The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 2

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After stating the claim that the city in America is in danger of becoming extinct, Weis and Arnesen explain precisely what a city is for the purpose of their “Thriving as a City in 2020” paper.


Posted By Megan Wildhood

Oct 2, 2012

To back up a bit from last week’s post, Weis and Arnesen actually define what constitutes a city to them, at least for the purposes of their paper.  Their premise is precise as it concise: a ‘city’ must have a population density of 12,000 people per square mile – called a ‘population center’ – that can be less densely populated within a three-mile radius around it where people live, work and play.

The more elaborate definition of a city, as given in the Premise section of “Thriving as a City” is:

            The reader may be confused by the sweeping assertions implicit in the abstract to this discussion.  Are there really fewer than ten cities remaining in America?  What happened to the other 300 cities?

            That confusion stems from semantics.  Our premise is that a city is a population center with a commercial core a geographic nucleus where people live, work, and play.  The larger the city, the more space it occupies but without sacrificing the population density that distinguishes it from rural and suburban landscapes.  Population density is fundamental to this definition, as is the presence of a commercial center offering both employment opportunities and access to purchasing the necessities (food, clothing, sundries, etc.) and accessories (furnishings, transportation, entertainment, recreation, etc.) of modern life.

            In the spirit of honoring George Orwell’s admonition against the abuse of language (Orwell, 1946) and adoption of Newspeak and Doublethink (Orwell, 1949), we respectfully delete from our designation as cities those landscapes where population density is below 12,000 people per square mile.  Hence land areas like Los Angeles barely make half the required level of population density.  Paris, at over 52,000 residents per square mile, has over four times the density of our minimum threshold (U. S. Census Bureau, 2000).  In Orwell’s Newspeak, black is white — and perhaps Los Angeles would still be a city.  We prefer a language of more clarity and integrity.  Areas of sparsely-populated urban sprawl are not cities in our nomenclature.

            Implicit, also, in our threshold for population density, is an assumption that density is greatest around the inner core of the city, and that the density dissipates gradually with distance from the city center, without ever reaching a distance where the average overall density falls below 12,000 per square mile.  Hence the area within a three-mile radius of the city core may enjoy considerably greater population density take the example of Paris while the area beyond a three mile radius may be under the 12,000 person threshold. 

            In summary, our city is a population center as well as a commercial and industrial center, with a ready and efficient means for moving people into, out of, and within the central core.  Hence our city is a centralized mix of housing, businesses, public transportation, and public spaces.  Metaphorically, our city has a nucleus (a densely populated commercial and housing core), a protoplasm (housing and commercial neighborhoods around the core’s periphery), and a cell wall (a definable and observable end to the city that looks like something other than suburban sprawl).


      Not surprisingly, the part of the definition of a city Feet First is focusing on is the “ready and efficient means for moving people into, out of, and within the central core.”  Transportation is critical to our way of life, and “efficient” has often meant “personal car.”  We have built our entire lifestyle around the personal car, especially in sprawling suburban areas, but in a space with a population density of at least 12,000 people per square mile, “efficient” has, by necessity to look different.  12,000 personal cars won’t fit in a space that also must contain housing for 12,000 people plus even the basic goods and services for daily living.  Even attempting to drive through a major downtown area will be enough to illustrate that, at the bare minimum, effective public transportation, efficient and safe bike lanes and plentiful sidewalks have to exist in a city if it is to remain healthy and thriving.

       Of course, transportation is but one of the many parts that comprise a city.  Stay tuned next week for further discussion on what all makes up these large urban areas Weis and Arnesen claim are struggling to survive.

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