How Cities Matter

By Richard Harris

It is remarkable that few people take the trouble to show how cities matter. By ‘people’ I mean self-styled urbanists, those who write about cities, publish in ‘urban’ journals, and who for the most part, presumably, live in cities.

Cultural mashups are an urban thing. LexnGer, “Mr. Pho Fusion?” (2008), Flicker.

And by ‘how cities matter’ I mean the ways in which the urban setting itself shapes our lives: the concentration of people and, therefore, social, economic, and cultural activity. We have plenty of studies of things that exist or happen in cities – housing markets, race and gender relations, civic politics, shopping, industrial competition – but few writers spell out how those processes are shaped by the setting.

Thomas Edison’s invention campus at Menlo Park. Planned or unplanned, invention has long been a feature of cities–sometimes in the suburbs. Jet Lowe, “Thomas A. Edison Laboratories…” (1968), Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress.

There are, of course, some scholars who have given this issue some thought, concluding that it is unhelpful or impossible to speak in such terms. Some, such as the sociologist Peter Saunders, claim that any so-called ‘urban’ influence is a chimera, nothing but a manifestation of the social relations of capitalism. Others, like Philip Abrams, say that when cities had walls they mattered, but that’s history. Then again, recent commentators including Ananya Roy and Jenny Robinson, speaking from or for the global South, argue that western theory has limits and suggest that global generalizations are impossible.  All of these arguments contain grains of truth, but not the core of it.

Traffic congestion is the quintessential, universal urban problem. Walidhassanein, “Cairo Traffic Jam,” (2007) Flickr.

And then there are those who, to my way of thinking, are illogical. Building on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre, they point out that, now that just about everyone lives in a city, and that almost everyone else is shaped by what happens in those places, it is impossible to speak about a uniquely urban effect. That is rather like saying that, because everyone uses money, and almost everyone the internet, we can no longer speak about the significance of these things.

Because land in cities is highly regulated, legal informality is especially common there. Go vegan go, ‘Houses in Pachuca” [Mexico]” (2007) Wikimedia Commons.

But only a minority of urbanists are involved in, or engaged by, such theoretical debates. Most of the time, most of us pay no attention to what Manuel Castells called ‘the urban question’; we take the significance of cities for granted. I say ‘we’ because I do this all the time. Sometimes I catch myself writing about housing issues, say, without commenting on how the real estate market is defined by its geographical setting. In fact, all too often the thought doesn’t even cross my mind.

The Black Country, English Midlands. City-regions can bring industrial efficiency, but compound problems of pollution. Guess which direction is west. “Griffith’s Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain” (1873), Wikimedia Commons.

That is more than a pity; it’s a missed opportunity. We should all try to keep in mind, and then show, how the urban setting affects our lives. Why? Because it does matter, and because exploring and explaining that fact is both intellectually challenging and socially useful. Isn’t it part of our job description, indeed our very identity?

Brighton town clock. Cities run on artificial time. As late as 1903, most British people did not have wrist watches. “Clock Tower, Brighton, England,” (1909), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

So how do cities matter? Thinking mostly about the places that have burgeoned since the industrial revolution, let me count some of the ways. They accelerate the pace of life, which is why people talk about a New York, rather than a Martha’s Vineyard, minute. As labor pools, they support large, efficient enterprises, from factories, offices, and retail stores to Amazon warehouses and complex logistical operations. They support all sorts of specialized enterprises, from tort lawyers to fusion restaurants. Bringing all sorts of people together, they create the ‘buzz’ that fuels innovation. This works in a cultural as well as an economic context: think Los Angeles and Mumbai for movies, Liverpool and Seoul for music, Paris for art. Socially, yes, they can produce feelings of anonymity and loneliness, especially for newcomers and those who live alone, but they also provide unparalleled opportunities for people to create new types of community, from amateur athletics leagues to gay bars.

The ‘bungalow’ name was carried via cities from India to Britain and around the world, while the style was continuously adapted. Ed Uthman, “George L. Burlingame House, Houston” (2011), Wikimedia Commons.

The net effect varies. Certainly, it’s not all good. Cities nurtured the Ku Klux Klan as well as Seinfeld. And we all know about the higher costs of city living, not to mention the frustrations of congestion. Externalities – uncompensated costs and benefits – are concentrated and heightened in cities, in ways that municipal governments struggle to handle and pay for. City living without piped water, sewers, roads, and transit is unthinkable. All of these things and more, along with their multitudinous ramifications, stem from those deceptively simple, statistical determinants: size and density. That, at any rate, is what I set out to show in How Cities Matter, the first contribution to appear in the ‘Elements’ series that Cambridge University Press is producing for urban historians and, I suppose, anyone else who might be interested.

Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. Cities gave birth to professional sports, and amateur, too. Anthony, Parkes, “Inside Old Trafford Football Stadium,” (2008), Wikimedia Commons.

Historians, of course, are generally wary of theory, and often with good reason. They know how the particularities of time and place can disrupt big conceptual categories or sweeping generalizations. But, whether they use the phrase or not, their work exemplifies the importance of at least one general, profound insight: it’s impossible to understand the present without taking account of the past.

Pets are bred to mitigate urban loneliness, but city dogs require regulation. “Easter Parade” (1915), Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

‘Path dependency’, as it is sometimes called, is nowhere more apparent than in the city. The built environment lasts a long time, and street patterns even longer. A recent study of English industrial cities found that in the nineteenth century working-class areas almost invariably grew up on the east side of town, downwind from coal-powered factories. No surprise there. What it also found was that decades after deindustrialization and the prohibition of coal as a fuel, that historical pattern endured. Here, as in innumerable other fields, historians who are alert to the significance of urban space have much to offer those who are preoccupied with the present.

Fire has been one of the great hazards of urban living. Gibson & Co., “The Great Fire at Chicago, Oct. 9th 1871. View from the West Side” (ca. 1871), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Speaking about the present, and indeed the future, what about the pandemic? The media tell us that many people are working effectively from home. Employers are coming around to the idea that they can maintain workers’ productivity while saving money by downsizing their office inventories. Meanwhile, released from the daily commute, some employees have been saving money by moving out, or further out, from urban centers. Looking ahead, will cities matter as much, and in the same ways, as they did before the pandemic hit? Possibly not. But there are plenty of people who cannot work from home because they are required to staff a whole range of urban institutions, from hospitals and supermarkets to those Amazon warehouses. And many commentators are reporting that people are longing for in-person association, that when the pandemic is pushed back they will throng to the bars, restaurants, theatres, ball-parks and – yes – even the offices that only cities can support. Cities will surely continue, and they will continue to count.

Past president of the UHA (2017-18), Richard Harris teaches urban geography at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He has written about housing, housing policy, the development industry, and suburban development in North America and several British colonies, and is currently writing a history of Canadian urban neighborhoods. 

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