Why we love cities, even while we tell ourselves we hate them

Last year I blogged about rural fundamentalism, a visceral dislike of cities that has deeply shaped the world we live in. Rural fundamentalism, however, is only half the story of our ambivalent relationship with cities, because, even though our choices of places to live is driven primarily by a desire to flee the city, the way we conduct our lives ties us to cities, both personally and materially.

Our ambivalence leads us into bad policy choices, and there’s no reason why it should. I’ll come back to that, but first let’s look at why cities are so important to us. 

Personal significance

At one time or another, most of us “go to the city” for something important: to start our education, to start a career, to meet a woman (man), or just for adventure. (Since most of us live in cities to begin with the “city we go to” may be another city, or a part of our city that has the things we’re looking for.) These events are turning points in our lives and the cities where they happened are invested in our minds and hearts with the significance of what happened there.

We remember cities the way we remember pop songs, identifying them with important events in our lives. Whenever we think about these cities that are important to us, or whenever we return to them, the memories come flooding back.

Meeting places

Because people go to cities looking for things that are important to them, cities are meeting places, where people with common interests come together, share ideas, and pool their efforts to get things done. As a result, they are…

Centres of creativity

New things – whether the innovation is in art, music, science, or entrepreneurship – usually come from cities. That’s because people who want to excel in these areas come to cities looking for opportunities to try out their ideas or for people with like interests with whom to pool their efforts.

The eminent urbanist Jane Jacobs, in a book entitled The economy of cities, argues, speculatively but plausably, that even new agricultural varieties come from cities. In history, this was because people from the country came to cities carrying their seeds with them, as food supplies or to sell, and it was in the cities that they cross-pollinated with other varieties to produce new strains. Today it is because university research in agriculture and agricultural research stations are usually located in cities. As a result of all this, cities are…

Centres of excellence

The best of most things, whether universities, dramatic productions, architecture, restaurants, or advertising companies, are almost always located in cities, because that’s where people come together to create these things and look for an audience or a market.

Centres of prosperity

In Cities and the wealth of nations, Jane Jacobs points out that economic development, ie the creation and marketing of new products, usually comes from cities. As a result, she says, if we want to develop our economies, we have to focus on our cities. If we don’t maintain their attractiveness, livability and prosperity, she argues, we’re undermining the prosperity of the whole country and ultimately the world.

When she wrote that book, it seemed that many North American cities – especially American ones – were being given up for lost. We have not put those troubles behind us yet, as witness the dramatic case of Detroit above, but we are starting once again to value and care for our urban environments.

Centres of economic power

A city grows or declines according to the economic activity it attracts and holds or loses. Winnipeg is as good an example as any. The crucial decision determining Winnipeg’s future was the location of the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge crossing the Red River at Winnipeg, instead of at Selkirk.

The fact that agricultural produce is brought to the railroad here means that warehouse facilities have to be established. The need for supplies, by railway and warehouse employees, and by the railway itself, opens opportunities for retail trade, and some limited industrial activity. The presence of agricultural produce in warehouses gives rise to opportunities for food processing.

Forest products and minerals from the country are brought to Winnipeg to be shipped out. Once they’re there they are available for local manufacturing. Each new warehouse, industry and retail establishment brings more people, who in turn generate more retail trade and open new markets for manufactured goods.

A growing population requires educational facilities and government services. A growing volume of trade calls for the services of banks, the grain exchange, insurance companies, land development companies, etc. The presence of workers in these industries has smoothed our way into the post-modern economy, based on technology and technical knowledge, rather than manufacturing and physical labour.

As a city grows, therefore, power builds upon power. The more economic activity a city has, the more it’s capable of accumulating. The situation can reverse itself if economic activity moves out. Cities, as well as individual neighbourhoods may grow or decline. Anything is possible. The only constant in cities is change.

Genuine urban environments both attract and repel us with their irrepressible dynamism, their controlled chaos, sometimes flipping over into insanity, and their unpredictability. Our distaste for them pushes us to live in pretend “natural” environments in the suburbs and beyond and our attraction draws us back, for arts, entertainment, education and the many other things the city offers.

Often, our ambivalence leads those of us who tend to dislike cities to advocate “anti-urban” policies, and those of us who love them to luxuriate in our dislike of suburbs. There is no need for either stance. Given supportive transportation policies, we can have both quiet suburbs and exciting cities.

5 responses to “Why we love cities, even while we tell ourselves we hate them

  1. Nice to see your post. You have any opinion on the current discussion started by the Free Press on rail relocation?

  2. I’m always in favour of using available space within the city, rather than expanding at the periphery, wherever feasible. If it is do-able, I’d want to see a serious discussion about how to develop it.

  3. That’s the problem, there hasn’t been a serious discussion in the last 25 years or more. I am confused why Faculty’s don’t have this issue front and center. Winnipeg is a perfect case study on how to rebuild city’s which have come to a cross roads and need to look 100 years out.

    We have a wonderful opportunity and no one is making the connections between concepts. I think its more than doable. In fact its necessary. ( to have the discussion at the very least )

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