|Downtown Indianapolis and beyond. Is Indianapolis a large city, or a large… something else? Source: iupui.edu|
One of the fundamental problems facing those who love cities is this — what exactly is a city?
What constitutes the very thing that urbanists say they love? How can you support or protect something that’s so poorly defined?
This came to mind as I read this Planetizen article a few days ago. Author Steven Snell wrote about how he posed the question to urban design students in a master’s program. Working with students with good design skills, he recounted his approach:
For my research I said I’d say one word and that I’d like them to draw what came to mind; I’d give them one minute to draw whatever they wanted. I gave them a pad of paper and a pencil and they smiled or nodded or shrugged.
“Good?” I asked.
“Yes. Hit me.”
I said, “City.”
And so began my research.
Snell mentions the difficulties students had with illustrating their definition of city:
Most drew the iconic building associated with their city of residence—in this case The Calgary Tower. Some drew generic buildings, the ubiquitous tall buildings of cities. A few drew a car on a street in front of a house or those ubiquitous tall buildings. One drew a collection of stick people. I imagine if I asked the question now, I’d see some cyclists.
It wasn’t a scientific experiment, but perhaps indicative, illustrative of defining “city.” I drew general conclusions, the perhaps rhetorical questions I began this article with: a city is buildings and people—or perhaps more nuanced, people define city based on their experiences of city, the places they create in their mind (and the places that create their mind).
I think Snell is getting somewhere when he says that cities are buildings and people, and the experiences people have with the built environment. But I think there’s a little more to the definition.
Without question, if you ask most laypeople, a “city” is in the eye of the beholder. Many New Yorkers may say there’s only one city in the entire U.S., by virtue of its population, development intensity, and economic and social importance to the nation. Someone from, say, Houston might say that as the nation’s fourth largest municipality (over 2 million residents) is most certainly a city, even if it doesn’t have the intensity or importance as New York. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco have some of what New York has, but not all of it. In fact, there are many more cities that people will say are “city” that fall far short of the New York paradigm.
Me? I tend to think in terms of categories and thresholds. Trying to define a city without any parameters still leaves the definition wide open. Even so, I think definitions are fluid and change over time. Just as a “commuter” was once strictly defined a century ago as a traveller on intracity rail whose train ticket was “commuted’ by the conductor, yet now means anyone travelling to work by any means, I think the definition of city has changed over time and will continue to do so.
That being said, I think there are some categories that people intuitively have in mind when they consider what a city is to them. Combined with some reasonable thresholds, above which a place is a city and below it it’s not, and I think you can come together with a sensible and workable definition for a city. For now.
Here are the categories I’m considering:
Development intensity. This is usually expressed as density, or the number of inhabitants within a given area, but in my mind is not exclusively so. New York was certainly able to achieve a very high density by American standards thorough its development of large apartment buildings and brownstones. However, Los Angeles a fairly high density through its development of smaller multifamily buildings and single family homes on small lots. In addition, there are places that have declined over the years, losing many people, yet still maintain the development intensity they held at their peak.
Mix of housing types. I think most people think of cities as places that appeal to a broad spectrum of people, and that’s often best expressed in the ways people live. Two-flat, three-flat and four-flat buildings, and larger multifamily buildings, give residents housing options. And when there are more options there are more chances at developing a mix of uses in a given area. The two go hand in hand.
Development age. This, I believe, is the missing ingredient in the secret sauce that is part of any city definition. There’s an almost instinctive and intuitive assertion that people make that “old = city”, without any conscious acknowledgement. It factors into the housing decisions that people make in gentrifying neighborhoods, and it helps us understand why more recently built places rarely are considered for revitalization or redevelopment.
With each category comes thresholds. If a place is on one side of the threshold, I consider it “city”. If it’s on the other side, I consider it to fall short. Here they are:
Development intensity — a geographic area that has a population of more than 5,000 persons per square mile, or about 8 persons per acre. Above this I’d guess is “city”, below that is not.
Mix of housing types — a geographic area that has less than 50 percent of its housing units as single family homes. Fewer single family homes and I’d say it’s “city”; more and I’d say it’s not.
Development age — a geographic area whose median age of housing is 1970 or earlier. Earlier years I’d say are ‘city”. Later years I’d say are not.
In my mind, if a defined geographic area crosses two of the three thresholds, it qualifies as “city”.
This, of course, requires testing. I’ll conduct the analysis to see if this approach is valid. But I’ll offer a couple thoughts on how this approach might look in two metro areas I’m quite familiar with, Chicago and Indianapolis.
The Chicago metro area contains about 9.5 million people, with 2.8 million residents within the city proper. All of Chicago meets the above city criteria. However, if we apply this definition of city to the entire metro area, it’s likely that many adjacent suburbs would be included — Evanston and Skokie and others to the north; Niles and Des Plaines to the northwest; Oak Park, Elmwood Park, Maywood and more in the western suburbs. In total, I’d wager that another million or so residents live in technically suburban communities that have strong ‘city” character. Indeed, from a physical development perspective, there is very little difference between, say, Brookfield, in the near western suburbs, and many of the southwest side Chicago neighborhoods near Midway Airport.
Indianapolis, however, is a different creature. Indianapolis is the nation’s 14th largest city by population, with about 850,000 residents. The Indy metro area has about 1.9 million people. However, if you apply the “city” definition to Indy, you might find that only the core areas that include downtown and adjacent neighborhoods would qualify. Prior to Indy’s city-county consolidation in 1970, the city boundaries were roughly approximate to Center Township in Marion County. Today, Center Township, which may (again, I have to check figures) meet the “city” criteria, has about 145,000 residents. Most of the rest of what we call the city of Indianapolis would fall short of the criteria.
Chicago’s development pattern is like that of many coastal cities, having suburbs that have urban characteristics far beyond the core city boundaries. Indianapolis is like many Sun Belt cities, having a smaller urban core and a significantly larger suburban periphery that starts within the core city’s boundaries and extends outward.
What we define as “city” always has and always will be fluid. But if we add some definitions to our intuitions, I think it can help the places that matter most to urbanists.