Cities can be overwhelming and alienating, but this can also lead to their vitality.
Martin Krieger, professor of planning at the University of Southern California, discusses the pros and cons of living next to so many people.
Martin H. Krieger is professor of planning at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He is trained as a physicist, and has taught in urban planning and policy at Berkeley, Minnesota, MIT, Michigan, and USC. His nine books are about mathematical modeling, environmental policy, and about theories of planning and design. He has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and at the National Humanities Center. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.
As a professor of urban planning in Los Angeles, whenever I meet people they tell me what’s wrong with Los Angeles, or big cities, or urban life. Just about all their conclusions do not correspond to what we know from research and theorizing.
Yes, cities are unavoidably congested, conflict ridden, hierarchized, and alienating. So they are as well the sources of invention and entrepreneurship, political empowerment, social mobility, and community.
Cities always have too many people and activities. They are congested. They are crowded and noisy and messy. But that also means they allow for lots of interaction among peoples and institutions, just the source of their vitality.
Cities are conflict ridden just because they are a confluence of cultures and interests and peoples. Those conflicts are resolved through politics, economic exchange, and the spatial separation of various peoples and uses. Adam Smith’s division of labor and specialization is further articulated, just because of the density of people in a city and the availability of goods from other places such as the hinterlands or other cities. (It is unlikely you grow your own food.) That, too, makes for productivity and opportunity.
Hierarchies In cities, rather than being based on hereditary status and land, are likely based specialized talents and skills, on race and ethnicity, and on earned wealth—and they are often expressed spatially through where people live and work. Urban hierarchies do allow for mobility for some, while being all too present for most.
And cities are alienating, for whatever solidarity or community one might have had is now erased. But, given the varieties of peoples, new communities develop, and there is freedom to forget your past and start anew.
t we most complain about is the source of what we value the most. Surely we can alleviate congestion, conflict, hierarchy, and alienation—and through government and planning we try to do so. But in the end, we are stuck with a cornucopia of opportunity and the burdens of constraint.