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Cities Are People

Cities are people.

You disagree? Good.

Cities are people. Just people. Cities are not metaphorically people, with roads as arteries and buses as blood vessels carrying cells (i.e. humans) throughout their blood streams. No, cities are literally nothing more than the people within them.

How can this be? Cities are concrete and asphalt, flowers and trees, birds and bees. Cities are subways and steel, cars and iron, glass and tar. Cities are second-hand books, fat cats, and cracked sidewalks overflowing with weeds. The city is the feeling you get drinking beer on a rooftop in late August, watching brilliant reds and purples burgeon and fade as the summer sun sets.

How can cities be people if they are all these other things, too?

Do felled trees make a sound, even if no one’s around?

What’s a smog-enhanced sunset with no one to enjoy it?

Q: Who makes the concrete and asphalt building blocks of our cities, and who plants the flowers and trees that sustain the birds and bees with whom we cohabitate?

A: Human beings.

Q: Who planned the subways we ride? Who smelted the steel and iron? Who crafted the glass we smash and bubbled the tar on which we drive?

A: Human beings.

As human creations, cities are the human process in built form. In their ebbs and flows and ups and downs, in their solidified dynamism, cities are people. But they are not lone individuals. Cities are much more than any one person is, or can be. The beauty of cities lies in the way they reflect and amplify humankind in all its grit, vigor, intelligence, ugliness, hatred, and complexity.

Like children, cities take on the character of the people that made them. Cities are uniform only in their diversity, and they shift shapes according to the inconstant flows of the human beings within them. Rowhome by parcel, community garden by block party, people shape their cities. Through Planning Commission mandates, misinterpreted by human error, or thwarted on principle by ideological councilmembers, people shape their cities.

We evolved from nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little sense of place, into a planetary artistic collective, eternally re-creating an inter-mingling mass of stone and flesh, smokers and smokestacks, riches and squalor, dumpsters and trash. We grew from people who believed invisible forces controlled our daily lives into a global entity capable of measuring ourselves—and each other—to create cities that work better for, and against, each other’s.

Most emphatically, through our cities, we have effectively re-created nature. We have done this imperfectly; but almost unwittingly, our urban spaces have fostered entirely new ecologies and ecosystems. Plants and animals have evolved to live specifically in cities. Did you know that, in addition to the greatest density of humans, New York City boasts the highest concentration of Peregrine Falcons in North America? Have you not watched Planet Earth? We have found new ways to channel stormwater, novel methods of disposing our waste, devised systems through which to feed ourselves, and rule-tables to keep our neighbors in check. In the span of a few millennia, we have begun to emulate something—nature—that took the Earth billions of years to perfect. Our cities are far from perfect, because neither are we. Nature created us, and we re-created cities in our image.

Cities are people.

You agree? Good.




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