Sunday, November 6, 2011

Defining cities and urbanism (again)

I just found out that my post "What is a city? Definitions of the urban," is the most popular post in this blog. Since my views on this topic have been changing slightly, perhaps it is time for more consideration of the topic. The earlier posts contrasts two definitions: the demographic definition (cities are places with lots of people and social complexity) and the functional definition (cities are places whose activities affect a larger hinterland). In Mesoamerica, these opposing definitions have been most commonly invoked in comparisons of Teotihuacan and the low-density Maya cities. This iconic comparison, from Sanders and Price (1968) is informative:

Are these both cities? Teo and Tikal at the same scale

My thinking these days has shifted slightly. I am less concerned now with coming up with complete definitions of city and urban than with exploring the different kinds of features that make up the concept of urban. The different definitions of urbanism (the two I have discussed, and others as well) vary in the weight given to three main features: Population, complexity, and influence. Settlements can be urban-like on one, two, or all three of these dimensions. The one we choose to emphasize depends on our goals.


In the traditional (demographic) definition of urbanism, population is of primary importance -- both the number of people and the density per unit of area. For the functional definition of cities, the population doesn't matter much. Right now, in our project on semi-urban settlements, population is the most important attribute. These are places like refugee camps and internment camps that are formed rapidly, and we are looking to see whether they have neighborhood organization. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter whether these places exhibit social complexity, or influence on a hinterland. What makes them "semi-urban" or city-like is their aggregation of people in one place. Similarly, Roland Fletcher's important work on settlement size (Fletcher 1995) is about the role of population size and population density on human settlement dynamics.


My university campus
Social complexity or variation is part of Louis Wirth's (1938) demographic definition of urbanism. This refers to occupational specialization, social classes or wealth variation, ethnic or cultural differences. Large population concentrations do not necessarily exhibit social complexity; large villages are an example. Settlements with urban functions--that is, settlements that influence a hinterland--almost always have some kind of social complexity. If a settlement has administrative functions, then it probably has government officials, bureaucrats of various types, perhaps military personnel--which means it would have social complexity. The same holds for economic or religious urban functions. But can a settlement be socially complex but NOT have a large population or urban functions? This would have to be some kind of self-contained highly specialized installation, perhaps a university campus or a large medieval monastery in a rural area.


Urban influence: capital city (Addis Ababa)
Urban functions are activities and institutions in a settlement that affect or influence a larger hinterland. This is what I mean by influence. A settlement can be large but have little complexity and little hinterland influence (e.g., a large agricultural village), or it can be complex with little influence (e.g., the college campus mentioned above). This dimension of "urban-ness" is important because it addresses the roles of cities in their societies. Cities are important nodes in a regional landscape, and the concept of influence points to the varying roles they play. So from a general perspective, when I need to define cities or urbanism, I usually point to the functional definition (as in my 2008 book, Aztec City-State Capitals).

Population, complexity and influence capture much of what we usually mean when we talk about concepts of the city or urban settlement. Most definitions of city and urban can be constructed from variations in these three factors. But sometimes we learn more by focusing less on such definitions and more on the individual dimensions. These three factors, and the ways they vary across time and space, are crucial components of the wide urban world

Fletcher, Roland
1995    The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.
2008    Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Wirth, Louis
1938    Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder, purely from my own inclinations, whether local spatial organisation and permanence shouldn't be at the core of a definition of a city or urbanism. Especially urbanism seems to refer to a way life (locally) is organised. Except for influence, population and complexity seem to especially imply very normative rules.

    For the most part I regard a city to be an intensively developed place in which everyday life of residents primarily takes place in its built environment and the access to resources (in an 'all you need' sense) in the everyday is managed through (social) relations within the confines of its built environment. This should not withstand the reliance of cities on their hinterland or inhibit its residents to leave the city, but focuses on the processes and functioning of urban life. As such a city (as it develops) is an ongoing, inchoate process which completely transforms physical properties: nothing is ever not under negotiation.

    This, however, places an emphasis on the physicality and temporality of urbanism. As such one could question whether certain semi-urban settlements, especially temporary ones, are urbanism at all, but at the same time they could accommodate an urban everyday life. It would also be interesting to find out what the temporality of urban development is. We know many cities are no longer ongoing places. They caesed to be urban at some point in time. How long do cities persist without interruption? Related to that, we recognise (semi-)abandoned places to be cities on the basis of the extent of uninhabited spatial layout too, so the possibility of spatial accommodation for an urban life can suffice for its recognition. On the basis of al this, it seems that a common sensical understanding of urbanism is not specifically based on influence either, but simply the opportunity to live in a place that has been developed into completely transformed physical properties into inhabitable spatial complexity. Without wanting to immediately subscribe to such view: are cities thus more spatial then social?