Op-Ed: Thinking in Terms of Cities

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Op-Ed submitted by Andrew Karas ’15 and Matthew Goldman ’15.

Folks at Swat know that we love cities. Some know this through SwatCities, the urbanism interest group we founded together last year. Others have been bombarded with Matthew’s charming obsession with New York City–his home–where he learned to read from the subway map. Others may have heard of Andrew’s public transit-riding urges or his horrified fascination with the famous urban planner Robert Moses. But most of friends here know that we both spend a whole lot of time thinking in terms of cities.

We’d like to make the case that you should try thinking this way, too.

Today, more than half the world’s population resides in metropolitan areas, a figure that is growing steadily. While cities have always been centers of information, capital and cultural exchange, their contemporary significance is unique. As individuals who will lead our peers, ideas and communities well into the twenty-first century – we need to devote more attention to city planning, urbanism, and regional studies.

The city is the locus of some complex, sometimes shitty stuff. As we were reminded just this week, cities are sometimes the targets of terrorism, both foreign and domestic. They’re places where natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as almost-natural disasters, like the Chicago fire, hold the lives of thousands if not millions in the balance. As population density incarnate, urban areas also put humanity on stage, revealing our societies’ successes and failings in particularly salient fashion. So whether we live in them or not, we’ve staked a lot on our cities, and they can teach us lessons we need to learn. Cities are our subject, our tool, and our solution.

Not all urbanites live examined lives, but nevertheless cities are slowly rising in the public consciousness. Let’s face it: cities are cool these days.

When we talk about Brooklyn or Portland, Berlin or Shanghai, we’re often talking about the cafés, art galleries, and walkable neighborhoods that make urban life a life to be desired, not feared. Many Swat graduates, in search of a job, an internship, or even simply new friends, move straight to one of these cities or the many like them.

Even absent the people that make places great, the material fabric of cities can be beautiful and downright impressive. What architect hasn’t dreamed of putting their stamp on the popular imagination in the form of a skyscraper? City green spaces, too, like Chicago’s Millenium Park and Boston’s North End Park (which sits where an elevated highway once stood), invite us to share in music festivals, art shows, and the general spirit of community. Then there are the unique monuments to our cultural heritage, like the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or even the Hollywood Sign, that live in our minds whether we’ve visited the cities they inhabit or not.

Cities are home to all of this and more. But beyond icon and adventure, ambition and entertainment, cities are a locus of many of the terrible social forces shaping our societies as a whole.

When #occupy protesters took to the streets in 2011, the largest protests happened in cities where banks, public figures, and picketers put inequality in vivid relief. But cities big and small are also the sites of inequality itself, where the 1% on Wall Street, LaSalle Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue exist mere miles (or less) from the 99% in the neighborhood blocks that make headlines only on the occasion of a school closing or a double-homicide. Cities across the world are staggeringly divided between those who have and those who aren’t given.

Take Detroit, the auto capital of the twentieth century, where global economic shifts and discriminatory government policies helped encourage whites to abandon the city on the broad highways to the suburbs. Or take Dubai, where the world’s tallest building and the luxurious islands just offshore were built by immigrant labor, largely unnoticed by the visitors jetting in from London or Hong Kong. Or take Mumbai, where colonial-era density restrictions have helped trap literally millions of residents in crumbling shantytowns like Dharavi.

The story of transnational oppression–expressed in sweatshop labor, dispossession, famine, and disease–is based in the city. It’s based in the metropoles of yesterday’s empires that screwed over the global south as well as in the metropolises of today’s consumption world that thrive by exploiting the communities they take from.

At the same time, cities are hubs of innovation and governance. Silicon Alley, in the middle of Manhattan, is producing apps and websites that rival those coming out of Mountain View and Palo Alto. The Washington, D.C., area has mushroomed in recent decades into a thriving center for research and advocacy–for public health, education, military technology, and all the rest.

As cities thrive in this way, they grapple with the wrenching impact of gentrification, the constant battle between the enviable success of privileged newcomers and the persistent plight of the less-enfranchised, who are constantly pushed farther and farther towards the geographic and social margins of our urban areas.

Cities can be places of the greatest discovery and the most empowering opportunity. We in the twenty-first century are increasingly challenged to make that true for residents of all races, ethnicities, languages, and incomes.

When we think about injustice, many of us think immediately of the environment, as well. Our species’ destruction of so many of the ecosystems and natural balances that keep our planet running has been perpetrated in part by the way we’ve planned urban spaces. And even the best-engineered, LEED-platinum, carbon-neutral buildings are implicated in that environmental destruction through the extraction of resources that sustain their inhabitants. From factory neighborhoods (and, these days, factory suburbs) to the beltway interstates that invite endless suburban sprawl, the city has been at the heart of our collective crusade against the environment. Therefore, the city needs to be at the heart of our collective crusade to replenish what’s left of it.

When we aspire to transform injustice and inequality, we believe we must think first, most critically, and most creatively about cities. We must conceptualize how to make them truly sustainable, ecological, collaborative, productive and fair places for well over half of tomorrow’s world population to call home.

If you care about the buildings, bridges, monuments, and trees that help make up our cities, or if you agree with us that cities’ significance goes far beyond the easily visible, we want to hear your voice. SwatCities holds informal conversations on a near-weekly basis, and this weekend we’re hosting a symposium for students, faculty, and everyone in our community.

At 3:00 pm Saturday in Kohlberg 116, you’ll have a chance to meet and talk with three recent alums–Anson Stewart ‘10, David Burgy ‘10, and Ben Bradlow, all urban planners–and ask them about their amazing experiences (at a planning firm, in community organizing, and on a Watson Fellowship).

Anson, David, Ben, and both of us all think in terms of cities. We hope we can encourage you to do so too.

Andrew Karas is also News Editor at The Daily Gazette

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