What is a City?
What is a city—that seems like an easy question. In America we have our standard list of examples, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But that list also contains Detroit, St. Louis, and Miami. These are all very different places, with different histories and different futures. What’s common among them, and why is that even important?
Each city is unique, sitting at a particular intersection of history, culture, industry, and geography. But ultimately they’re all defined by a large number of people clustered closely together, or, put another way, by human agglomeration. How closely they’re clustered, the manner in which they’re clustered, and why they cluster, determine the nature of each individual city.
When we discuss cities in episodes of Small Town Expats, we’re not fundamentally talking about skyscrapers, subway systems, or what it’s like to discover that “cozy” is a euphemism for “closet” in apartment rental ads.
(We will talk about those things though.)
We’re talking about what makes all of those things, and more, possible: people. To focus on the built environment of the city, rather than those that inhabit it, is to miss the forest for the trees.
Keeping the big picture—the human picture—allows us to accurately see the virtues and nature of cities. When people cluster together, they permit a wider range of art, commerce, social connection, and discovery. And the benefits of that clustering can happen regardless of whether or not it results in skyscrapers or subway systems (even if one argues that it should).
Cities like Detroit have skyscrapers, but lack the dynamism of human capital exchange that so characterizes places like Boston, which is similar in size. To find out why that is, *shameless plug* listen to Small Town Expats. The short answer is that these cities differ in how their people cluster, why they cluster, and how they’re permitted to cluster.
The “people” answer to “What is a city?” makes exploring the question more interesting, because it becomes a study in human nature and incentive. Although this permits quantitative analysis, it crucially focuses the subject matter of Small Town Expats on human stories and experiences (like what happens when your business district is a soda machine). And I think those stories are the best way to help people move to cities if they want to, or just understand them if they don’t.
The urban economist Edward Glaeser put it best in his book Triumph of the City: “…cities aren’t structures; cities are people.”