Defining the City

A few years ago my family wanted to have family photos taken. We told the photographer that we wanted an “urban” background for the pictures, thinking of having San Francisco’s skyline behind us. Our photographer told us to meet her on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. When we met her, we drove past the great views of the city and went to some old run-down buildings on an abandoned military base. We posed in front of a wall with chipped paint. This is what she assumed when I said “urban.”

There is so much talk about cities, yet we so rarely define what we mean by “city” or “urban”. There is a reason why so few dare to define what a city is. We default to an “I’ll know a city when I see it” approach. Here we’ll explain why defining a city is complicated and then we will work towards a definition for the city.

Los Angeles, undeniably a city, challenged traditional understandings of a city as dense and vertical.

The Complexity of Defining “City”

Imprecise Language– In most languages, the word used for a city can describe a wide range of settlements. English typically has three tiers of terms to describe human settlements: city, town, and village. Many other languages only have two terms (for example, French ville and village, German Stadt and Dorf, Italian citta and villaggio, Spanish ciudad and pueblo) (O’Connor 2008, 2008). In many languages, the word that has come to mean city was used to refer to another structure (for example, a fortress or port). Ancient texts that refer to cities often refer to small settlements that would barely pass for a small town today. Since these words are so elastic in their use, we cannot rely on the word “city” to communicate the essence of a city.

Statistics Don’t Tell the Whole Story– The simplest way to define a city is to base it on population size. Some statisticians set the size of a city as greater than 50,000 people (Clark 2014, 33). As soon as we begin to set parameters on such a definition, we can see the problems. In densely populated areas, like the Indonesian island of Java, nearly everything becomes a continuous city. Less densely populated nations consider small settlements “urban” (ex. settlements in Norway of 200 people or more) while Bénin or Malaysia only uses “urban” for places of 10,000 people or more (Davey 2002, 16). Even combining population density with population is inadequate because density varies dramatically in different parts of the world. This lack of a standard in defining “urban” has contributed to the meaninglessness of the term in the minds of many. It does seem that “urban” can’t be defined based on numbers.

Media Portrayals of Cities Differ from Experience– There are many people who would claim they do not live in a city because it does not match their media-informed image of the city. For some, towering skyscrapers across a grand cityscape constitutes a city. Others immediately think of inner-city scenes of dark alleys and gang violence. These are images that come to us through pop culture and other media. We cannot gauge a city based on the number of tall buildings or the level of grit in a depressed section of the city. The sprawl of the Inland Empire of Southern California is very much part of the urban fabric of Los Angeles. Smaller regional cities may not boast a skyline or any kind of gritty downtown and yet they function in all of the ways a city functions.

Towards a Definition of the City

Many have sought to define the city. Each definition shows the variety of aspects through which people evaluate a city. Fischer identifies four different types of definitions of cities and urban places: 1) Demographic approach based on population size and density; 2) Institutional approach defines the city based on the presence of certain institutions like a market or public services; 3) Cultural approach looks for the presence of certain cultural characteristics, like literacy; 4) Behavioral approach considers certain social behaviors indicative of an urban area, like impersonal interactions with people (Fischer 1984, 25–26). These different aspects highlighted in these definitions illustrate why a definition is challenging to arrive at.

Louis Wirth, an early pioneer in urban sociology, homed in on heterogeneity as common to cities (Wirth 2003). He defined the city as “a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals” (Gates 2003, 2).

Lewis Mumford sees cities as the power centers of human civilization: “a point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community” (Mumford 1981, 3).

One of my favorite definitions states that “A city is a place where it is acceptable to be a stranger” (Jacobsen 2003, 139). Eric Jacobsen observes that interacting with strangers is normal to city life and rare in small town life.

From a Christian perspective, Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz defined the city as “a relatively large, dense and socially heterogeneous center of integrative social power, capable of preserving, changing and interpreting human culture both for and against God’s divine purpose” (Conn and Ortiz 2001, 233). Conn and Ortiz note the culture-shaping aspect of the city and add a theological dimension by noting the purpose of cities.

George Gmelch assesses a city based the role it plays in society. “One must look beyond the settlement itself and assess its role in the larger society to decide whether it is an urban settlement” (Gmelch 2002, 5). Cities still typically function as the centralized marketplaces and nodes of a broader area.

John Macionis takes a stab at a definition, drawing from his sociological background: “A city is a relatively large, dense settlement that has a complex social structure that greatly reflects, intensifies, and re-creates cultural values and forms” (Macionis 2004, 253).

These definitions help us understand cities through different disciplines. We know that simple statistics are insufficient, and we must acknowledge the contrast between cities and noncities in terms of population, density, function, composition, and influence. Thus, cities are relatively large, dense, and heterogeneous human settlements featuring complex social structure and institutions, resulting in cultural production extending beyond its boundaries.

A single-sentence definition cannot adequately define a city. But a definition that moves us beyond a simplistic or inaccurate understanding of the city is a starting place. Charles Gates says it well: “Cities are rich, full, many-faceted; reducing the city to a single, all-purpose definition seems neither possible nor even desirable” (Gates 2003, 3). The complexity of cities should keep us humble as we seek to understand them with increased clarity.

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Works Cited

Clark, David. 2014. Urban Geography: An Introductory Guide. New York: Routledge.

Conn, Harvie M., and Manuel Ortiz. 2001. Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, & the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Davey, Andrew. 2002. Urban Christianity and Global Order: Theological Resources for an Urban Future. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Fischer, Claude. 1984. The Urban Experience. 2nd ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gates, Charles. 2003. Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece, and Rome. London; New York: Routledge.

Gmelch, George. 2002. Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City. 4th ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Jacobsen, Eric O. 2003. Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Macionis, John. 2004. Cities and Urban Life. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Mumford, Lewis. 1981. The Culture of Cities. Greenwood Press Reprint.

O’Connor, Michael Patrick. 2008. “The Biblical Notion of the City.” In Constructions of Space II: The Biblical City and Other Imagined Spaces, edited by Jon L. Berquist and Claudia V. Camp, 18–39. Library of Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament Studies 490. New York and London: T&T Clark International.

Wirth, Louis. 2003. “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” In The City Reader, edited by Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout, 3rd ed., 97–104. London; New York: Routledge.