Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cities: What are they?

Perhaps this seems like an elementary question, but what are cities after all? I find myself fascinated with the city. The organic, ecological nature of it, the structures, the streets. A city can team with industrious life, accompanied by the clang and blare of street noises, and yet host neighborhoods of tranquility complete with serene parks and ponds.

There is a multiplicity of things one could highlight when defining a city. It has great diversity of people, places, events, interests, and scenery. It is a convergence of this great diversity. It is an intersection for people in work and play, and yet it is also a home for some. Captain's of industry rule the downtown centers, but the artist also express herself on walls or creates and performs in prominent centers of theater. Poverty is sometimes exposed in city limits but wealth is often predominant. Perhaps most surprisingly, or obviously, each city is so incredibly unique.

It is hard to discover what is at the heart of a city. Why do they even exist? Is it for convenience? Why doesn't everyone live in cities? Surely there are good reasons for those who avoid cities or at least avoid living in them. Aristotle says that, "man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis." Of course, the Greek polis is nothing like the modern metropolis, but the principle is still there. Man is by nature a communal being. He is designed to live in community with his fellow beings. Thus, at the heart of any healthy, growing, and flourishing city is human community.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a flight from the cities to the suburbs by the middle class in America. The downtown areas became dangerous places to be at night. Slums developed, trash piled high, streets deteriorated. American urban designers decided the solution would be to destroy and rebuild. Yet, a surprising discover was made. Amidst all the disfigured city landscape existed unique niches of community. This was primarily among ethnic groups, such as the Italians in New York City or the Irish in the North end of Boston. These "slums" held together and thrived amidst the city because of bond of community. The people had common religious beliefs, heritage, and experiences (such as recent immigration) that brought them together in the struggle for survival and betterment.

At the heart of the city is community. This is often missed, however, when we fly over NYC gawking at the skyscrapers or walk the National Mall in Washington D.C. gazing at all the patriotic monuments surrounding us. Community in a city is also a challenge, for the very reason that it is easily missed and misunderstood. Urban planners got it very wrong for a long time (and still do!). In fact, American cities could have looked very different if it was not for one courageous author. Jane Jacob's wrote a book called, The Death and Life of American Cities in 1961 (here is a short review), that directly challenged the conventional wisdom of "urban renewal," which is what the central planners called their massive overhaul plans for most great American cities from Chicago to Boston. In her first paragraph, Jacob's boldly states that the book is, "an attack on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding." Her seminal work would transform the way we think about cities from complex metrics of highways and skyscrapers to multifaceted and interconnect communities of people.

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