1 Cities

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter you will be able to:.

  • Define the key characteristics that make a place a city
  • Identify the main features of ancient cities
  • Understand how the physical characteristics of a city create unique social relationships
  • Compare and contrast urban and traditional societies
  • Examine how the design of cities create opportunities for intimacy, anonymity, and new forms of social interaction
  • Articulate the role that public space plays in influencing urban social life

What makes a place a city? When we think about cities, often the first thing that comes to mind is a skyline dotted with tall buildings. But some cities, like Marrakesh, Morocco or San Jose, California, have low-rise skylines, and towering structures can exist outside of urban areas. There are giant grain silos in small farming towns and soaring lighthouses perched on isolated, rocky shores. If cities are not defined by their skylines, then how can we differentiate urban places from small towns or rural communities?

In this chapter, we will identify the defining features of cities. We’ll look at how cities emerged and how they changed social relations in the ancient world. We will then focus on the contemporary elements that are common to all cities no matter where they are located. Finally, we will explore how these defining characteristics of cities shape the lives and relationships of the people who live within them.

Ancient cities

Within the broad scope of human history, cities are a relatively recent phenomenon. The earliest cities were established nearly 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. The emergence of these initial urban centers coincided with the development of agriculture. As ancient peoples began to farm rather than hunt and gather, they were able to establish more permanent settlements. When these communities began consistently producing a surplus of food, it allowed some residents to devote their time to non-agricultural tasks, such as religious duties or art, which resulted in differentiated social roles and more complex forms of community organization.

Cities appeared in earnest around 6,000 years ago, developing simultaneously across the globe from North Africa to East Asia to the Americas. Despite their geographic and cultural differences, these ancient cities shared many common traits.[1] These were densely settled communities made up of permanent structures with a specialized division of labor that supported a ruling class or a group of people whose sole function was to make economic, political, or religious decisions. Residents of early cities had to contribute a portion of the goods they produced as a tax or tribute to a centralized authority. That surplus was used by authorities to construct temples, civic buildings, and monuments, and in exchange for their contributions, urban dwellers were granted certain rights and were guaranteed protection. Many ancient cities developed systems of writing that helped keep track of citizens’ contributions and made advancements in the sciences and art. Finally, these cities conducted trade and imported raw materials from areas beyond their borders.

Not all early cities had monumental architecture or developed systems of writing.[2] While initial influential scholars of ancient cities identified the physical characteristics that early urban settlements shared, more recently, researchers have focused on the social and cultural characteristics that differentiated the urban experience from village life and on the relationship between ancient cities and their surrounding hinterlands. Regardless of the types of buildings they contained or systems of accounting they used, all ancient cities were centralized settlements that held political, economic, or cultural influence over the outlying countryside. Urban societies developed forms of specialization, had population diversity, and created institutions or networks of power that shaped the political, religious, economic, or cultural life both within and outside of the city’s walls.

Ancient cities did not arise in isolation. The emergence of cities was closely tied to the developments that occurred within the larger societies that they were a part of. Cities should not simply be understood as a major mark of progression in human history, but as a product of societies that were engaged in a longer-scale process of developing more complex community systems and networks.[3] In other words, before cities could be developed, economic and social infrastructure such as trading networks already had to be in place to support their rise. Still, Uruk, Babylon and other ancient cities differed significantly from the smaller villages and migratory communities they replaced. Not only were they visibly different in terms of their physical size, population densities, and notable structures, they also created new ways of living, forms of social organization, and culture.

Not all ancient cities had kings

Until recently, not much was known about ancient cities in Africa due to Eurocentric biases in archeology and the lack of large-scale archeological digs on the continent. The ancient city of Jenne-Jeno (Djenné-Djenno) was located along the Middle Niger River valley in Mali. Unlike early urban settlements in other parts of the world, Jenne-Jeno contained an outer wall, but it had no palaces, elite residences, or other monumental buildings. Instead, there was a clustering development pattern where smaller compounds were grouped closely together. The archeological evidence indicates that there was a variety of types of economic activity and a diversity of burial practices, suggesting that the city contained a people from a number of different cultural groups who specialized in particular trades like herding,  agriculture, fishing, or pottery-making. Rather than being organized in a hierarchical manner and ruled by force, Jenne-Jeno appears to have had a more decentralized form of government that was based on trading relationships. There is evidence that people may have migrated there from other parts of the Sahara as the climate began to change and lakes and rivers dried up. The city of Jenne-Jeno endured for more than 1500 years, and archeologists have found no evidence of warfare during that time. As we learn more about the ancient cities of Africa, our understanding about how early urban settlements came about and subsequently, how cities function may change dramatically.

Roderick J McIntosh, “Different Cities: Jenne-Jeno and African Urbanism,” in The Cambridge World History, ed.Norman Yoffee, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 364-380.


Three characteristics of urban places

While cities had existed for thousands of years, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries urban populations grew exponentially as countries in Western Europe and North America industrialized. In the first half of the 19th century, England began to urbanize at a rapid rate and before the end of that century, a majority of Europeans were living in cities. By 1920, the United States became a majority urban society.[4] As nations were shifting from being predominantly rural societies to urban ones, scholars observed and analyzed the impacts that rapid industrialization and urbanization had on society, community relationships, and individual behavior.

Late 19th century European scholars Ferdinand Tönnies and Emile Durkheim explored how urban society differed from village life. Tönnies used the phrase gemeinschaft, which means communal, to describe typical village life, which is structured around shared values and has strict social roles and rules. He contrasted this with gesellschaft or society, which described a more complex and individualistic urban world that is governed by self-interest. Similarly, Durkheim coined the term mechanical solidarity to characterize the shared culture and values of traditional rural life. His concept of organic solidarity referred to the structure of urban society, which is based more upon selective interdependence and governed by institutions and laws rather than shared cultural traditions. Both theorists were concerned with the demise of traditional communal life and worried that rapid urbanization would produce an overly individualistic society. However, neither theorist identified the criteria that makes a place urban or rural.

Traditional (rural) society

What Tönnies labelled “Gemeinschaft” and Durkheim called “Mechanical Solidarity”

  • Homogeneous
  • Static roles
  • Shared beliefs, values, social ties
  • Places the community above the individual
Urban society

Tönnies called this “Gesellschaft” and Durkheim used the term “Organic Solidarity”

  • Heterogeneous
  • Social mobility and economic specialization
  • Held together by interdependence and voluntary association
  • Self-interested, rather than communally driven


In 1938, Louis Wirth, a U.S. sociologist, argued that previous philosophers of urban life had equated urbanization with industrialization and capitalism. Wirth set out to separate the city from the larger-scale economic and social changes that were fueling its growth and development. He described the city as a “relatively large, dense and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.”[5] In order to fully understand Wirth’s definition of the city, we need to break down each of the statements within it.

Wirth states that a city must be a “relatively large” place. But, what exactly does large mean?  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a community must have at least 50,000 residents to be considered urban.[6] However, having 50,000 residents spread out over 100 square miles wouldn’t constitute a city. In addition to having a certain number of residents, the Census Bureau also stipulates that this population needs to be clustered in a fairly compact space that contains mixed land-uses such as homes, businesses, industries, government institutions, and other types of services. Other nations use different population thresholds to differentiate urban places from rural ones. Given this variation in official definitions of urbanized communities, the United Nations has declined to create a uniform definition of a city, instead accepting the definitions that each nation uses to define and count its own urban populations.[7] But basic definitions of urban places include both a population threshold and some marker of density as identifying features.

Having a large population in one place produces particular characteristics and conditions. Wirth argued that large populations create increased specialization and diversity. As cities have grown and developed, the level of specialization within them has also increased far beyond the craftspeople, scribes, and priests that once distinguished ancient urban societies from rural ones. While you’ll rarely find a movie theater that specializes in Japanese horror films from the 1970s or a vegan delicatessen that sells vegetable-based meat substitutes in a small town, you would not be surprised to discover such a place in a city. Having a large population size allows like-minded groups of people to find one another and bond over obscure interests. Specialization and diversity are also evident in urban economies. While there may be only one or two restaurants in a small town, cities often have a wide-range of eateries that cater to diverse tastes.

That specialization contributes to the outsized role cities play in the world economy. The 600 largest cities in the world are home to just 20% of the global population, but will soon generate 60% of the worldwide economic output.[8] The largest of these cities are called megacities. The United Nations considers any city with a population of more than 10 million a megacity. There are currently 29 megacities in the world, many of which are located in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. While the megacity concept is a useful way to identify the shared challenges large cities face, it is often used in an alarmist fashion to draw attention to the resource strains and struggles that cities in lower-income countries face as large numbers of rural residents migrate to them. Even though many megacities struggle to provide adequate resources to their inhabitants, megacity residents almost always have greater opportunities and a higher standard of living than people do in the surrounding rural areas.

Top 10 megacities

The ten largest megacities in the world by population (including their metropolitan areas)

  1. Tokyo, Japan                          37 million
  2. Delhi, India                            31 million
  3. Shanghai, China                   28 million
  4. Sao Paolo, Brazil                   22 million
  5. Mexico City, Mexico             22 million
  6. Dhaka, Bangladesh              22 million
  7. Cairo, Egypt                           21 million
  8. Beijing, China                        21 million
  9. Mumbai, India                       20 million
  10. Osaka, Japan                          19 million

Christele Harrouk, “The Twenty Largest Cities in the World-2021,” Architecture Daily, April 21, 2021, https://www.archdaily.com/906605/the-20-largest-cities-in-the-world-of-2018


Cities not only impact those within their immediate boundaries but also the regions around them. The U.S. Census Bureau differentiates between cities and urbanized areas. A metropolitan area (also referred to as a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or an MSA by the U.S. Census Bureau) refers to a city and its surrounding suburbs and neighboring towns that are interdependent in terms of geography, economics, and infrastructure.[9] The concept of an urbanized or metropolitan area is not unique to the United States; it exists around the world. In China, the official boundaries of a city may encompass a variety of land uses from a densely populated urban core to still undeveloped farmlands, because cities are defined as political administrative units.[10] While an entire metropolitan area or administratively defined city zone may share important traits, life within the core city still differs dramatically from life within the less densely populated areas around it. For example, life in a suburban Long Island town has a different pace and rhythm than life in New York City does. And a small farmer living on the edge of Chongqing may interact with her immediate community in different ways than her counterpart in the city does.

The key characteristic that differentiates the city proper from its surrounding communities is the density of its population. Wirth argued that density leads to intense competition for space and a tendency for people to take advantage of one another. As a result, he concluded, cities need to develop forms of social control to keep this chaos organized. Wirth also believed that density exposes urban residents to stark contrasts, which some of the social critics of his day worried could lead to urban dwellers adopting a blasé or callous attitude towards other residents.

The negative associations that Wirth ascribed to densely populated places have been challenged by other urban theorists. Jane Jacobs chronicled the flow of daily life on her New York City block and concluded that density produced uniquely urban forms of cooperative social organization.[11] Jacobs cataloged her neighborhood’s “sidewalk ballet,” a highly choreographed and complex form of organic organization that kept her neighborhood functioning in a way that made residents feel safe and intimately connected to others in the community. Regardless of the impacts that size and density have on urban life, these are defining features of urban places.

Wirth also noted that cities are characterized by their heterogeneity. Cities are filled with different types of people, some of whom have lived there for generations and others who were born elsewhere but are drawn to the wide-ranging economic or social opportunities that urban areas offer. Cities’ diverse economies and cultures attract migrants who may be from nearby rural areas or far-flung parts of the globe. Since urban residents come from different places seeking out better opportunities, cities often have a more diverse and fluid social structure.

Wirth noted that urban residents’ interactions with diverse groupings of people led to more flexibility in one’s social status and position. While village or small town residents are often assigned a set role to play within their community, urbanites may adapt and shift their identities over time and even within the course of a day as they interact with different groups of people. This social fluidity can provide increased individual opportunity and advantage, but Wirth and many of his contemporaries argued that it also led to a loosening of traditional community bonds and a loss of social connection.

Urban subcultures

In the 1970s, sociologist Claude Fischer further explored the concepts of size, density and heterogeneity and arrived at a very different conclusion than Louis Wirth.[12] While Wirth based his ideas on how anonymous city dwellers reacted to other strangers in public spaces, Fischer instead focused on the unique norms and values that develop among like-minded individuals in their private networks. Fischer theorized that the large, dense, and heterogeneous character of the city allows for subcultures to develop and flourish. A critical mass of individuals who share a particular interest, ideology, or identity can connect with one another and form a network. That network, in turn, may develop unique behaviors and values that become a distinct subculture.

A subculture is a community within a larger society that develops a set of values, norms or behaviors that is different than or in opposition to the dominant culture. Sociologist Dick Hebdige views subcultures as expressions of the social experiences of their members.[13] In subcultures, fashion, music, hairstyles, or leisure activities become key symbols of the group’s redefinition of itself. For example, the punk music scene emerged in the United Kingdom during a time of economic recession when the dominant political discourse was concerned about despair and national decline. Punk fashion embraced those narratives of working-class decline by donning torn clothing, wearing everyday objects like safety pins as jewelry, and appropriating profane symbols in a way that jeered at the British economic and political system.

Hip hop: A New York subculture goes global

Subcultures are influenced by the time and place where they developed. Hip hop emerged in the South Bronx in the 1970s. During this time, the city was facing an economic crisis that was felt even more intensely in Black and low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx. White flight and deindustrialization gutted neighborhood infrastructure, leading to a lack of entertainment and recreational spaces for young people. Neighborhood youth hosted block parties in the abandoned lots and buildings that featured local DJs. DJs like Kool Herc who were part of the Jamaican dub scene would play extended breaks or percussion-heavy musical interludes during which people could show off their best dance moves. Break-boys or break-girls (later shortened to B-boys or B-girls) would dance on makeshift cardboard stages. DJs eventually began rhyming over the breaks to encourage the dancers, and MCs were born.

Hip-hop culture had four main elements: DJing, MCs, break dancing, and graffiti. Each element was influenced by the cultures of the people who lived in the Bronx and the urban landscape they were a part of. Jamaican, Black, and Puerto Rican musical traditions shaped DJing and the rhyming call/response structure of MCing. Break dancing was influenced by capoeira, a Brazilian dance-like martial art developed by enslaved people, and other dance traditions. Graffiti artists who painted their tags on subway cars developed unique styles of writing that were designed to be seen in motion.

Today, hip hop is a global youth culture. While the early elements of this cultural style that was born in the South Bronx are still evident today, the sounds and traditions of different hip hop scenes around the world are shaped by their local cultures and cities. For example, Aboriginal and Maori hip hop artists in Australia and New Zealand incorporate traditional dances into their performances and rely upon their communities’ long oral traditions when writing lyrics. While the histories of indigenous people in settler colonial societies differ from the experiences of African Americans, the hip hop subculture speaks to the shared experience of oppression. Through hip hop, bonds of solidarity are built and strengthened.

Samy Alim, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook, Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities and the Politics of Language (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2008)

PQ, Rory, Hip Hop History from the Streets to the Mainstream, Icon Collective, November 25, 2019, https://iconcollective.edu/hip-hop-history/.


Fischer argued that urbanism facilitates the development of subcultures. The presence of subcultures contribute to cities’ reputations for being avant-garde places where alternative ways of living or interacting can develop and thrive. For example, many cities are known for having strong lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities. Cities with large LGBTQ communities are sometimes located in very conservative regions, not often known for being LBGTQ-friendly.[14] Louisville, Kentucky, was recently recognized for its pro-LGBTQ policies by the Human Rights Campaign.[15] While Kentucky is not usually known for its progressive politics, cities in states or regions that are conservative become strong beacons to LGBTQ young adults who may feel isolated living in nearby small towns or rural communities. Having a critical mass of community members, even in areas that may be somewhat hostile, can provide a sense of solidarity, strength, and safety and allow a supportive subculture to develop. These subcultures can in turn, influence the cities and regions that incubate them.

Cities not only provide the population size, heterogeneity, and density that are necessary for subcultures to form, but they can also offer physical spaces that incubate alternative cultures. These physical spaces can take many forms, from the collective punk house that hosts shows in the basement to the community rooms in public housing projects that sponsored early hip hop parties to entire neighborhoods where people who are marginalized can feel safe and supported. The term gayborhood refers to an urban neighborhood that has a concentration of LGBTQ institutions and residents and is associated with LGBTQ subcultures.[16] Some famous gayborhoods include the Castro district in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York, and Soho in London.

Both Wirth and Fischer agreed that the size, density, and heterogeneous nature of cities leads to unique forms of social organization and life. Having a critical mass of people in a dense setting from different backgrounds leads to complex specialized economies, allows diverse and obscure businesses to develop, helps communities and cultures flourish, and nurtures new ways of living and interacting.

Cities—A network of villages?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wirth and his contemporaries painted a negative picture of urban life. They believed that industrialization and urbanization created a new type of human being that was individualistic, uncaring, and completely free of all community responsibilities. Observing people in any busy, downtown public area could easily lead one to this conclusion. You would see city dwellers moving quickly through the streets avoiding eye contact, ignoring pleas for spare change or shouts of street hawkers selling wares.

Claude Fischer’s city of vibrant and avant-garde subcultures creates a different picture of urban life. In Fischer’s city, residents are not strangers to one another, but rather are so closely tied that they create new ways of interacting and behaving. However, the close ties Fischer observed were relationships formed by choice, not tradition. So his work provides little insight into the debate over whether traditional community ties are incompatible with urban life.

In the 1950s, sociologist Herbert Gans moved to a low-income, Italian-American neighborhood in Boston.[17] His intention was to study life in a community that had been declared a slum and was slated for redevelopment under the federal Urban Renewal program. Gans questioned many of the assumptions urban planners made about people living in “blighted” neighborhoods. He wanted to learn firsthand how living in a run-down community affected residents’ lives.

Gans not only discovered that many of the common assumptions about so-called slum neighborhoods were not true, but he also uncovered a tight-knit community structure in Boston’s West End. Residents socialized in small circles of extended family and close friends and emphasized communal values and loyalty to their immediate social group, rather than identifying with larger organizations or social structures. Gans described the neighborhood’s community life as a working-class subculture. The close ties of West End residents challenged earlier urban scholars’ characterizations of city life as isolating and individualistic. The neighborhood relationships Gans described more closely resemble traditional community ties than they do the cold depictions of city life that were painted by early urban sociologists. Despite the insular nature of people’s social ties, the dense urban fabric of the West End neighborhood and the issues tenants faced with deteriorating housing drew people together beyond their immediate peer groups.

In the late 1960s, Carol Stack, a white urban anthropologist, moved into a predominantly African American housing project to conduct a research study. She noticed a similar interdependent network and strong reliance on communal bonds among the residents she worked with.[18] Like their counterparts in the West End, occupants of “The Flats” formed close relationships with extended family members and longtime friends. These communities repeatedly pooled their resources and spread the limited income and material goods they had around in order to maximize group members’ welfare. Stacks’ description of the resource-sharing strategies within this community mimic the village-like bonds that early scholars claimed city life had destroyed.

As with the West Enders, specific urban characteristics – density, economic inequality, and heterogeneous populations – helped shape the mutually beneficial community networks residents of the Flats established. The size and density of the housing project allowed residents to easily share and swap resources. The heterogeneous character of the community led many to adopt longtime friends and neighbors as honorary family members, and the economic deprivation they faced necessitated a communal approach to stretch the limited resources each household had.

But these communal survival strategies can be jeopardized when neighborhood conditions deteriorate. In a more recent study of communal networks in a public housing project, Danielle Radenbush found that residents engaged in selective solidarity.[19] High rates of crime and violence led to wariness and distrust among residents, so they were careful about who they interacted and shared resources with. Residents tended to “keep to themselves” and were hesitant to involve people who they observed to be spending time out on the streets in their networks. Survival strategies require reciprocity and trust. If someone is thought to be untrustworthy or unwilling to provide mutual support, they may be not be invited to share resources.

These types of ties are not unique to low-income communities in U.S. cities. A 2015 survey of neighborhoods in Cairo, Egypt, also documented strong, mutually supportive ties among residents, especially in informal or self-built communities.[20] Communities in the self-built areas closely resembled the village-like interdependence that Gans, Stack, and Radenbush documented. Since informal neighborhoods often lacked basic urban services, community members had to work together to provide security, health care, and connections to electrical power sources. Some of these communities also had a shortage of businesses and community spaces, so holiday and religious celebrations took place in the streets, further providing opportunities for residents to interact and cement their ties.

Tight-knit communities are not incompatible with urban environments. In fact, having a strong sense of community can help city dwellers overcome the isolation and sense of fear that Wirth and earlier researchers associated with living in a crowded place. Residents who feel a strong sense of attachment to their neighbors are less afraid of crime than those who are more socially isolated.[21] Jane Jacobs, the urban theorist who documented daily life on her New York City block, observed that some of her neighbors acted as “eyes on the street,” noticing who seemed out of place in their busy neighborhood. While it seems counter-intuitive that size, density and heterogeneity would promote a sense of safety, in close-knit communities, residents are aware of the rhythms of daily life in their neighborhood and take note when someone behaves in a way that is out of the ordinary.

Neither stranger nor friend: Neighboring and relationships in urban environments

Cities are not just collections of people who are strangers to one another; there are neighborhoods and subcultures within them where people’s lives are very closely intertwined. But how do these relationships develop? Rick Grannis studied neighboring –  the process of forming relationships with those who live nearby – in his home city of Los Angeles. He outlined the stages in the neighboring process.[22] The first stage begins with simply living within a certain geographical proximity of a potential neighbor. Grannis considered potential neighbors to be those who live within a network of walkable face-blocks. A face-block includes all of the buildings that line both sides of a city block from one intersection to the next. Since meeting one’s neighbor requires face-to-face contact, Grannis noted that some blocks serve as barriers within a neighborhood. For example, neighbors might know those who live a block or two away, but they may not know the neighbors who live on the other side of a busy street or just across an intersection with lots of traffic. The geography of a potential pool of neighbors would include all of those living on either side of the block that you would come in contact with if you were walking along the residential streets in your immediate neighborhood. Your likelihood of developing a close relationship with someone who lives across a major street or commercial thruway is low, so these residents would not be included within the potential pool of neighbors.

Developing a relationship with a potential neighbor starts with recognition. Through regular contact with one another, you may begin to wave or nod when you pass by. Once this more distant form of neighboring is established, the relationship may progress to conversation or to deliberate interactions, then finally, into a stage of friendship and then a sense of “mutual trust” that resembles the village-like ties early sociologists wrote about.[23]

Stages of neighboring

Stage One: Geographic Proximity Living in very close proximity (on the same floor or block) to someone will increase the chance of interaction, even passive interactions
Stage Two: Passive Contact Living nearby and crossing paths frequently enough that you begin to recognize or acknowledge each other
Stage Three: Intentional Contact Choosing to interact with someone who lives nearby (i.e. having a conversation, borrowing things, visiting one another)
Stage Four: Mutual Trust Having a closer connection that involves trust and reciprocity (i.e. kids playing together, collecting your mail if you are on vacation, having a BBQ)


Rick Grannis, From the Ground up: Translating Geography into Community through Neighbor Networks (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).


The network of face-blocks in a neighborhood creates an opportunity to establish relationships with the people in an immediate area. Easily walkable neighborhoods with no steep hills or other impediments encourage pedestrian activity.[24] Communities that are not solely residential, but have shops and stores mixed in, also promote more walking. People who take leisurely walks through their neighborhood are more likely to have a stronger sense of community.

Public space and community among strangers

It is not just the residential areas of a city that promote social interaction. Public spaces play a role too. Lewis Mumford described the city as a “theater of social action.”[25] He believed that cities were places where grievances between groups get worked out, where cultures experiment and grow together, and where individuals exposed to this constant drama and action develop their own tastes and personalities from it. In Mumford’s concept of the city, the public spaces, parks, streets, shopping areas, and transit lines are the stage for an ongoing, ever-evolving social drama. The metaphors that Mumford uses to describe the city not only capture the cosmopolitan aspects of urban life, but also imply that cities are places of liberation. The number of diverse groups of people coming together in a tightly packed space creates opportunities to collectively reimagine life, which in turn, reshapes our cities.

Mumford’s drama plays out in the public spaces of the city. The streets, shops, parks, libraries, transit centers, cafés, and playgrounds are the social infrastructure of a city.[26] Although the primary function of these spaces may not be to produce social interaction, these are the metaphorical stages that “allow life to happen” in cities. They are spaces where strangers can interact and subconsciously cooperate with one another. You may not notice the intricate social dance that occurs as people stroll along a sidewalk, because these unspoken rules for navigating shared space are invisible until those norms are disrupted.

One example of social infrastructure is the central plaza or zocalo that is found in many Latin American cities. The typical zocalo is bordered by a church, the market, and important political or municipal buildings.[27] These public plazas host a variety of city dwellers who use the space throughout the day for different purposes. It can be a place to play, shop, exercise, people-watch, rest, converse with friends, flirt, eat, relax, or gather. The zocalo is also a site for organized events, like political rallies, concerts, and celebrations. In the mornings, the square may be filled with elderly friends or parents with small children. In the afternoon, workers eating lunch, schoolkids on break, or shoppers pass through. In the evenings, friends, couples and families flock to the town square to simply stroll around. Different vendors and entertainers frequent these squares during different times of day, catering to whoever has gathered. Plazas provide opportunities for people of all social classes, ages and backgrounds to interact.

Having adequate public space is important, but an abundance of space alone does not necessarily lead to deeper engagement within cities. Spaces that are too tightly controlled or unwelcoming will not allow for the types of interactions among strangers that increase trust and tolerance. A sense of trust is developed by interacting with strangers in the unregulated, messy public spaces of the city.[28] These are spaces that are often crowded, contain a multitude of activities and may seem chaotic to outsiders. Cooperatively negotiating these spaces with hundreds of other strangers is a quintessentially urban experience. Sociologist Lyn Lofland argues that urban life entails being comfortable as a “stranger in the midst of strangers.”

Geographer Ash Amin has developed this concept further.[29] He describes the situated surplus that emerges when people effectively and cooperatively navigate densely packed, busy, and seemingly chaotic public spaces. Regularly encountering this type of unregulated public space produces a tolerance for difference and sense of connection as people learn to “trust the situation” in these spaces. That connection and tolerance is built not by conforming to particular rules, but by constantly adapting to situations that break the organic patterns that develop in multi-use crowded spaces. For example, people in a hurry in a subway station might climb past those who are standing still on an escalator. The stair-standers may move to the right to allow someone to pass on the left-hand side, but if a parent and small child are sharing a stair, the passer might have to stop and wait for them to rearrange themselves, or the parent might pick up the child in anticipation of the passer. This constant breaking of unwritten patterns and the instantaneous adjustments that are made produce a sense of freedom and confidence. This comfort around strangers then carries over into other interactions and spaces within the city.

Not all spaces encourage this type of interaction.[30] Spaces where people are static and engaged in similar activities may not allow for the constant patterning and unpatterning that occurs when people move through a space and use it for different purposes. The design of a space can also affect how it is used. People use public spaces for three main types of activities: necessary, optional, and social. Necessary activities include traveling to work or school, grocery shopping, or other errands. Optional activities are those which are dependent upon weather and the design of a space. Some examples of optional activities are going on a walk, running, or sunbathing. If there aren’t good paths or sidewalks, or if there’s a lot of traffic, it could discourage some optional uses. Social activities like meeting a friend are dependent upon both the design of a space and the amount of other activity going on there. If there are not a lot of necessary and optional activities taking place, a space may not feel welcoming to those who are going there to socialize.

Some observations about the use of public space
  1. Activity attracts activity: People are more likely to use spaces where there is lots of activity going on
  2. Human activity attracts more attention than physical infrastructure does: People pay more attention to street performances, construction work or other human-involved activities than they do to shop windows or buildings
  3. Pedestrian oriented streets attract more activity: Areas with high traffic volumes have fewer pedestrians
  4. Social interactions in city streets and commercial centers is more superficial: Passive contact, like overhearing conversations, is still a form of social activity. More in-depth encounters take place in public spaces where people are likely to know each other such as near schools, workplaces, or in neighborhoods.
  5. Pedestrians prefer direct paths: Walkers seek out the shortest path between two points and look for shortcuts
  6. People linger in edge zones: The areas that divide one space from another are used as gathering places where people gravitate if they want to stay for a while.
  7. People need places to sit: A public space without adequate sitting spots will not be a place where people gather
  8. People like to see what is going on: Public spaces should be open enough and small enough for people to be able to see what is happening throughout the space.

Jahn Gehl, Life between Buildings. (Washington DC: Island Press, 2011)


In Mumford’s city as a theater of social action, the public spaces are where conflicts are worked out and new ways of relating to one another are developed. While Amin’s situated surplus increases tolerance and cooperation, it does not produce new forms of being and relating. However, urban public space can be an incubator of fundamental change. When urban residents appropriate a public space in the city and change its intended use to meet their needs, an emancipatory space can emerge.[31] One example of this is the encampments that were set up during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Protesters not only set-up tents where they could sleep, they also created makeshift bathing areas, medical stations, a “Lennon Wall” where anyone could add a post-it note with their thoughts, ideas or favorite song lyrics or poetry stanzas, and revolutionary art honoring the movement and movements that preceded it both locally and from around the world. The campers organized themselves into villages where they connected and collaborated with friends and strangers. This emancipatory space was not just a protest site, but it also was a living demonstration of how people in Hong Kong could organize themselves to meet their own needs. The Tempelhof airport in Berlin is another example of an emancipatory space. When the city closed the airport, residents began to use the large open space and abandoned runways for biking, kite boarding, and gardening. When the city attempted to redevelop the old airport, Berliners successfully resisted the planned luxury housing development. In this case, the vision that ordinary citizens had for this space became its permanent use.


Cities are defined by their size, density, and heterogeneity. While these characteristics lead to increased specialization and individuality, they can also inspire feelings of isolation and self-interested behaviors. However, these same conditions create opportunities for like-minded people to bond together in subcultures and to invent new ways of interacting and living.

In the smaller components that make up urban areas – neighborhoods or housing complexes – social life may more closely resemble the tightly woven bonds that exist in small towns and villages. These bonds are often found in networks of close family and friends, but the geography of neighborhoods creates opportunities for people to relate on a variety of levels from acknowledging a shared familiarity to becoming an intimate friend.

On a larger scale, the public spaces of the city create opportunities for social groups and individuals to come into contact with one another. These points of contact may produce conflict or cooperation. They can fundamentally reshape the communities involved and the city as a whole. At the very least, the social dramas of the city expose its inhabitants to new ways of thinking and behaving.

In all of these definitions of the city, one thing remains constant. The physical and demographic makeup of urban places fundamentally alters the social ties of city dwellers. Urban places produce new forms of social organization and relations.

Test your Urban Literacy

 Think about how the concepts in this chapter apply to your own city
  1. List three criteria that make a place a city. These characteristics should be present in cities throughout the world. Provide examples from your own city of how it meets these particular criteria.
  2. Identify a criteria that makes a place a city that was not discussed in this chapter. Argue for why this criteria should be part of a definition of what makes a place a city.
  3. Density produces heterogeneity and specialization. Use an online mapping application to explore the types of businesses that line a downtown or busy urban neighborhood shopping district. Find examples of heterogeneity and specialization.
  4. While elements associated with traditional or rural societies may be present within some urban neighborhoods and communities, cities allow individuals to play more fluid social roles to highlight different aspects of their identity as they interact with different groups. Describe how your own social role or identity shifts as you engage with different people in your city throughout the course of your day.
  5. What subcultures are associated with your city? Do these subcultures operate in particular neighborhoods or spaces?
  6. Public spaces provide the social infrastructure in cities, but not all public spaces produce the types of conditions that are necessary for creating what Amin called a “situated surplus.” Identify some public spaces in your city where people could experience the give and take that is involved in being a “stranger in the midst of strangers.”

Learn to read the city around you

Apply what you’ve learned in this chapter by completing a hands-on activity in your own city
  1. Create a face-block map: Draw a map of a frequently travelled route that you take in your neighborhood or city. You could trace the route you take to a transit stop, your friend’s house, a local coffee shop, the grocery store, or work. Your map should include the names of the streets that you walk on and should highlight any important landmarks along the way, like a park or businesses. It should also identify your “face-block” or the people that you regularly see as you walk this route. A face-block includes anyone who is familiar to you or those whose faces you recognize even if you’ve never spoken. This could potentially be your neighbors, shopkeepers, regular customers, or just people who hang out in the area. For each familiar face you encounter along your route, create symbols and a key that ranks the depth of your relationship (i.e. familiar face, acquaintance, good friend) with that individual.
  2. Observe the sidewalk ballet: Get to know the rhythms and patterns of urban life on a busy block, at a transit stop or intersection, or in a park, plaza, or indoor public gathering space. Over the course of several days, note the activities and people flows that occur in this space during a consistent block of time (i.e. weekday mornings from 8-10). Document how many people move through the space at different times, what activities they engage in, if there are regular events or frequent users of that space, how long people spend in the space, the times that activities occur, and any other details you think could help describe daily rhythms of life. Pay attention to the context of your observations by noting weather patterns, holidays, or other major events that might affect the patterns of use and interaction. Use your notes to compile a detailed narrative description of daily life in this corner of your city. You might also include maps or diagrams of the space and/or of people flows in your final write-up.
  3. Explore the subcultures of your city: Find at least three places, events, publications, websites, or other media, or organizations that are representative of a subculture within your city. Learn more about this subculture by attending an event, visiting a place, or by reading, viewing or listening to their media. Write a short review of your exploration that notes what you learned about this community, its relationships, and its contributions to your city. Identify what makes this subculture unique, where and how it can be accessed, and how it is connected to other communities within the city. Collect all students’ reviews and compile them into a subcultural atlas of your city.
  4. Collect data about heterogeneity in your city: Explore census or neighborhood data to find data points that demonstrate heterogeneity in a neighborhood or in your city. Try to find data points that represent different aspects of heterogeneity from population demographics to economic statistics to building and land use types. Present your findings in a one page infographic that highlights the heterogeneous character of your neighborhood or city.
  5. Create an urban movie setting: Film two, short (less than 2-3 minute) opening scenes for a movie that identify its setting and establish a sense of place. For the first scene, film an opening sequence that could represent a city anywhere. You will want to find images and scenes that are representative of all cities. For the second scene, create a montage that specifically depicts scenes from your own city. In this scene, an audience should immediately be able to recognize your particular city, so you will need to find images that are unique to your location.
  6. Identify the unwritten rules for a busy public space: Find a busy, public space that qualifies as the type of place that Amin describes as contributing to the situated surplus. Visit the space at least three times and observe how people interact with one another. Take notes on the types of interactions you see. Identify the unwritten rules for navigating this space. For example, do shoppers at a farmers market enter and exit booths in a particular pattern? Provide examples for each rule from your notes. Your examples may include situations where people break the rules. Present your findings to the class.





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