Seven Ways of Looking at a City

Assumptions about human nature have long shaped the way people think about politics, economics, and even their own personal relationships. Often these assumptions take the form of metaphors or tropes, as when we think of an election as a horse race or the workplace as a rat race, with all the unspoken implications about greed, success, failure and fulfillment they entail. A famous example of these tropes can be found in the literature on immigration, where a classic work of history, The Uprooted, approached the subject with a very different set of assumptions in 1951 than The Transplanted did in 1987. Newer literature eschews both the themes of ripping people out of one culture and planting them in another, focusing on the complex flow of people back and forth across national boundaries and cultural contexts.

Indeed, language and imagery structure how we solve or even define different problems.[1] In the study of cities, this truth is particularly salient. The urban panorama has always given people plenty to work with as they try to fit its grime and poverty, ensembles of colorful characters, and spectacular knots of wealth and power into some kind of coherent scheme. Is a city just a crossroads where capital, labor, and the state converge momentarily before dissembling and scattering elsewhere? Does a city have an identity, a personality, like a coherent being? Or is it just a big machine, taking in people and spitting out iPods, dollars, and pathology?

Geographers, sociologists, and philosophers, as well as novelists and historians, have wrestled with these questions for years. Based on their work, we can sort out the metaphors into six (or seven) distinct categories:

The City as an Arena

This view is characteristically liberal or pluralist, supposing that there are many different actors that compete and interact with each other across the urban landscape. It is similar to the dialectical and often Marxist assumptions that underlie much American historiography – the idea that history unfolds through “contest” among different interests – although the Marxist version emphasizes polarization while the liberal model emphasizes multiplicity, as in a market. In either case, the city or the world is an arena, a space where a variety of agents connect and disconnect, help or harm, transact and steal from each other unpredictably. This view resembles the vision of society advanced by the famous political scientist Robert Dahl, who disagreed with sociologist C. Wright Mills’s idea of politics as controlled by a unified and homogeneous power elite; Dahl instead saw society as a “polyarchy” where various elites and established interests compete with each other for influence.

The City as an Organism

If the idea of the arena is classically liberal, the organic view underlies both conservative and anarchist views of society. All the constituents of society (people and families; workplaces, churches, and other institutions) are part of an interrelated and interdependent whole, each with its own functions and traditions that have developed over time and are somewhat autonomous from conscious changes of policy, politics, etc. Each piece affects each other piece in a coherent way, as the relationships among them have naturally developed without a great deal of conscious intervention. The emphasis here is on roles, traditions, and relationships, rather than ideology, intent, and policy.

The City as a System 

The systems perspective is similar to the idea of the city as an organism, but with a more mechanical than organic view of relationships. It envisions society as a machine or computer, operating according to rules, whether regulatory (policy/laws), psychological (neurology or human nature), or economic (institutions such as businesses, banks, and states, as well as human nature). Some rules can be changed and some cannot, but the important thing is to understand how rules govern relationships and produce events/effects, such as economic output, crime rates, and so forth. Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, a 1972 book that claimed that the design of public housing projects made crime and insecurity inevitable, would be a good example of this view, as would much of neoclassical economics. Saskia Sassen’s The Global City also positions metropolises like Tokyo, New York, and London as the nerve centers of a worldwide system of production, trade, finance, and communication.

The City as Emporium  

The city is a panoply of goods. Similar to the arena/market metaphor, but with less emphasis on work (making things, providing services) and communication (reading, viewing, listening, performing) and more on the idea of consumption, with little atoms seeking pleasure and other atoms providing it. Following Jurgen Habermas, a number of scholars have proposed that his “public sphere” could be made up of many “counterpublics,” communities of interest that contend with the dominant culture and each other. Here the city is made up on many different public spheres. In the world of the gentrified, hypermediated city of the twenty first century, the urban landscape can become a shopping mall of different identities (hipster, foodie, tea partier, Vampire Weekend preppie in boat shoes) that people can consume by the books they buy, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, and so forth. As Ian Svenonius has remarked:

The city was reborn as the super mall, its allure augmented by its storied history, born of the diversity which would be abolished [by gentrification]. Cheap white labor, in the form of aspiring artists, could be lured via this history, mythologized in books which marketed the city through the very idiosyncratic or marginal character its advertisers had helped to systematically exterminate.

The city’s new privileged inhabitants would wear their city’s outlaw image as a badge of honor and even venerate it with fervor, fiercely proud of a history they had never experienced, let alone contributed to – like suburbanites living on a Civil War battlefield and boasting about Pickett’s charge.[2]

Svenonius’s diatribe against the delusional identity fetish of the new urban pioneers sets us up for our next metaphor.

The City as a Stage  

Indeed, the theatrical view resembles the emporium to the extent that the city is a pleasurescape of sorts. The city is a place where people perform various roles, as workers, family members, and actual performers. Consumption remains key because acting out an identity on the urban stage often involves consumption (where one eats, what one wears) as well as the fact that people can consume by viewing and by consuming the attention of others. David Harvey discussed this perspective in his analysis of Jonathan Raban’s 1974 book Soft City:

To the thesis that the city was falling victim to a rationalized and automated system of mass production and mass consumption of material goods, Raban replied that it was in practice mainly about the production of signs and images. He rejected the thesis of a city tightly stratified by occupation and class, depicting instead a widespread individualism and entrepreneurialism… To the supposed domination of rational planning Raban opposed the image of the city as an ‘encyclopaedia’ or ‘emporium of styles’ in which all sense of hierarchy or even homogeneity of values was in the course of dissolution… The city was more like a theatre, a series of stages upon which individuals could work their own distinctive magic while performing a multiplicity of roles.[3]

As Harvey pointed out, this was very distinctly the perspective of “a young professional newly arrived in London,” and he suggested that Soft City prefigured the rise of yuppies and the revamping of the city as an affluent, cosmopolitan playground in the 1980s and 1990s.

The City as a Process

The city as a process is much like the city as a system, except that this view imagines the city never as static but rather as a set of unstable variables that are constantly in a state of flux. Buildings deteriorate, political machines rise or fall, and schools become better or worse as children grow up, teachers change, and newcomers arrive. There is no true city at any given time but instead a jumble of developing processes, some of which are tightly connected and others only distantly related, if at all. A key example of the city as a process would be Manuel Castells’s idea of the urban landscape as a “space of flows,” a terrain where goods, people, information, and wealth circulate instantaneously in multiple places across a global, high-tech economy.

Root Metaphors ‘n More

The philosopher Stephen Pepper tried to group these divergent viewpoints into four different clusters back in 1942, linking each to a fundamental “root metaphor” that shaped how people interpreted the world around them. Formism is a sort of platonic perspective, seeing the world as a thing that can be represented in a map that corresponds directly to the actual features it depicts. As Michael Bluth once explained to his brother Buster, “The blue part is the water.” A rounded shape is a lake, and a brown line is a road, and the world that can be mapped can be known in this way. “Its world picture is a dispersed one,” geographer Anne Buttimer writes. “Each form may be analyzed and explained in terms of its own nature and appearance.”[4] Mechanism, in contract, portrays the world as a set of predictable, measurable processes, whether retail supply chains or traffic flows. Fields such as management and economic geography have sometimes envisioned cities, enterprises, even entire economies as essentially complexes of mechanistic relationships, although such an interpretation can fall prey to accusations of being too reductionistic or deterministic.

stephen pepper root metaphors

Pepper’s last two root metaphors were organicism and contextualism – the first, predictably enough, interprets the city as an organism, and the latter sees it as a loose tangle of individuals, events, and forces, where processes dynamically interact and unfold. “The city as ‘organism’ was a favored image among scholars who described the social experience of immigrant groups, patterns of competition, succession, and anomie, being considered as critical indicators of people’s level of adaptation to new milieux,” Buttimer writes.[5]Contextualism, as one might expect, appeals to the liberal or pluralist sense of society as a mix of distinctive and competing forces, where each individual or event needs to be viewed in light of the “context” of the factors surrounding it.

Clearly, these root metaphors differ from the ones I’ve outlined above, blurring some categories while introducing other ways of knowing, such as formism, that I had not really considered. My formula of the city as a dynamic set of processes, for instance, fits well into both Pepper’s idea of the city as an organism as well as a mechanism; the city could be viewed as a process whether it is a coherent set of systems (traffic=circulatory, telecommunication=nervous) or as a machine made up of other, smaller machines acting in loose concert. Similarly, the city of rules, mores and codes that urban geographers and sociologists found among urban communities could just as easily describe those who act out their roles on a stage or pursue their interests in the liberal or Marxist arena of social conflict.

That these metaphors overlap and even bleed into each other is not surprising. As Buttimer noted, “Rarely, if ever, are particular authors identifiable with one of these root metaphors,” but rather most choose to combine different interpretive tools as the occasion demands.[6] Few of us see the world only as a terrain of endless competition or a garden of shopping delights when we look out the window, nor do we see ourselves only and exclusively as mere parts of greater social organisms with a life of their own. We do, of course, feel this way when we think of extended family, or identify with a nation or a neighborhood. Anyone who has lived in a so-called “transitional neighborhood” is apt to understand how one can feel like part of a locally based, amorphous social entity that nevertheless exists in tension with other groups that have their own web of social relations and rules of conduct (whether you find yourself on the side of the locals or the interlopers, or somewhere in between).

Networks ‘r Us

Indeed, the thought of a web offers a possible point of convergence. A network is like an arena or market, with many different people at many different points interacting in flexible, independent ways; it is like a machine, where many different parts are structured to perform tasks, albeit with open and indeterminate edges. A network is governed by rules and constitutes a social process always in the process of becoming, never sitting still long enough to be conclusively studied. Amazon and eBay have already shown us a network’s potential as an emporium, while blogs and online video have revealed a web’s nature as a stage of a strange shape. We have also heard of collective intelligence and digital swarms – new kinds of supra-organisms that blur the line between metaphor and real living thing. The network has become an all-purpose metaphor for understanding how we relate to each other, as networked computers and phones have permeated our lives, work, and play. Stephen Pepper wrote his classic work on root metaphors in 1942, in the heyday of mass culture and on the eve of great leaps in computer technology. Anne Buttimer wrote her piece in Geografiska Annaler back in 1982, almost a decade before the launch of the World Wide Web.

The network may not have seemed as salient a metaphor when they wrote, but today it seems inescapable. Numerous scholars have taken up the network as a paradigm in the last twenty years. For example, Castells’s The Rise of the Network Society (1996) used the concept to explore the changing economic and social landscape of a post-industrial economy; Mark Taylor imported the notion into religious studies with his Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (2003); and Yochai Benkler explored its implications for the economics of media and culture in his The Wealth of Networks (2006), a clear nod to Adam Smith that implied an update of Wealth of Nations for a new global era. (Benkler’s book is also available for free online under a Creative Commons license.) The network, it seems, had superseded the nation state as the level of organization that matters.

This is the dominant metaphor of our era – for better or worse, take it or leave it – but it may not be always. In the age of antiquity, it might have made sense to think the world is and always was a canvas of platonic forms; in the age of the steam engine, the world is and always a machine. Now it is a network, its components each little dynamic information processing machines. This metaphor is not just a handy way of interpreting the world, of course. The idea of a network has a concrete and undeniable correspondence with actual stuff that happens out there in the world, not just in our daydreams or philosophical attempts to fit all of society into one schema that makes sense of everything.

It is not, however, the only metaphor available, as centuries of human thought have given us many ways of configuring our world. And if we treat networks and information processing as the only meaningful tools for doing so, forgetting about maps and organisms and arenas, we might fail to understand even how networks themselves work as well we otherwise could. We would fall into the old formalist trap of mistaking the map for the territory and end up understanding neither.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Peter Ackroyd, The Plato Papers: A Prophesy (2001) – satire of historiography and anthropology set in the distant future, when cities play a very different role than they do today

Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (1989)

James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington, DC: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (1980)

Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process (1991)

Grady Clay, Close Up: How to Read the American City (1974)

Robert Gottlieb, Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City (2007)

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “Places for Fun and Games” (1997)

Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah (1956) – classic novel about a declining urban political machine


[1] As Robert Gottlieb has shown, the habit of policymakers to think of the Los Angeles River merely as a “concrete flood channel” constrained the way they envisioned the development of LA. See the introduction to his 2007 book Reinventing Los Angeles here.

[2] Ian Svenonius, The Psychic Soviet, 137.

[3] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 4-5.

[4] Anne Buttimer, “Musing on Helicon,” 91.

[5] Buttimer, 91.

[6]Buttimer, 91.