The Question of the Urban

Frustratingly, it can sometimes seem that, to paraphrase a famous decision of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, urbanity is like pornography: we can't define it, but we know it when we see it.

Urban environments are hot right now in America. From coast to coast, traditional urban cores are being filled—not only by young professionals, but also by all manners of families, individuals, and households. For the first time in over fifty years, as the 2010 census dramatically demonstrated, cities grew faster than their suburbs. Neighborhoods which for more than a generation could not buy the attention of developers are now sprouting newly constructed luxury condominiums, high-value office space, and uncountable numbers of boutique retailers and eateries. Famous so-called "starchitects," people with names like Gehry, Calatrava, and Piano, tour the world, selling and sharing their perceived abilities to transform moribund environments. Urban property values are skyrocketing, and concerns over gentrification—and its concomitant displacement of the less well-off—dominate the political discourse of many a large city. Indeed, in the leading cities of this urban renaissance—places like Boston, New York, and San Francisco—demand is driving prices so high there is real concern that soon, none but the very wealthy will be able to afford most of the urban environment.[1]

An Introduction: The Complexity of Cities

Logo of The Fox and The City

Allow me, for a moment, to take the role of a philosophy professor and ask a confoundingly difficult, yet simple-seeming question: what is a city?

Everyone has some conception of what a city is—from the rural farmer who has never left her home county, to the cosmopolitan world traveler who hops from place to place each and every day; and from residents of the world's most technologically advanced countries to those who make their homes in the furthest reaches of the developing world. In each of us, the word "city" itself conjures strong but wildly divergent images. Many visions can be embodied in it: skyscrapers and apartment houses as well as smoke belching factories and dirty hovels; the most complex corporations and cultural institutions along with small social circles of but a few friends; dark political machines and peaceful communes. All of these images, and everything else not only in-between but encompassing an almost infinite number of concepts, structures, and visions, are encompassed in the word city. Common intuition leads us to believe that we are all referring to the same concept or concepts, but at times the sheer diversity of experience and insight can make us question even such a basic assumption. To say the very least, attempting to unify these different views into a coherent definition and understanding is hardly a trivial task.

Subscribe to RSS - Introduction