The Urban Hierarchy is Dead

The urbanist blogosphere has been on fire again over this idea of an urban hierarchy . I love Aaron Renn’s commentary as a whole he’s traditionally highlighted small cities. I also believe that he’s only digging deeper into what others have already said, namely Richard Florida, on the state of our cities.

However, I believe that we err when we stick with this idea that cities are in a rigid hierarchy. We are learning that rigid hierarchies don’t always work well in the corporate and even the governmental sectors. Why do we still lean on them for our cities? Also, why leave out farmland, dense suburbs, watersheds and even outer space? Are we not influenced by these places as well? Do these places not contribute to the growth and prosperity of the inhabitants of Earth?

Kenan Friki over at the New Republic has a similar response to mine. He even gives a shoutout to my current hometown and my adopted one as well, for different reasons. Based on two different, but popular sets of city rankings (export capacity and patent filings) Greensboro and Raleigh are in the top ten. None of the other articles even address North Carolina and its growing popularity as a place to go to college, retire or start businesses. Let us not forget there are also growing placemaking movements here.

The point is, we are no longer in a rigid, true hierarchy of urban areas. Yes, media outlets, the federal government, stock traders, car companies and film stars may concentrate in certain areas, but these areas are more concentrations and gatherings than they are true indicators of influence.

We are a network of places. Some are smaller than others. Some have higher concentrations of different people than others. However, at the end of the day, if one of these network nodes fell off, then we’d all be hurt. For some this hurt would be nothing more than a pinch. Others would be dead. However, there should not be pain, not in a world that still has creativity and innovation despite its dwindling amount of natural resources.

The key to this network of places is first the internet. A dancing pig eating chicken could influence the entire world in seconds. I wrote this post in my childhood bedroom in a mid-sized Southeastern US city that’s had its economy shaken and that people can’t always point out on a map. Unless the power shuts completely off, constant connectivity of myself and that dancing pig is a given.

Secondly, expenses notwithstanding, there are multiple, working transportation technologies to get people around the world. A person can be on the other side of the world within 36 hours. During this trip, they only change timezones, but fail to lose connectivity to information for long periods of time thanks to airport wi-fi if they choose to travel that way.

What makes this connectivity and collaboration shaky is not the rankings of cities, but first the inability to truly respect diversity of thought, person or style. We also have forgotten how to build communities so that the private and the public exist, but don’t overpower each other. We have ceded financial control over to too few entities and we let these entities stop us from expressing our true role as a citzen-driven democracy, at least in the United States. Too many people live in poverty worldwide. We are letting far too many people devolve into stupidity.

I am no longer driven by this urban hierarchy. Especially since so many rankings have poor margins of error and hardly any external validity. I am concerned more about what happens when too many nodes go dark. A whole dark region of nodes or even all the nodes but two (NY or DC) going dark is still a problem. Let’s think about what we all bring to the table as PLACES and PEOPLE.

After all when the lights go out, that’s all that’s left.

  • And yet 80% of humanity dies within 20 miles of their birthplace.  I think your obituary of  urban frameworks with a momentum greater than the sum of its parts   We’ve heard the same story, differently lilted, since the Jet Age.  

    • admin

      Not sure what you are saying, but you seem to agree. I will add a caveat that there are still inequities in different places, but from a transport and information standpoint, the hierarchy is dead.

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