What is a city?


When we are asked to define what is a city, our first reaction may be to think how obvious and easy it is to define it, especially if we grew up and live in one. The city is our home and its dynamics dictate and shape our everyday lives. The city is so intrinsic to our being and we are so strongly connected to it, that we often don’t even think about what it is that makes a city a city.

My first guess would be a city is mainly described by the number of its inhabitants – because if there aren’t enough people, than it is is not a city but rather a village. But is that all? Has the city not also a distinctive atmosphere, does it not carry a specif feeling? Are there sounds, smells and images I associate to a city? Are there any features I associate to cities in general or is every city a distinct entity?

I have lately become more critical and negative about the cities we live in, since I feel they are the representation of the excessive consumer society we live in. The fact I have been living in London for the past three years has most likely influenced how I see the world around me. Everything here is more: more people, more money, more houses, more shops, more noise, more competition, more diversity and I often feel overwhelmed and the need to slow down. I sometimes fear that our busy lifestyles draw us away from what really matters; we are all too focused on achieving things and getting more instead of deeply appreciating simple things. And cities are the central hubs of this attitude, it is were envy, frustration, social injustices and any form of mental ill-being originates – we usually don’t experience the same frenetic discontent in the countryside or anywhere else outside urban spaces.

But let’s bring some light in this dark vision, because there certainly are many positive things about the city too. Lewis Mumford (1937) gives an interesting definition to the question “what is a city?”. Drawing a line between the physical and social aspects that characterise a city, he says

“The essential physical means of a city’s existence are the fixed site, the durable shelter, the permanent facilities for assembly, interchange, and storage; the essential social means are the social division of labour, which serves not merely the economic life but the cultural process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates theatre of social action and is the theatre. It is in the city, the city as a theatre, that man’s more purposive activities are focused”.


The city is home to innovation and progress, it creates a space for social interchange, advances the intellect provides health and education. It is where people are able to discover, cultivate and express their interests and passions and come together to shape a better future. So maybe it is not just the physical things that shape a city, it is not the streets, buildings, shops and the things you can buy that define the city, but rather the people that inhabit it make a city become alive and real. As Glaser (2011) stresses in his introduction to Triumph of the City “cities aren’t structures, cities are people” and “real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”


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