1. What is a City? - Week 1, September 28

Updated: Oct 25, 2018

As our semester-long coursework is introduced, I make my first attempts at understanding its central concepts.

During the first lecture, our project brief was released. The project brief is intended to model what a real-world project might look like but pared down and without constraints. My first impression was that it was excessively sparse. However, it became clear this was an intentional effort to elicit creativity by not dictating "the canvas." Our project teams were also determined.

At the center of the brief is the concept of a "Smart City." While I have read and heard about the internet of things ("IoT") and making a system "smart", I am not intimately familiar with the idea so before we began our group work on identifying and conceptualizing a "smart city" solution, I wanted to immerse myself in the context and firstly understand, what is a "city"?

Defining the City.

One source stated that,

"A city is a legally defined entity with a structured system of governance, and which has delegated powers to oversee local legislation as well as the management of resources.


Looking at modern day cities, a pattern emerges of a high population density with residents from various ethnicities over a larger geographical location. Cities possess a diverse population of different religions, races, and languages among others." (World Atlas)

Wikipedia had a slightly different take,

"A city is a large human settlement. 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 I watched a couple of videos,

This video highlighted for me that a city is a complex system, with analogous components to circuitry. Also, surprisingly, cities scale in a predictable way. Any measure of human interaction increase at a consistent rate as a city grows (e.g. crime, number of AIDS cases, jobs, wages).

While the Wikipedia article talked about geography or natural resources determining the location of cities (e.g. access to water or coal), this video has a different take by emphasizing access to services.

Before cars were ubiquitous, people were limited by how far they could walk in a day. So cities became natural hubs of convenience, offering specialised goods and services to those within its sphere of influence.

This video on Urbanization highlighted that cities used to be even more densely populated since they were often the only source of clean water. It credits technology as the source of cities explosion in growth and sophistication.

Perhaps most interesting to me was that this was the first explicit call-out I found of the challenges that face cities, with the global population expected to grow another 3 billion in primarily urban areas.

The challenges it highlighted were:

1. Cities need to seek ways to provide adequate food, sanitation, and education.

2. Growth needs to be sustainable.

Thus far, a city to me seems like the natural next step for society, the greatest challenge is to figure out how to grow them sustainably and equitably.

I've always lived in cities, so I have experienced firsthand some (not all!) of the issues that the article and videos refer to.

For example, London's tubes are notoriously crowded.

Miami has really bad hurricanes.

San Francisco has a housing problem.

A central challenge here is that there is no clear feedback loop for our actions in cities. When something we do adversely impacts the environment, or even another person, we don't necessarily see it. Without this awareness, how can we even attempt to improve?

I prefer living in cities, they are convenient in a lot of ways. That's been just my experience, but the data also shows a trend of increasing urbanization. Given that cities are expected to keep growing, and the threat of climate change looms, the challenge of making cities sustainable is more pressing than ever before.

So how do we do that? What are the main challenges to sustainability that cities face? What are the components of a city and how do they help or hinder this effort?