My whole writing existence, at least at this blog and a little bit at my one just before that, has been making sense and defining the cities I’ve lived in, against how they, and they meaning governmental and development and social/media entities, defined the cities I’ve lived in.
Yet, I wanted to sit down and be explicit about how I define cities and how I counteract those definitions and how I want both myself and the places I live to define cities going forward.
My Childhood Vision of A City
My very first definition of a city, which I developed from around age three until age seven or eight included these things:
- Tall buildings
- Buses and trains
- Grocery stores
- Jams and Jellies
- Lincoln Logs
- My school
- The baseball field around the corner
- A big airport with big planes
- The mail lady
- Street festivals
- Muppets in tire swings
In addition to these 17 things that I could think of off the top of my head from the perspective of my six-year-old self, there were two other formative moments of defining city life for me as a child.
First, from the time I was an infant, until my parents bought a second car around 1992, mornings riding in the backseat of my family’s 1976 Kermit-the-Frog green Buick Regal, fastened tightly into my dirt-brown metal with strategic-cloth coverings car seat, the circa-1949 neighborhood of matchbox houses which slowly turned into a warehouse district with small skyscrapers in the horizon, then more 1940s matchbox residences, with a few sprawling 1960s ranches up on small hills, then this great expanse of farm land, with the sun sitting just right and golden on the eastern edge of the land, then turning back into warehouses, with a random set of garden apartments and a school bus lot to boot.
This would all then go in reverse after we dropped off my dad at his work and my mom and I came home for a day full of PBS, playing in the yard and maybe going to Harris Teeter, where I would often get my mom, after talking with her friend behind the deli counter for about 30–45 minutes, to buy me the golden fried potato wedge delights we called “taters”.
This clearly captivated me. This was the first of what I would define as city. What else helped was that both sets of grandparents lived out and away somewhat from those warehouses and skyscrapers. One set more so than the other (and the one closest to the city lived near the airport, which was its own unique fascination).
What spoiled this idea of city for me, for the first time, was actually two things.
One, the destruction of trees and the creation of a stroad that eventually became a freeway that would forever define how I got from downtown to whichever house I called home at the time. The road wasn’t so bothersome as much as the loss of trees and a corner store that my dad used to take me to, that was the color of lemons on the outside and yet had no gas pumps (ok, maybe it had those old school ones, that nobody saw fit to build those lighted shelters over top).
And two, the construction of the tower you see at the top of the post when I was eight, a white triangular travesty in the midst of what is a mall parking lot on what I considered the outskirts of town. It is 32 stories tall. The tallest buildings in Greensboro, the also relatively new Jefferson-PIlot and First Union towers (and yes, they will always bear those names for those of you who know them as something else entirely) were only 28. They were also clustered together in the place that was called and I came to call downtown. It still freaks me out, as someone who’s more of a fan of gothic and art deco skyscrapers and also someone who loved and still loves going to the adjacent mall. (Even though it’s missing several pieces now, but I’m adjusting. It at least has an H&M and a working movie theater now).
If the point wasn’t driven home enough for you, look harder at the photo leading this post, which shows the convention center, the mall and just to the right of the taller tower, the mound of buildings is our actual downtown in Greensboro.
As I got older, the city began to mean something different in other ways. It was a place I imagined would grow up and live, that looked a lot like the one on Sesame Street, yes, Muppets included. Writers like me lived there and there would be trains and buses and bikes and sidewalks to get me around. Houses with brownstone faces or colorful bricks and turrets at their corners, some with front porches. A nice corner store would have lots of fresh fruit pouring out it, and the smells from the prepared foods counter in the back would tantalize me. It would be next to a bookstore with plenty of books to buy or rent. Yes, the best of Borders with library privileges. (R.I.P. Borders).
And there would be people, lots of friendly and unique people ready to have friendships with me and help me see the world. Make the world a better place.
But This Is Not How Others Define Cities
First of all, while we can all agree that masses of population create urbanization, we can’t all agree about how those masses should be governed, housed, fed, transported, educated, entertained, and loved. Especially not loved.
When I started to do the research on this post, I did have the understanding of my hometown (Greensboro) as a municipal corporation, which in North Carolina, is chartered by the state and allowed to tax people. In addition, the county my hometown sits in (Guilford) is also its own taxing jurisdiction. There’s also a state sales tax and counties and cities are allowed to add to those taxing jurisdictions by votes.
Other things that the county does — all court-related things. We have separate police forces and a separate sheriff’s office, but eventually, you go to the Guilford County Courthouse for all things related to records, marriages, crimes and the like. The registrar of deeds keeps your housing deeds and your birth certificates. I just had them mail me a new birth certificate.
Yet, as I began to research, I also looked up and found the deeds for both of the homes my parents have owned over the years. The one that they brought me home from in the hospital, the one where I determined the definitions above of what a city means to me, was once part of a plot of farmland, that was owned by one man and then turned over into a subdivision. The other, which is what I come home to when I come to Greensboro to visit my mom and everyone else (and what I referenced in this post and the beginning of my book) was part of what is called a township, which is another layer of municipal chartering from the state, that isn’t often used today. Other states put more weight on their townships, ours rarely shows up outside of deeds and other county business.
But anyway, even with this little bit of research, my idea of what a city is and what and how it’s defined by the place I lived in was already in conflict.
You may remember and note that I’ve lived in Raleigh, Durham, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. I’ve visited more cities. All of these cities listed have quirks. Especially the ones outside of North Carolina. Then again, those are probably quirks to you if you’re used to other cities working in a specific way.
So in my research on definitions, I moved on to the U.S. Census Bureau. Surely they have a more defined version of what a city is. Actually, they do. And guess what? Because it’s based on population, 80% of Americans actually live in cities.
It only takes 2,500 people to be an urban cluster according to the U.S. Census Bureau, under the definitions they used for the 2010 Census. Once your population hits 50,000 people, you get to be known as an urbanized area.
See this in action for the D.C. area, which has densities in many “suburban” areas far and above the minimum 2500 people it takes to be considered an urban cluster.
And this Wikipedia entry on municipalities details how urbanized areas outside of the United States classify themselves both on population and also by legal bounds and services in so many diverse ways.
Oh and the U.S. Census itself also takes into account that Alaska and Puerto Rico have different designations for cities and that counties are parishes in Louisana.
I’m willing to bet that many of those urban clusters and urbanized areas are sprawling developments, that may or may not have new urbanist or even just old urbanist principles applied to them.
This brings up the fact that the new urbanist charter has a definition for cities. Because of the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution and amendments 9 and 10 of the Bill of Rights, all states get to determine what’s a city and what isn’t for the purposes of taxation and such. Yet, the Census goes by population and doesn’t take into account lack of sidewalks or architecture.
Why This Matters
New urbanists already get pegged as being elitist when we talk about how buildings should look in our ideal city.
However, there are some things that I do feel like all urban clusters, even those who use the excuse of being “in the county” or “we’re a suburb” should be providing.
I feel like when populations start to cluster and then marketplaces and service centers (i.e. town/city halls, parks), start to be developed, residential areas, schools, and shopping areas should be human-scaled. Meaning, it shouldn’t take using a vehicle, including a bicycle, for a fully able-bodied person to get to basic needs. And if does take a bicycle, there’s safe infrastructure for that person to get where they need to go on that bicycle or a bus, train or a ridesharing vehicle to come pick people up.
Additionally, we should examine things that are marketed to us as being urban this or rural that. Maybe the place you live only has 2,500 people there. But all of those 2,500 people are densely packed and you have all your basic services. What makes you a very small city, versus a big town, versus a singular neighborhood next to a rural or natural expanse?
The Urban to Rural Transect is probably my favorite way of defining cities versus towns versus rural areas that incorporates architecture and land use and resources. However, it still doesn’t capture the effects of practices like redlining, which come from both laws and lack of laws prohibiting a particular behavior. Or just the looks you get sometimes in places where you look very different from most of the other people who happen to be there.
So here we are. I’ve given you my ideal city as a child. And it’s safe to say it’s the same as an adult. Only, I don’t have to have the Muppets or even grape jelly, but I do need the friendly people, willing to give me the benefit of a doubt if I’m standing on a street corner waiting for a bus and the human-scale that makes it easy to have a positive life, and the healthy relationship with the rural and natural areas that make that densely-populated life possible.
I’m Kristen. Seven years ago, I started blogging to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com. Support me on Patreon. A version of this post is also on Medium.