automotive industrial cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t pleasant places to live, often resembling the squatter cities that more than a billion people live in around the world today.  When cars came along, they promised a new kind of private mobility, and especially in the immediate aftermath of WWII, with millions of GIs returning home, and the vast war industry that had pulled the nation out of the Great Depression set to go idle, there were large economic and political incentives to build something new.  New suburban homes subsidized by the government under the G.I. Bill, new automobiles in lieu of the armaments the auto industry had produced for both the Allies and the Axis powers, and a vast new transcontinental highway system, which was the largest public works project in the world at the time, first envisioned by Eisenhower after undertaking a “Journey Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank” upon returning from the First World War (not incidentally, the new highway system meshed well with the our newly motorized urban centers, after GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, and others helped to dismantle the nation’s system of streetcars).  My point with all this being, there is nothing particularly natural or inevitable, or even market based about the way our cities developed over the course of the 20th century.  I think we were susceptible to these government and industrial manipulations because there were also real problems with the cities of the previous century.  We have not yet solved those 19th century problems; we have simply exchanged them for another set, and in many cases, exported the old problems to the cities of other nations, where the living is just as Dickensian today as it was in London 150 years ago.

At least some of us have been living in cities for millennia at this point, but we’ve only just crossed the threshold into H. sapiens urbanensis, with the majority of humanity now living in close quarters, economically at least one step removed from agriculture and other subsistence pursuits.  Some ancient cities, like Baghdad and Xi’an, arose in (once) fertile flood plains well suited to human habitation, and surrounded by agriculture that could support the concentrated population, but many others like Byzantium and Samarkand have arisen at economic crossroads, in environments which cannot support their populations in the absence of trade.  What made such cities possible, and what today overwhelmingly makes the cities of the world function, is the concentration of economic activity that they allow.  Cities are meeting places, where goods and information and expertise are exchanged.

Except that, in our fascinating modern world, proximity is no longer necessary for the exchange of information, and it turns out that a great (and increasing) proportion of our expertise can be transmitted as information alone.  Commoditized agricultural and industrial products like coal, oil, and gas; corn, wheat, wood, soy and cotton; iron, steel, copper and aluminum; are extracted and refined in an almost automated way, utilizing a vanishingly small portion of the labor pool in the rich nations.  It only takes a crew of thirteen people to move the world’s largest cargo ship across the Pacific Ocean.  Thus, many of our traditional motivations for having cities, and our age old reasons for living in the country, are disappearing almost at the same time.

To say it a different way, historically the most compelling reasons for living in the country have been material.  People needed to live there to harvest the sunlight for themselves, and for the absent city dwellers.  We needed to collect the raw materials of the world, and this was labor intensive.  At the same time, many of the reasons for living in cities have historically been informational, to exchange news and knowledge, to place many specialized professions together in one place, and enable the collaborative construction of a differentiated economy and society.  These particular justifications for the geography of our population have now changed.  At the same time, a few thousand years of urban living have changed society in many ways.  There are human reasons for cities now too.  The diversity of subcultures that is available in cities (ancient or modern) is unlike anything you’d ever find in village or tribal life.  It’s unclear how much of this cultural value can be preserved in distributed interactions — certainly some of it, and I’d guess more of it than we’d like to admit — but at least for now, there is still something special and good about being around other people with whom you share a culture.  I suspect that these cultural justifications, and all the persistent material reasons for having cities are more than adequate to ensure we will not return en masse to rural life, no matter how good our global communications networks become, and that cities will continue to exist, and indeed likely thrive, for two main reasons.

First, they allow more people to derive value from the same material goods.  In effect, the proximity of many potential users increases the economic worth of the same goods by allowing them to be more fully utilized.  Cities make many material goods less rivalrous (and interestingly in so doing, make them more like informational goods).  The advent of ubiquitous location and identity aware networked computing can enable this to a startling degree by reducing the transactional overhead involved in sharing.  Businesses like Zipcar and Craigslist are only the most tentative beginnings.  Arrangements like the Berkeley Public Tool Library and the bike sharing programs in Paris and Barcelona are becoming easier to manage (and therefore potentially more profitable) as more of the organizational overhead associated with them is automated.  Of course these arrangements are not perfect — there are issues of accountability and liability that must be taken seriously, and worked out — but in principle, I see no reason why we cannot more profitably provide a higher quality of service to more people, with fewer (probably more durable) physical things, by efficiently sharing their use.

The second reason I think cities will persist is less straightforward.  I’m going to call it conviviality, or the benefits of living together.  Not living together with a million random strangers, but living together with people you know, in a culture you can identify with and participate in.  At least in the US, I feel like many of us have become a weird kind of urban nomad.  We live in one city for a few years, and then move to another one for school or work, and then again, and again, leaving behind friends and family, eventually realizing that many of the potential benefits of investing in new social connections will ultimately be foregone the next time we move, graduate, get promoted, get laid off, or otherwise alter the trajectory of our ambitions.  The same argument goes for local civic involvement.  We have proportionally more power over local politics than in any larger venue, and yet we seem invariably to end up talking about state or national or global issues, over which we have much less potential for influence.  This behavior is aided and abetted by the supremacy of nation-scale media outlets, and the death or frivolity of local news sources.  If in addition we can reasonably expect to have moved on in another 3 years to some other city, state, or even nation, then it’s easy to discount the value of becoming acquainted with local politics.  There is no expectation of an iterated game.

If we are largely freed from the necessity of being in a particular place for economic reasons, I think we would do well to choose to be in a particular place for personal reasons, to be close to family, to cultivate persistent friendships, and to have an incentive to work on implementing our particular vision of civic society and local culture.  I think this would be good for us as social animals, and likely make us happier, and that the city is the right venue — that it has the right scale — for these endeavors.

So my vision of the ideal city will be considered with these goals in mind: of enabling more efficient (and profitable) allocation of material goods and infrastructure, and of enabling conviviality, the persistent and thus accountable, and hopefully constructive, relationships between people: familial, friendly, economic, political, cultural, intellectual, and otherwise.

Both of these goals are served by density, but I believe conviviality requires a city to have an inherently human scale, which also puts some constraints on density.  I’ll explore in more detail what I think the implications of these goals are for the form of my city in a series of future posts.

6 thoughts on “What Are Cities For?”

  1. They’ve estimated that the bulk of the world population will be living in cities in the future. If we look at the really large progressive cities will give us an idea.

  2. Why do you say the really large cities? We could certainly get most of the world’s population into cities without having them balloon up to 10M+. In a networked world, it’s unclear to me what economies of scale are really served by the biggest cities.

    What would you say an example one of these “really large progressive cities” is?

  3. New York for one. They know that they’re going to have to absorb an extra million in the next 5 years. Just an article I read about how the city is progressing into alternate energy , housing and transportation. People are drawn into these mega cities for work. I hear that Tokyo is another example where they’ve run out of land and are doing some things like superstructures encompassing everything a person needs into a single building. No idea if any of this will come to being, but there no denying that people are still flocking to large cities for work:


    So, who knows? Networked or mega cities?

  4. Okay, I’d certainly buy that the same scaling laws apply to both cities and organisms: infrastructure requirements per capita (or per unit body mass) go down as population (size) go up, since both cities and bodies are connected to themselves by networks of wires (neurons) and tubes (pipes, roads, rails, blood vessels), but it seems like this is likely to only hold true as density also increases, with people building upward, otherwise cities don’t have a 3D geometry, which is what generates that exponent of ~0.75). It would be interesting to see if uber-sprawling cities like Riverside or Fresno or Houston deviate from the pattern, compared to superdense cities like Hong Kong or Singapore.

    But I guess I feel like there is a loss of livability that comes with the biggest cities, and especially with a poorly defined urban margin, and non-human scaled streets and urban spaces, which is why I say that in some ways conviviality is at odds with the efficient utilization of material goods. But I’m sure that’s partly an artifact of my never having lived in a very big city that I felt was livable. Maybe it’s possible. I should really make a point of seeing what other cities are like to live in.

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