Monday, November 5, 2012

Cities, semi-urban places, and definitions

I periodically think about how we define terms like city and urban. There is no final and ultimate definition of terms like this. Definitions are tools. They help us solve intellectual problems and they help us understand the world. A definition that works in one context may not be helpful in another.

As I have discussed here previously (Original post on definitions), there are two major approaches to defining cities and urbanism: the demographic and the functional. Louis Wirth's influential demographic definition uses four features to define cities: permanence, high population, high density, and social diversity or complexity. The alternative functional approach says that any settlement that fulfills urban functions for a hinterland can be called urban. An urban function is an activity or institution in a settlement whose effects extend beyond the settlement. See the original post for more discussion and some references.

Role of 3 factors in definitions of city and urban
In a later post, I discuss how these and other definitions of city and urban vary in the importance they give to three factors: population, social complexity/ diversity, and influence or function. The other day I made up a diagram to illustrate this point. It is a kind of "triangular graph" that shows the relative importance of these three variables (at the 3 points). The two ellipses show how the major urban definitions rely on these three factors. Wirth's (demographic) definition relies entirely on population and complexity, so it lies far away from the functional point on the graph. The functional definition runs from the functional corner up toward the complexity corner. The reason for extending the area toward the top is that urban functions almost always require social complexity in the urban center. For example, a political capital typically requires different occupations and often different social class composition, if only to fulfill the basic operations of the government.

Camp meeting
In our attempts to understand complex social phenomena (like urbanism), sometimes examples at the extremes shed light on broader patterns. For this reason, in my class on ancient cities I always cover case studies whose urban status is the subject of great debate. The European Iron Age oppida is one example (functionally urban, but not demographically), or Chaco Canyon (just about nobody besides Steve Lekson considers this settlement to be urban). These cases help students see just what urbanism is all about.

In a paper I am now revising, my coauthors and I follow a parallel logic. In order to support a larger argument that neighborhoods are universal in human settlements, we examine a group of "semi-urban settlements" to see if they have neighborhoods. (the answer is yes in all cases except disaster camps). I talk about this study in a previous post. Our paper got a judgment of "revise and resubmit" from a journal, and one complaint of the reviewers was that we didn't define the term "semi-urban" very well. So I've been thinking about how these settlements relate to the standard definitions of urbanism. I made up a second triangular graph to help me understand these settlements.
Two categories of semi-urban settlement in the definition triangle

Actually, there are two very different kinds of semi-urban settlements, each with different dynamics of change (and different neighborhood processes as well). The first category I call "voluntary camps." These are things like religious camp revival sites, festival sites (like Burning Man), RV camps, and the the various urban "Occupy" campsites from last year. I am fascinated by these settlements, and I am convinced that they can teach us much about cities and urban dynamics. In terms of defining this category, the main traits are that these are limited-purpose settlements, rapidly settled, temporary, and voluntary. On the triangular graph they lie close to the Population corner. They do not have urban functions, and they may or may not have social diversity.

Japanese-American internment camp
The second group of settlements classified as "semi-urban" are those that planner Kevin Lynch called "the city as practical machine." I've talked about these previously. This category includes things like military camps, company towns, internment camps, refugee camps and disaster camps. The key feature of these sites is their top-down design and establishment in order to fulfill a specific activity within the larger society. Their specialized activity, whether confinement, economic exploitation, or something else, can be considered an urban function, so I place these settlements at the function/influence corner of the graph.

So, it turns out what one reason we had trouble coming up with a nice succinct definition of "semi-urban settlement" is that this category actually includes two very different types of settlement. But both are urban-like in some ways but not others, and few would be classified as "cities" or "urban settlements" on their own. But they are all part of the Wide Urban World, and they can all teach us much about cities and urban processes.

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