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5. What are the elements of a city? - Week 2, October 10

Updated: Oct 25, 2018



Having spent the past week immersing myself in the methods and process, I returned to the idea of cities to gain a better understanding of the elements which make up a city.

Thus far, I've understood cities to be a natural evolution of society. They are humanity's attempt at efficiency within a set of constraints. The challenge, however, is that they were built without our modern understanding of, or consideration for, the natural environment or socio-economic inequalities. As a result of none of these seemingly important factors being considered, cities evolved in countless ways to survive in their own unique contexts. However, the ways in which cities "adapt" often reinforce the marginalization of certain groups, such as the poor or disabled, or fall prey to the tragedy of the commons and take advantage of a seemingly infinite natural resource only to find it is, in fact, finite


In an attempt to disentangle the various problems that plague cities (and hopefully better understand how technology might aid them), I want to find out what the components of a city are. What makes a city a city? How do they benefit the people and communities who live there? If a city is a motor, what are the different parts of that motor?

The Components of a City.

When I began to search for the components of a city, most of my results were about smart cities.


I've included an example below, and that's just one search, I tried "elements of a city", "city management", etc. but they all either returned these types of results with varying amounts of smart city infographics, or else they got too technical into urban planning and the functional elements such as buildings, sidewalks, etc.



I found this very interesting. There are infographics galore about the elements of a "smart" city but we don't even have any about a "regular" city? Since I couldn't find anything for "regular" cities, I've included a few of the "smart" city images in the gallery below.





Firstly, I find it interesting that some of these graphics demonstrate an awareness of the broader context in which "smart" cities will operate, such as "Society," "Quality of Life," or "Social Inclusion." However, the majority don't. Perhaps my sampling was biased (a lot of the graphics were low quality) but I think this also highlights how important perspective is, and asking who is building the system and why.


Next, I catalogued the components I found across this sampling of "smart" city infographics:

  • Infrastructure

  • Healthcare x5

  • Public Safety x2

  • Environment x2

  • Education x4

  • Energy x5

  • Water

  • Waste

  • Transport x3

  • Green Buildings x2

  • Citizen Services x2

  • Society

  • Quality of Life

  • Government x3

  • Mobility x5

  • Economy

  • Public Engagement

  • Resource Optimisation

  • Collaboration

  • Buildings x2

  • Social Inclusion

  • Internet of Things

  • Retail x3

  • Home x2

  • Open Data x2

  • Agriculture

  • Citizen

  • Technology


Obviously not all of these elements would apply in a "regular" city, such as the internet of things, or open data. However, a lot of these are legitimate categories of "components" of a city. But they are labelled in slightly different ways. For example, what is the difference between transport and mobility? Does a "smart" city really have cars at all? Others are operating at different levels of analysis, which is incredibly confusing. For example, in the "Smart Diamond" - doesn't energy power the buildings? For that matter, wouldn't technology underpin all of these advancements? It's unclear how all these pieces fit together from my meta-analysis.


I speculate these divergences stem from the intent of the creator, some are highlighting the technology aspect, others the environmental, others implementation, everyone's individual perspective tinting the way in which they represent this information. In particular, I included two stock photos for smart cities. The concept is so ubiquitous, there are stock photos to represent it. This speaks to how often businesses create presentations on this topic. That alone is astonishing to me.


To accurately analyse the problem imposed by cities and the potential solutions that a "smart" city could provide, I set out to understand the foundational elements of a city. From there, I hoped to better understand the challenges they face, either those borne from increased scale (e.g. traffic), or negative externalities that they generate (e.g. pollution). With a solid understanding of the challenges a "regular" city faces, I thought I could better understand where technological interventions could actually support sustainability.


However, this effort has been frustrated by perhaps my own lack of accurate vocabulary. It could be that I don't know how to search for what I want. I either find information about smart cities, basic information about what makes a city a city, or urban planning.



Back to Basics.


So, I returned to the wikipedia page I used to first understand what a city is to see what they've included.


This is from the high-level summary at the top:


"Cities generally have extensive systems for housing, transportation, sanitation, utilities, land use, and communication. Their density facilitates interaction between people, government organizations and businesses, sometimes benefiting different parties in the process."


Then, the longer article breaks this down into four categories: Government, Society, Infrastructure, and Ecology.


"Infrastructure" includes: Utilities, Transportation and Housing.


Again, their summary and organization of content are inconsistent in their levels of analysis. In the high-level summary, government is separate from the extensive systems, but is included as its own facet of a city when transportation and housing are sub-categories? While I could do a lot more research on this topic, based on my cursory analysis there doesn't seem to be widespread consensus about the different levels of analysis and what goes into those levels. Basically, the idea of cities could use an Information Architect.


However, generally, the labels/categories they've used are consistent with labels/categories I found in my initial search that only yielded smart cities.


Given the research I've done thus far, I feel cities encompass a variety of components that intertwine. What makes it challenging is that they don't have clear boundary lines.


At a high level I feel that the "puzzle pieces" which make up a city, and how I'm going to frame my thinking around solutions, are the following:


  • Utilities (Energy, Water, Sanitation)

  • Transportation (Cars, Trains, Buses, Bicycles)

  • Agriculture (Food production, Consumption)

  • Healthcare (Hospitals, Emergency Services)

  • Public Safety (Police, Fire Departments)

  • Education (Primary, Higher)

  • Housing (Buildings, Land-use)


I didn't include a lot of the things I found in my general search, and tried to consolidate items I did feel should be included into more robust high-level groupings. These groups present unique challenges to cities that towns/villages would not face. They might face them in a different way. Furthermore, these are all responsibilities of the government, so they all roll up under the heading of a "municipal government."


I understand that this may differ from more formal frameworks out there, but I could not find them, and it is a synthesis and compromise of sorts based on my research. I feel that this is justified as I am not studying cities formally, I am just trying to get a basic understanding of the pieces that come together in order to better understand their problems (and how we might fix them) In this context, this is made a lot easier (for me) by creating a simple framework.


For example, I can now consider the challenges in each sector and break it down also considering the framework provided by Rosner:



  • Utilities (Energy, Water, Sanitation)

Challenge: How might we manage utilities more sustainably and fairly?

  • Transportation (Cars, Trains, Buses, Bicycles)

Challenge: How might we make our transportation systems more sustainable, accessible, and equally distributed?

  • Agriculture (Food production, Consumption)

Challenge: How might we produce, and consume food more sustainably and also make it more accessible to all?

  • Healthcare (Hospitals, Emergency Services)

Challenge: How might we make healthcare more accessible and sustainable?

  • Public Safety (Police, Fire Departments)

Challenge: How might we ensure that everyone feels safe in a city? How might we provide these services in a more sustainable way?

  • Education (Primary, Higher)

Challenge: How might we ensure that all residents have equal access to high-quality education? How might we encourage more responsible citizens through education?

  • Housing (Buildings, Land-use)

Challenge: How might we ensure that we use land efficiently while also providing high-quality, affordable, sustainable housing for all?


These challenges are not all-encompassing. But they were developed using the lens that Rosner provided and my research suggesting sustainability is a necessary precondition for survival. They represent a starting point that I can use to think about cities and the challenges they face. From here, with an understanding of cities, their components, and the problems those components face at a high-level, I can begin to consider and investigate how technology might support solving some of these problems.