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.

This fundamental question is not solely of academic interest. From the very beginning, the serious study of cities has been inextricably linked to pragmatic concerns: questions such as how might we change and improve cities; whether they should exist as they do now, or indeed, at all; how can the lives of citizens be improved; is it possible to make them function better or more efficiently; and a host more. The city is a human institution, and its problems are ones of human immediacy. We live in our present, and we have the desire, the need, and even perhaps the right, to shape the spaces in which we live to better fill our needs and desires—now and for the future. However, without knowing exactly what it is we are striving to create or to repair, any action we may take, or viewpoint we may hold, risks falling into the clutches of mere political expediency, often with unpredictable and unintended results. To add insult to injury, the results of the first century-plus of strong government action in and on cities in America appears to have been not merely sub-par, but far too often disastrous. Attempts that were explicitly designed to save the city often seemed to harm it in the long run; theories which seemed logically sound often descended into intellectual dead ends of unexamined values. This paradox points to just how poor our understandings of cities—what makes them, and what makes them work—are, and with it, how little we often seem to know about how to protect them, nurture them, or plan for their future.[1]

It may well be impossible for any one author, thinker, or expert to fully comprehend cities in their manifold structures, roles, and appearances. Cities are some of, if not the, largest and most complex creations humans have ever fashioned. At the same time, they are vitally important to understand: for the majority of the world's population, cities are the ocean in which we swim, the environments which shape us and which we shape in turn. And although cities or something like them have been around for thousands of years, our understandings of them can be as numerous as the cultures and residents which have shaped them—understandings which, while often defensible and held close to the heart, are also often mutually exclusive.[2]

The Fox and the City is an endeavor to be part of this ongoing, unfolding process of understanding what cities are, the ways in which they work, and with it, how to improve them. And while cities are immensely diverse, this site and its author primarily seek to identify a specific type of city, one which has come into and out of fashion over the course of American history (and, to some degree, Western, and even perhaps world history), and one which promises to be vitally important for the American present and future. This category is one which is at once new, and yet also widely understood (at least partially) by many of us—the conception of the urban and urbanity as something distinct from the city in the abstract. Urban cities and places, though they exist in many shapes and forms, operate in specific ways which can have manifold positive effects on a city and its denizens, as we shall soon see. It is a powerful lens for understanding how cities can operate and how our experience of them can be improved; a lens which, because it has slowly developed over the course of American history, seems almost a natural category. Above all else, these writings seek to define and refine our understanding of urbanity, as well as to find effective ways to preserve it where it exists, create it where it is possible, and to promote it as a tool.

To this task I bring with me, primarily, three interlocking perspectives. These begin with my own background in and inquiries into American urban history, and the movements, technologies, and people which have driven it. Imbued within that is a focus on the vital role transportation technologies have and can play—both for their practical, physical effects, and in how they shape and are in turn shaped by sociocultural beliefs. And finally, perhaps most importantly of all, there is the aforementioned lens of urbanity.

Each of these perspectives plays an important role in its own way. An understanding of history, to start with, is vital to any deep understanding of a human system. Cities, as the product of human action, are not ahistorical beings: they arise out of human beliefs, understanding, and relations—relations not only between individuals, but between individuals and larger forces, such as technology or the physical world. Our ideas are always enmeshed within systems, always building upon other ideas. To have an effect—and particularly to have the effects we desire—our actions and beliefs need to be rooted. And if we want to try and be scientific—always a dangerous yet paradoxically important part of social science—history is the closest thing to a laboratory we possess. Unlike in a pure science experiment, there is no possible way to create control groups or to neatly isolate variables—one cannot simply create another Chicago circa 1850, change a starting variable, and see how it would compare to the fist. Urban history, by pointing to the ways in which the present was brought about, provides a strong framework, a launching pad for not only understanding the past and the present, but for planning for the future.[3]

The focus on American cities, in turn, arises from two related concerns. One is practical: not only are American cities closer at hand, they are what I have personally studied at length, and are part of the context and cultural milieu that I inhabit. Honesty demands we recognize our foundations as well as the limitations of our experience and expertise. But equally, it is also an attempt to avoid intellectual and cultural imperialism. Many a theory of cities has run aground by trying to be universal—by trying to apply itself outside of the cultural confines in which it was useful, helpful, or wanted. Make no mistake, universal theories of cities or of urbanism, if such things could ever exist, might encompass wonderful understandings of the human experience. But not only would such theories be difficult to find, to say the least—as noted, cities are incredibly complex and innately human—they would have the potential to be incredibly dangerous, as well. It is the height of hubris to believe one's own ideas are applicable equally everywhere. All of which is to say that the theories, conceptions, and ideas explored here are primarily birthed of the Anglo-American experience and context, with help from a smattering of other, primarily Western, places. To know if any of it applies to other locations and other cultures—and if so to what measure—let alone if the ideas are desired there, would take someone with far more specific local knowledge than I.

Cities are incredibly complex, multifaceted things which can be examined from an incredible number of perspectives: sociologically, economically, psychologically, culturally, and a whole host more. Above are the preliminary foundations upon which this site is and will be based. But there is one final piece left to discuss—the conception of urbanity. And it is there that the work of this site and its author really begins...

End Notes
  1. Sprio Kostof, The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History (New York: Bulfinch Press, 1991). Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961). Kevin Lynch, Good City Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981).
  2. Somini Sengupta, "U.N. Finds Most People Now Live in Cities," New York Times, July 10th 2014 (accessed September 7, 2015,
  3. For cities as arising out of forces and relations, see: Kostof 1991, Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978). For working within an enmeshed system see: Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press: 2012), Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (Vintage: 1982).