What is city?


I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Actually, I had been waiting for the Daily Post to chose the topic of ‘City‘ for a long time too as I am continuously searching to better understand how people around the world relate to, understand and experience this, universal but very complex, notion. Cities bring so many different human and non-human elements together in a tightly packed space, forcing them to encounter each other, creating multiple connections. So when the Daily Post posted City, I seized the opportunity to get some insight into others’ experiences.

From the outcomes of the Daily Post, the notion of city was understood in so many interesting and curious ways. For Crushed by the City, it is a space of alienation; for City if is a place that is ‘like a disease’ that those who live within it cannot recognise; for City Burden it is a place that you need to get away from; for I still Found me in the Midst of the City it can be a meditative experience; but it is also a camouflaged evil for others Urban Evil.

Coincidently, around this time, a friend – Lou lou – also wrote to me about her experiences in different cities on her trip around the world, which you can follow in her blog, inward-outward.

“I am in California right now and to be frank LA and San Diego were not my thing. San Francisco is better but I need to explore some more to have a better idea. It occurred to me yesterday why I am not liking the cities in Cali so much…. They just feel quite individualistic and materialistic.

People talk about cool neighbourhoods that have nice cafes, shops and restaurants and I cannot help but think to myself: what if I do not want to eat/ drink and do not want to buy anything (traveller’s budget and not space in my backpack)? Is there anything more to it?

I have the strong suspicion that the life here (and in other places in the world) revolves largely around consumption and I am thinking that other places I have visited gave off a stronger sense of community due to their parks, communal spaces where people could interact and exchange. Also here people rely largely on cars to commute much more than they do on public transport.

So my questions I guess are: have you come across these phenomena during your studies? Do you think the atmosphere of a place and mentality of its people is shaped by how the city is mapped out? What can be done in terms of urbanism to create a stronger sense of community and connection between the people?

I just feel that in cities people can become so disconnected and since I have started my trip I feel this strong desire to connect and exchange, a feeling that a lot of travellers feel. But I do not see why this desire should be limited to travelling…

Anyhow as you can see I have been thinking quite a bit and just wondering about those things especially as I have visited quite a few cities now and gotten curious about how they function.” – lou lou

These are such important questions and I do not have an answer to them, in fact they are amongst the questions I seek to explore through this blog too. However, I think a part of the answer has everything to do with how cities are formed and constructed, and by ‘construction’ I don’t just mean laying bricks, I also mean how people like you and I contribute to shaping the city in our daily lives.

Our city

Small changes in the city can have a big impact and reach many people by altering their experiences as they walk through a city. One of my favourite examples it the Urban Knitting Graffiti or ‘Grandma Graffiti‘ movement. What better way to make the concrete jungle a more colourful experience?

You can also see some of my favourite examples in Bogotá visiting this post ¨The memory is on the walls¨. Bogotá is to me, out of the cities I have visited, one where I have seen the most inspiring examples of how people intervene in shaping their urban experience on a day to day basis. The memory is on the walls shows you some examples of urban graffiti that touch on the social and historical complexities of the city and of Colombia. Other, bigger changes, carried out by people that want to shape their cities can be through movements or political campaigns, for example Long Live Southbank. Have you ever been to London Southbank? It’s an area along the river Thames where you get a mixture of second hand book stalls, a wonderfully adapted skate park full of crazy colourful tags and many cafés and food stalls. However, slowly, gentrification is creeping up on it. Long Live Southbank (llsb), the movement, hopes to preserve the history, culture and dynamics of the area, protecting it from the effects of the increasingly rich and growing metropolis.

I think the more people that walk the streets, use the public spaces and dwell in the chaos of a city, are involved shaping it; the more they will engage with the ‘product’ and make it unique to their personal, cultural and societal needs rather than the standardised model of a ‘city’ that meets only the needs of the market like that which llsb is fighting.

Our spaces in the city

Public spaces are an example of what shaped lou lou’s experience and I was sad to hear, but also understood why she found that in cities, people disconnect. From TED, Amanda Burden tells us that a city and its public space is like a “fabulous party” in her talk on “how public spaces make cities work” . Open spaces in cities are opportunities, (1) for commercial investment, which is sadly often the leading principle of city developers. But the second is (2) for the common good of the city. These two things are often not in line with each other, Amanda argues, and therein lies the conflict. So as Lou lou points out, some spaces give off a stronger sense of community, as they have been formed following certain principles or unintentionally, by the common good of the city. These spaces have more things to do than to consume, because they are made for everyone. Something I have also felt is that these spaces, ‘communal’ spaces, are simply more inviting to the outsider, the explorer.

“A successful design always depends on that very individual experience” – Amanda Burden

I guess the parallel I am trying to build here is the link between how you and I, as individuals or collectively, shape the spaces around us in the city, and how Amanda the urban planner, argues that urban open spaces should be designed.

Having said that, there is something else that a different friend of mine keeps mentioning, which is the notion of ‘user-experience’. It’s something that not all those involved in the design of cities seem to be very aware of. At least, not those who designed spaces that are un-organic, supervised by security guards that shout at you when you walk on the grass, and surrounded by pristine grey walls that make them look like hospitals making you feel like a sickness in the city; yes, that is how I feel about some public spaces.

Or perhaps they are aware of it but they can’t be everyone, be everywhere and think of everything at the same time. I guess nobody is perfect. But the best part is, designers, architects and engineers don’t have to do it all alone, they have thousands of citizens that are interested in making their cities better; more people-, pedestrian- and child-friendly for example. I have explored some examples of this in Bogotá, ColombiaBristol, UK and Bangkok, Thailand where people have taken the re-shaping of urban spaces in to their own hands.

The most recent – and most basic yet most human – example that I have explored is in a small informal settlement on the edges of Valenzuela City, Manila. Here people make a public space theirs and in doing so make it obvious what they need and want from the space too. I was bemused by how many different uses for the same space, were found by the community living there.

I walked in to a market in desperate need for a towel to wipe the drips of heat off my face and was greeted by someone who pointed out to me exactly where I could find one. Looking around, the kids where running through and amongst the stalls, the young and old men and women were all involved in organising the stands and unloading the merchandise. On the other side of the market was the community hall, which was where I was going at the time. Within the hour I was back outside, walking in the same place where the market had been, but this time it was a basketball court. Through, I went, trying to dodge the young and adult men playing ball.

In my three or four visits later that day, the same space had been transformed to a school playground for the nursery, to a car park, to a garbage collection point and back to a playground. What in other places in the city takes up vast quantities of space and resources, here the same space, with the contribution of the local community was meeting the needs of many different people, of all shapes and sizes.

“Everything you desire in 30 by 15 sq. meters…”

‘City’ to me

Open spaces in cities are highly contested, which is why they are so complex and very difficult to design. Yet in this case the space is shared by many living in the surrounding, and very dense, urban slum and there is hardly any need for ‘design’ seeing as people have taken design in to their own hands in a highly organised way. But as the above examples show, open spaces and the city as a whole is an opportunity; An opportunity to shape individual and collective experiences.

Perhaps I have a romanticised vision of cities, however the fact that they are shaped by people and that people are shaped by cities creates an interdependent relationship that gives us the power to have a greater say in how our cities are made. That is, if we take the opportunity. This is why to me, ‘city’ is a magical phenomenon, a powerful but also dangerous energy and an incredible opportunity. But it is up to us to make it so.


This is about a question.

The city, any city, is a tool that society created for its people. It is the space for citizens to come together and become a force of power. Each city is symbolic in its own way because, as human beings dwelling within them, we are the ones that construct their meaning.

After the climate marches, society has reconstructed the meaning of cities like Paris, Zurich, London, Sidney, Beirut, Sao Paolo, Bargny, Oslo, Manila and even Aleppo. Today, thanks to their participation in the marches, these cities are at the heart of the struggle to combat climate change, they are symbols, granted because their people gave them that significance. After all, what makes a city is its people.

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Source: Avaaz.org

 So, what meaning does your city have? And how will you contribute, also as an individual, to giving it that meaning?


In November, the Guardian came up with a classy introductory video on the Climate Change Conference in Paris.

People were not silenced, even after the traumatising attacks in Paris. It is an inspiration to see how, on the 30th of November, despite threats and fears from terrorism, people all around the world gathered in one way or another to march, to make themselves heard, to take action and hold their governments accountable for the decisions they were about to make.

Whether it was by marching through the streets with drums, music and painted faces; or placing a pair of shoes with name tags, sign posts and even plants in a main square; collectively people have demonstrated how they can be a force of power that transcends boundaries of all sorts.

Whilst officially, the Conference is due to conclude on the 11th of December, so far we know that…

“Today, the 100 per cent clean energy target is a major element of the deal in the final stages of negotiation in Paris.” Avaaz in The Independent, 8th December


The Guardian interviewed activist and actor Emma Thompson who reminds us that:

“Every single person on this Earth has the power to change the world. And when we all come together, our power becomes irresistible. Now we must use our power to tackle the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.”

After the 30th November it hit me.

I had always known that climate was a major issue and I had made efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. For example, I cycle everywhere I go, I have greatly reduced my meat consumption, I try my best to buy bio products and make an effort to use my own bags at the supermarket.

But this is not enough. It’s not fast enough. That 100% target is never going to happen if we, as individuals don’t hold our government accountable for it on a daily basis. But how cane we hold them accountable if we ourselves, as individuals, don’t live up to that target.

So are we only going to act when we follow the crowd on a climate march?

Or are we also going to act individually? Daily? On a people-scale? To see how we can spread the word, how we can show others how delicious the taste of an egg is when it has been hatched in freedom; the fact that eating less meat is not a major sacrifice and how the challenge of cooking non-meat dishes is actually a motivation (for those who like to cook); the fact that travelling by bike is healthier, quicker, more enjoyable and you gain an incredible feeling of freedom and independence when you do it; that once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll never want to go back…I’ve already started this campaign with my mum, who have you campaigned for?

So this is not just about me or you, it’s about how we invite others (not guilt trip them), in to a more sustainable lifestyle. Because at the end of the day, this campaign becomes about realising that people aren’t bothering you about your carbon footprint to make you feel guilty and drive you crazy, they are doing it because they care about the planet you share, the life you live and how much you and your children will be able to continue enjoying it.

On a wider scale, as Emma Thompson says, when we all come together, our power becomes irresistible. Cities are an opportunity to concentrate this collective action, to spread the word more quickly, to become and example to others. They allow us to take public transport, to use our bikes, to find innovative ways of being green through urban agriculture or wonderful markets, so why aren’t more people taking advantage of this opportunity?

Imagine how much more power we would have if we all come together, having already achieved very low carbon footprints individually.

Who is going to argue with us?


Thais Brown, 2, of New York, rides on his mother's back as demonstrators gather

Source: Jason DeCrow, The Guardian