From Academic Kids

City lights from space. NASA. Credit-Marc Imhoff
City lights from space. NASA. Credit-Marc Imhoff

A city is an urban area, differentiated from a town, village, or hamlet by size, population density, importance, or legal status. In most parts of the world cities are generally substantial and nearly always have an urban core, but in the United States many incorporated areas which have a very modest population, or a suburban or even mostly rural character, are designated as cities. City can also be a synonym for "downtown" or a "city centre".



A city usually consists of residential, industrial and business areas together with administrative functions which may relate to a wider geographical area. A large share of a city's area is generally taken up by houses, roads, and streets. Lakes and rivers may be the only undeveloped areas within the city.

"The city is a human habitat that allows people to form relations with others at various levels of intimacy while remaining entirely anonymous." (This definition was the subject of an exhibition at the Israeli pavilion at the 2000 Venice Biennale of architecture)

The difference between towns and cities is differently understood in different parts of the English speaking world. There is no one standard international definition of a city: the term may be used either for a town possessing city status; for an urban locality exceeding an arbitrary population size; for a town dominating other towns with particular regional economic or administrative significance. Although city can refer to an agglomeration including suburban and satellite areas, the term is not appropriate for a conurbation (cluster) of distinct urban places, nor for a wider metropolitan area including more than one city, each acting as a focus for parts of the area.

In the United Kingdom, a city is a town which has been known as a city since time immemorial, or which has received city status by royal charter — which is normally granted on the basis of size, importance or royal connection (traditional pointers have been whether the town has a cathedral or a university). Some cathedral cities, for example St. David's in Wales, are quite small, and may not be known as cities in common parlance. (See the list of cities in the United Kingdom.) A similar system existed in the medieval Low Countries where a landlord would grant settlements certain privileges (city rights) that settlements without city rights didn't have. This include the privilege to put up city walls, hold markets or set up a judicial court.

An interesting phenomenon in American English is the generalisation of the term city to all settlements. Britons may be bemused by forms with fields headed, not Town and Postal code, but City and ZIP, even though the person needing to fill it in could be living in a city, a town without city status, or even a village or hamlet.

In turn, many Americans often talk of "City Halls" when referring to town halls in quite small European towns and villages.

A possible reason for this phenomenon is that, when America was colonised, settlers enthusiastically gave the name "city" to their new settlements, predicting (rightly or wrongly) they would become great cities. For example, Salt Lake City was a village of 148 people who immediately laid out street plans and founded Great Salt Lake City (originally named for the nearby Great Salt Lake). A century and a half later, it actually is city-sized.

Strangely, even though Americans are well aware that "village" means something smaller than a town, the word has often been co-opted by enterprising developers to make their projects sound welcoming and friendly. The result are so-called villages with 20 and 30-story high-rises, like Westwood Village in Los Angeles.


Missing image
Map of Haarlem, the Netherlands, of around 1550. The city is completely surrounded by a city wall and defensive canal. The square shape is inspired by Jerusalem.
The geographies of cities are diverse. Often cities will either be coastal and have a harbour or be situated near a river giving economic advantage. Water transports on rivers and oceans were (and in most cases still are) cheaper and more efficient than road transport over long distances.

The kernels of older European cities, which have not been extensively rebuilt, tend to have city centres where the streets are jumbled together, often seemingly without a structural plan. This is a legacy of earlier unplanned or organic development. Today this is usually perceived by tourists to be picturesque.

Modern city planning has seen many different schemes for how a city should look. The most commonly seen pattern is the grid, almost a rule in parts of the United States, and used for thousands of years in China. Derry was the first ever planned city in Ireland, begun in 1613, with the walls being completed 5 years later in 1618. The central diamond within a walled city with four gates was thought to be a good design for defence. The grid pattern chosen was subsequently much copied in the colonies of British North America [1] (

Other forms may include a radial structure in which main roads converge on a central point, often the effect of successive growth over long time with concentric traces of town walls and citadels - recently supplemented by ring-roads that take traffic around the edge of a town. Many Dutch cities are structured that way: a central square surrounded by a concentric canals. Every city expansion would imply a new circle (canals + town walls). In cities like Amsterdam and Haarlem this pattern is still clearly visible.

History of cities

Towns and cities have a long history, although opinions vary on whether any particular ancient settlement can be considered to be a city. The first true towns are sometimes considered to be large settlements where the inhabitants were no longer simply farmers of the surrounding area, but began to take on specialised occupations, and where to trade, food storage and power was centralized. Societies that live in cities are often called civilizations.

By this definition, the first towns we know of were located in Mesopotamia, such as Ur, and along the Nile, the Indus Valley Civilisation and China. Before this time it was rare for settlements to reach significant size, although there were exceptions such as Jericho, atalhyk and Mehrgarh.

The growth of ancient and medieval empires led to ever greater capital cities and seats of provincial administration, with Rome, its eastern successor Constantinople and successive Chinese and later Indian capitals approaching or exceeding the half-million population level (it is estimated that Rome's population exceeded one million people by the end of the last century BCE). Similar large administrative and ceremonial centres emerged in other areas, though on a smaller scale.

During the European Middle Ages, a town was as much a political entity as a collection of houses. City residence brought freedom from customary rural obligations to lord and community: "Stadtluft macht frei" ("City air makes you free") was a saying in Germany. In Continental Europe cities with a legislature of their own wasn't unheard of, the laws for towns as a rule other than for the countryside, the lord of a town often being another than for surrounding land. In the Holy Roman Empire (i.e. medieval Germany and Italy) some cities had no other lord than the emperor.

In exceptional cases like Venice, Genoa or Lbeck, cities themselves became powerful states, sometimes taking surrounding areas under their control or establishing extensive maritime empires. Similar phenomena existed elsewhere, as in the case of Sakai, which enjoyed a considerable autonomy in late medieval Japan.

Most towns remained far smaller places, so that in 1500 only some two dozen places in the world contained more than 100,000 inhabitants: as late as 1700 there were fewer than fifty, a figure which would rise thereafter to 300 in 1900. A small city of the early modern period might contain as few as 10,000 inhabitants, a town far fewer still.

While the city-states, or poleis, of the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea languished from the 16th century, Europe's larger capitals benefited from the growth of commerce following the emergence of an Atlantic economy fuelled by the silver of Peru. By the 18th century, London and Paris rivalled the well-developed regionally-traditional capital cities of Baghdad, Beijing, Istanbul, Kyoto and Venice.

The growth of modern industry from the late 18th century onward led to massive urbanization and the rise of new great cities, first in Europe and then in other regions, as new opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas. Today the world's population is about half urban, with millions still streaming annually into the growing cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Modern conceptions

Traditional approach

A universal linear approach to cities has been in place and accepted for a long time. As this approach falls short of explaining a number of aspects of city life, such as the diversity between cities, new ways have been sought. Influenced by post-structuralist thinking a new approach was born: using spatial thinking it is possible to not only fill the gaps, but indeed replace the old completely.

Three characteristics have been identified as defining a city: the number of people to area (density), the networks of the city, as well as a particular way of life. None of these characteristics alone is enough to make a place a city.

Until recently cities were almost exclusively viewed as part of a single, linear line of development. Starting with the Greek city-state, this linear approach placed each city somewhere, and it was believed that it was only a matter of time until the next stage along the prescript path of advancement was reached. For each stage an exemplar was identified. Step by step from Athens onwards to Venice and London, Los Angeles seemed to be the ultimate stage of a postmodern city. Such an approach regarded a city as a single static entity, which could be studied disconnected in time and space. This leads to a theoretical framework with little connection to real cities, but these were simply seen as less clear examples. In spite of apparent shortcomings, this approach is still very commonplace in respected and popular publications.


Despite its wide acceptance this traditional approach to cities had serious shortcomings. Firstly, leaving the latest stage aside, it was completely eurocentric. It was believed that every city in the world could be compared with a past stage in the history of one European city. Secondly, there was no real explanation when and how changes occurred, how another stage in the line of development was achieved. There seemed no need to follow the changes of one city, but instead attention was turned to another exemplar. Thirdly, the disconnected view of cities is problematic. It implies that history, culture and connections of a place do not influence a place, which is questionable. Some thinkers argue that a history ignoring connections is necessary incomplete. Fourthly, the traditional approach missed to define what makes a city. It is unclear why one place is regarded as a city while another one is not. Lewis Mumford argued in 1937 for a social dimension, describing cities as geographical plexuses. Finally, viewing cities as a single body misses modern conceptions that there is more than one story to a place. The city of an aristocrat will surely differ from that of a slave. This also reflects a shift away from one single history of the powerful lites (often referred to as city lites) to a multidimensional perception of history. The notion of city rhythms has been introduced to highlight the different aspects of city life...

The term city can be used to mean either an area of contiguous urbanization or a particular municipality (an area within the political borders of an incorporated municipality ( There is a substantial variation in municipalities around the world. The largest municipality, Chongqing, is approximately the same size as the state of Indiana and contains much more rural territory than continuous urbanization. In most cases, however, the continuous urbanization popularly thought of as the city extends well beyond the boundaries of the core incorporated city.

Modern approach

As a modern approach to cities, urban thinking analyzes various issues that arise in urban areas. It focuses largely upon connections and internal divisions which helps create a better understanding of the dynamics of cities. Using such spatial thinking, it is possible to understand various aspects for which the traditional approach did not provide an adequate explanation.

One important aspect of spatial thinking is looking at the connections of a city. Such connections allow one to understand the unique character of a place. Rather than treating all cities the same, places are seen as interconnected through networks of culture, economics, trade or history. So while London and Tokyo are economically linked through stock markets, Graz and Stockholm are linked via the Cultural Capital of Europe.

These networks overlap and are concentrated in cities. Arguably this concentration of networks creates a unique feeling of a place. Such networks, however, do not only link cities with cities, but also a city to its surroundings. The notion of a city footprint reflects the idea that a city on its own is not sustainable: it depends on produce from its surroundings, it needs trade links and other connections for economic viability. Looking at networks, it becomes possible to explain the rise and fall of cities. This has to do with the changing importance of connections and is maybe best illustrated with the arrival of Spanish colonizers in America. Within a short time, connections to Madrid became more important than connections to the former centre Tenochtitln.

The concentration of networks in cities can be used as an explanation of urbanization. It is the access to certain networks that attracts people. As various networks spatially run together in a confined area, people gather in cities. At the same time, this concentration of people means the introduction of new networks, such as social links, increasing the creation of new possibilities within cities. Urban social movements are a direct result of this possibility of making new connections. It is this openness to new connections that makes cities both attractive and to a certain degree unpredictable.

Another important aspect of modern urban thinking is looking at the divisions within a city. This internal differentiation is linked to the external connections of a city. As places of meeting histories, cities are hybrid and heterogeneous. Hybrid they are as the connections which link places are bilateral, involving giving and taking in both directions. Heterogeneous they are because of the dynamism of cities. New encounters are ongoing processes where social relations and differences are constantly negotiated and shaped, reflecting the unequal power involved.

Neither the internal differentiations nor the connections and networks of a place on their own define a city. Internal divisions are caused by external links, while at the same time connections to the outside open up the possibility of new social divisions. Divisions and connections in every city are intertwined, and only by considering both aspects of spatial thinking the complexity of cities is approachable. Immigration illustrates this interconnection of external networks and internal divisions well. The networks concentrated in the core of the city attract immigrants. As they immigrate, the newcomers bring along their histories, bringing new networks or enforcing existing ones. At the same time, their history offers opportunities to identify with or likewise exclude. Division and connection come hand in hand. Rather than attempting to eradicate such tensions and contradictions in the theoretical framework, modern urban thinking – influenced by poststructuralist thought – accounts for both sides. Static universal bodies are replaced by multidimensional networks, allowing for fluidity and dynamism.

Global cities

A global city, also known as a world city, is a promiment centre of trade, banking, finance, innovations, and markets. The term "global city", as opposed to megacity, was coined by Saskia Sassen in a seminal 1991 work. Whereas "megacity" refers to any city of enormous size, a global city is one of enormous power or influence. Global cities, according to Sassen, have more in common with each other than with other cities in their host nations. Bangkok, Beijing, Brussels, Chicago, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, New York, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo and Toronto are commonly referred to as global cities, however, the term is also applied to other cities.

The notion of global cities regards the power of cities as contained within cities. The city is seen as a container where skills and resources are concentrated. The more successful city is able to concentrate more of these skills and resources. This makes the city itself more powerful in terms that it can influence what is happening around the world. Following this view of cities, it is possible to rank the world's cities hierarchically (John Friedmann and Goetz Wolff, "World City Formation: An Agenda for Research and Action," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 6, no. 3 (1982): 319.).

Critics of the notion point out to the different realms of power. The term global city narrowly focuses on economics. Cities like Rome are powerful in religious terms. Additionally, it has been questioned whether the city itself can be regarded as an actor.

In 1995 Kanter argued that successful cities can be identified by three elements. To be successful, a city needs to be good thinkers (concepts), good makers (competence) or good traders (connections). The interplay of these three elements, Kanter argued, means that good cities are not planned but managed.

Environmental effects

Modern cities are known for creating their own microclimates. This is due to the large clustering of hard surfaces that heat up in sunlight and that channel rainwater into underground ducts. As a result, city weather is often windier and cloudier than the weather in the surrounding countryside. Conversely, because these effects make cities warmer (urban heat shield or urban heat islands) than the surrounding area, tornadoes tend to go around cities. Additionally towns can cause significant downstream weather effects.

Garbage and sewage are two major problems for cities, as is air pollution coming from internal combustion engines (see public transport). The impact of cities on places elsewhere, be it hinterlands or places far away, is considered in the notion of city footprinting (ecological footprint).

Inner city

Main article: Inner city

In the United States, United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, the term "inner city" is sometimes used with the connotation of being an area, perhaps a ghetto, where people are less educated and wealthy and where there is more crime. These connotations are less common in other Western countries, as deprived areas are located in varying parts of other Western cities. In fact, with the gentrification of some formerly run-down central city areas the reverse connotation can apply - in Australia the term "outer suburban" applied to a person implies a lack of sophistication. For instance, in Paris the inner city is the richest part of the metropolitan area, where housing is the most expensive, and where elites and high-income individuals dwell.

The United States, in particular, suffers from a culture of anti-urbanism that some say dates back as far as Thomas Jefferson who wrote that "The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body." On the businessmen who brought manufacturing industry into cities and hence increased the population density necessary to supply the workforce, he wrote "the manufactures of the great cities... have begotten a depravity of morals, a dependence and corruption, which renders them an undesirable accession to a country whose morals are sound." Modern anti-urban attitudes are to be found in America in the form of a planning profession that continues to develop land on a low-density suburban basis, where access to amenities, work and shopping is provided almost exclusively by car rather than on foot.

However, there is a growing movement in North America called "New Urbanism" that calls for a return to traditional city planning methods where mixed-use zoning allows people to walk from one type of land-use to another. The idea is that housing, shopping, office space, and leisure facilities are all provided within walking distance of each other, thus reducing the demand for road-space and also improving the efficiency and effectiveness of mass transit.

See also





  • Toynbee, Arnold (ed), Cities of Destiny, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Pan historical/geographical essays, many images. Starts with "Athens", ends with "The Coming World City-Ecumenopolis".

External links

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