Opinion: What is a City?

The world is loaded with cities, and more and more people as a percentage of total population seem to want to live in them. Fair enough. But what is it that makes a city work? Why is one city, for example, more attractive than another?

The conventional wisdom is that the more attractive cities offer more opportunities. They are more efficient in delivering, for example, prosperity. New York offers more opportunities of various types than Philadelphia, so it may appear to be more attractive.

Let’s assume, for the moment, this is the case. What is it that creates this efficiency? There are various factors at work, and so the answer may not be so simple. But at least three come to mind.

The first is functionality. Cities offer more opportunities when the city is placed to take advantage of a resource – when they have a function. The resource may be its location. So Tartu once had a natural geographic advantage due to its location – in the German dominated Baltic and next to Russia. It could serve as a bridge where European ideas flowed into Russia. The resource may be its people – so cities with great universities tend to thrive. The resource may be its institutions, like great banks or research centers. More and more, cities thrive by being crucibles for developing and testing new ideas. It is an age where we all strive to become like Silicon Valley – even New York.

The second factor is ease of use. Cities thrive until congestion makes them too difficult or expensive to use. In this regard, consider the comparisons between cost of living in London versus Berlin and the effect on capital flows to their tech sectors.  Some cities never thrive, even if they could have a natural advantage, where they don’t allow people to take initiatives  That includes physical movement. So massive cities like London or New York or Paris become less attractive when traffic becomes unbearable. And it includes the transmittal of ideas via communication. Cities that are not connecting their residents to the web, for example, are at a competitive disadvantage as opposed to those that do.

The third is attraction. Cities thrive when they are attractive places to live. That may be due to climate or beautiful architecture or wonderful neighborhoods or great culture. Indeed, one would want a combination of these and as much as one can get. If a city has something that is wildly attractive, it can overcome much.

Strategically, it is difficult for cities to maximize their relative positoin in all three areas. City planners most often work in the last two. And this article offers an interesting thought about street planning.  The underlying thought is

Successful cities are where people stop … not where they keep moving.

I agree. We do not think enough about the living spaces that our cities offer. Indeed, city planners have often allowed the second factor to trump the third. I am thinking of the controversial world of Mr. Moses in New York.

I would add that we hardly think at all about what functions our cities should be targeting where we have a competitive advantage. So, for example, Tartu can no longer serve as a bridge between east and west. For a variety of reasons, that function is no longer marketable. Tartu needs to take a close look at its resources and their potential use or risk becoming isolated and forgotten.

There is much to consider in assessing the relative value of resources a given locale may access. And I will be posting on this over the next months.


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