City Life Means Different Things to Different People

The short definition of the word city is “a permanent human settlement.” That seems a bit simple to me. I can only assume it doesn’t refer to the recliner in my uncle’s living room.

The word “city” itself is a loaded one in many circles. Is a small town a real city? Is a suburb a real city?

Core cities, especially large ones, are often built at such large scales that they feel foreign to outsiders. Even to those who live within spitting distance. Then you throw in the awkward “U” Word (Urban) and you experience a total breakdown in people’s vision of what qualifies.

The language itself is confusing, too. We have cities, villages, suburbs and exurbs. The accepted, though never adequately defined, descriptions of these places often refer to “big” cities and “small” towns. To make matters even more confusing, in Michigan, we even have over 1,200 townships, AKA the duck billed platypus of local government: are they a city, a town, something else? Thanks in large part to Thomas Jefferson (founding father and second-rate amateur surveyor) most of the Midwestern states have similar layers of local units, compliments of the federal government’s 250 year-old thirst to tax inhabitants of the Northwest Territory. Today township residents, even those who live in populated metropolitan areas, often have an allergic reactions to the term “city.”

A city to me is first and foremost a real place. It could be large or small. People gather there. There is often an important history associated with the place, even if it is only important to those who live there. The best cities celebrate local people, culture, architecture and achievements. A degree density is key, because it allows for more interaction among people and creates a sense of community.

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns asks a provocative question that goes to the heart of what a city is:

If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather to participate?

In some places the answers to Chuck’s question are easy. At a public square. On Main Street. Or, depending on who is driving the revolution, under the bed! In other places it’s not so easy because there isn’t a shared sense of place among the inhabitants. Walmart doesn’t work, although their gargantuan parking lots would be great makeshift military drilling areas. A public park that is accessible only after a lengthy car ride? C’mon, nobody commutes to a revolution!

In the end, cities (by name, or in spirit) that offer a true sense of belonging to those who live there are the ones that sustain themselves. Local leaders, elected or not, must always keep this in mind when deliberating over the issue du jour when it is easy to focus on specific fixes to pressing issues.  Sometimes these quick remedies have greater long term impacts on the greater context of city life. In short, we have found that the ‘feel’ of a place is often more tied its success than the efficiency of service and the book of regulations.

So remember- know who you are! Celebrate it. Protect it. And thrive in it.

*Image from Pioneer Trail Elementary School