The Uniqueness of Cities

June 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

For some odd reason, I find myself reading a lot about London these days.  I’m really not sure why, I have no real love for the city, to me, as represented in pop culture, it’s a megalopolis of bad architecture.  Nonetheless, I am fascinated by authors’ attempts to tease out what it is that makes London a unique location.  For the most part, I am reading cultural histories, so the focus is less on the built landscape of London (though that certainly frames the action) than on the people who live(d) there.  For the most part, Londoners tend to be praised for their resourcefulness.  And their stolidity.  And the city itself for the ways in which it constantly re-invents itself.

I live in Montréal, a city that claims to be a unique location itself: a French-speaking metropolis in the Anglo sea of North America (conveniently, the Hispanic fact of the southern part of the continent always gets overlooked).  Montréal is a bit of Europe in North America, I am constantly told by both the natives and the tourists who come here.  When I lived in Vancouver, it was the outdoorsiness of the people that made the city unique (nevermind the fact that most Vancouverites AREN’T the outdoorsy types at all).  And Doug Coupland argued it was the glass architecture.

I could go on, taking a trip around the world, laying out urban stereotypes as to what makes each unique.  But in reading all this ephemera about London, I am continually struck by the fact that the things that apparently make London unique in the eyes of erudite and knowledgeable authors really just make London another generic big city.  I would think that ALL urbanites are resourceful and stolid.  And ALL cities constantly reinvent themselves. (As a running series on this blog about my neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles makes clear).

So what then?  Cities are indeed generic.  They all contain the same basics, which vary according to size.  When it comes to the built environment, you’ve got a downtown core, inner-city residential neighbourhoods, some industrial (or post-industrial) inner city neighbourhoods, and these patterns repeat themselves out to and through the suburbs, residential/industrial, until you get to the city limits and the countryside takes over.  Urbanites are a shifty breed, skilled at not noticing the homeless dude begging for change, but very skilled at noticing the various challenges along the sidewalk, including how to carefully avoid the homeless guy.  Neighbourhoods in cities all follow similar patterns, there are points of convergence for the residents, there are amenities, parks, and so on.

And, of course, there is the anonymity of city life.  I live in a city of around 4 million people, but I can go days, weeks, even months without running into someone I know on the streets of Montréal.  I seriously doubt that is any different in Dublin, Boston, San Francisco, Nairobi, Tokyo, or Beijing.

So what is it that makes cities unique?  What is it that makes London or Montréal unique?  Does it come down to how we, the urbanites ourselves, choose to build our cities, and reinvent our cities, and carry out our lives in them?  Certainly Pittsburgh has different things to offer than, say, Winnipeg.  But either way, trying to boil down the lived experience of millions of people, and their millions upon millions of ancestors in any one urban location, whether it has existed for over 2000 years like London or for just over 200 years like Vancouver, is a pointless exercise.  London is no more unique for its constant reinventions and the resourcefulness and stolidity of its people than is, I don’t know, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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