What is a City?

My professor recently told me about a blog written by one of her daughter’s closest friends, Simon Horn. You can find his blog here: https://landscapeandcity.blogspot.co.at/. Simon is currently traveling around Europe in search for a deeper meaning: what constitutes a city and what even is a city. Here is an excerpt:

Ultimately, here’s where we’ve ended up: the migration of Matera up onto the piano has been irreversible. Though the sassi have now been converted from “disgusting” to “culturally significant,” and in the process somewhat rehabilitated, the effect has been to remove this entire neighborhood from the province of Matera—to lift it out of the Basilicata countryside to which it was once so connected, and to place it in the plane of “international tourist destination”—the weird floating landscape connected by airports and guidebooks in which every place is both itself and not-itself, both a city and a mere aesthetic object.

I’ve always grappled with what constitutes a city. It’s a place of contradictions. There are parks within its borders, surrounded by concrete skyscrapers, metal reinforcements, and carbon emitting vehicles. Food, a derivation of our natural landscape, is sourced through supermarkets, liquor stores, and prepared on porcelain plates in restaurants. Bridges, roads, and sewage systems pipe our physicality together. The city is the epitome of man-made artifice, an island in which nature and countryside can be viewed as other, and city as city.

Living in Europe has brought another dimension to what constitutes a city for me: a city as an aesthetic object as Simon puts it. In Rome, you have the Pantheon, the Roman Forums, and the Colloseum. In Vienna, you have palaces from the Hapsburg Empire. In Salzburg, you have cathedrals and castles dating to the 12th century. All around, buildings are to be marveled at, each containing a historicity of centuries. Tourists flock to these UNESCO World Heritage Sites, grand constructions of past history, checking items off the list of “Top 10 Places You MUST Visit”. Separated from its beauty is its function; a function it used to be, a utility it used to serve, a meaning it used to give. Why do we seek artifacts of the past? Perhaps we are a culture yearning for meaning and we are a species seeking an explanation larger than ourselves. How did it become this way? Has it always been this way? Is our need of meaning greater now than it has been in the past?

The relationship between the urban and rural has always complexed me. Having grown up in the suburbs, I was shocked when I lived in Tokyo last summer and found grocery stores and residential areas in close proximity to each other. I had always thought living places were living places and that commercial centers were at least a 15 minute drive away. It was then that I truly started thinking about.. what is a suburb? What kind of place did I grow up in? Why have I always longed for nature yet felt drawn by the enigmatic grip of the city. How could these two places exist simultaneously and what did it mean to live inbetween? I am a child of the world inbetween, two forces that seem separate but actually are wholly interconnected in ways deeper than we can imagine.

William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis, writes that we need not see the city and nature as separate entities but as interconnected entities that supplicate each other. The city is not so much man’s conquest of nature, but rather reveals our increased and demands on nature itself. As Architect Anne Sprin puts it, “The city is part of nature.” But do we hold this view?

I was in Rome recently with my parents; they had come visit me from America and we were to take this trip. Towards the end of the trip, I found myself, alone, situated in a small theater in the Villa Medici watching a 14 minute documentary of still moments in the bustling megacity Mumbai. The camera continuously pans to the right, the motion of the subjects slowed, the backdrop detailed and their expressions revealing. (see an excerpt of it here) I was deeply taken by this film. I started thinking about what a just and sustainable city looks like. I am reminded of a quote by Rudolf Bahro, “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” We are the generation that ought to envision the world we live in, and we ought to be brave about it.

To begin answering these thoughts, I’m currently reading a book on Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman. In our imaginings, we must also include how communities will look like, which neighborhoods have access to healthy, affordable diets, and how policies and redlining can inadvertently create class divisions, wealth inequalities, and racial inequities. More to come as I read this book.

I open my eyes. Lush, green, forest growth. A cascade of wind hurries across each leaf, imitating the sound of water. I come back to the question… how do cities even exist? The sun is closing its day. I hop on my bike and hurry back, towards the city, with the seed of new curiosity sprouting within me.

Written 7/25/17