Skip to main content
Select Source:

The City as Cultural Center

The City as Cultural Center

In the modern conception of the word city characterized by the size, the aggregation of housing, differentiated division of labor, and the density of interactionthe first cities appeared in Mesopotamia around 10,000 b.c.e. and most clearly by 3,000 b.c.e. The great city of Babylon marked the coming of age of civilization, characterized by an urban culture that highlighted sophisticated arts and crafts, rare products, a multiplicity of material objects introduced through trade, the emergence of new ideas and modes of domination, and a more complex social structure.

From the early days of urbanization, several often competing conceptions of cities were evident:

  • the material city of walls, squares, houses, roads, light, utilities, buildings, waste, and physical infrastructure;
  • the cultural city in terms of imaginations, differences, representations, ideas, symbols, arts, texts, senses, religion, aesthetics;
  • the politics and policies of the city in terms of domination, power, government, mobilization, public policies, welfare, education;
  • the social city of riots, ethnic, economic, or gender inequalities, everyday life, and social movements;
  • the economy of the city: division of labor, scale, production, consumption, and trade.

As a unit of analysis the city is often characterized through the emphasis on diversity, fragmentation, strangeness, encounters with strangers, the mosaic of variety, contingent interactions, moving borders, everyday life and events, and the multitude of interactions. However, another perspective focuses upon integration, domination, assimilation, social order, control, inequalities, unity, models, patterns of economic development, structures, and systems. From Babylon, Athens, Rome, and later Florence, to the present era's so-called global cities comes the idea that cities are places where culture flourishes, where civilization reaches its highest point of complexity and sophistication The density and diversity of interactions are supposed to stimulate innovations in all sorts of ways, to free urban inhabitants from traditional cultural constraint. Cities are therefore presented by social scientists, historians, and writers in a progressive way as centers of innovation and culture even if civilizations first developed without or beyond cities, as, for instance, in the case of Egypt. By contrast, the city is also portrayed as the place of darkness, chaos, violence, riots, exploitation, marginal life and deviance, destruction, and oppression.

Those categories were for the most part derived from the division of labor between disciplines put forward at the end of the nineteenth century. The study of the city as a cultural center evoked passionate debates at the start of the twentieth century when the German sociologists Max Weber, Werner Sombart, and Georg Simmel discussed the relationship between cities, culture, arts, technological developments, and domination. They asked questions about the influence of a particular set of structural social, economic, political, and cultural conditions such as capitalism on the effect of cities or on individual and collective behavior, modes of thinking, ways of life, cultural creation, and imagination.

The City as an Integrated Political
and Social Structure

In the Western world, cities emerged at the turn of the first millennium, insinuating themselves into the gaps of the feudal system. In a section titled "The City" in his 1925 study, Economy and Society, Max Weber portrays the medieval Western city as having the following characteristic features: fortifications, a market, and a specifically urban economy of consumption, exchange, and production; a court of law and the ability to ordain a set of rules and laws; rules relating to landed property (since cities were not subject to the taxes and constraints of feudalism); a structure based on associations of guilds; andat least partialpolitical autonomy, expressed in particular through the existence of an administrative body and the participation of the burghers in local government, and sometimes even through the existence of an army and an actual policy of foreign expansion; and a citizenship with relative freedom often associated with affiliation to a guild.

The medieval city was the crucible of European society, a place in which new cultural and political models developed, along with new social relations and cultural and organizational innovations, furthered by interactions between the various populations thus promoting mechanisms for learning a collective way of life, for innovation and spreading innovation, rapid accumulation, transformation of behaviors, interplay of competition and cooperation, and processes of social differentiation engendered by proximity. The Europe of cities was not just the Europe of early capitalism and of merchants, but also the Europe of intellectuals, universities, and culture that launched the Renaissance.

In analytical terms, this sketches out a research perspective in terms of local societies and governance that is crucial for the analysis of contemporary cities, in Europe in particular. The city is conceived as an integrated local society (most of the time, incomplete), and as a complex social formation, sometimes a local society. Cities may be more or less structured in their economic and cultural exchanges, and the different actors may be related to each other in the same local context with long-term strategies, investing their resources in a coordinated way and adding to the social capital riches. In this case the urban society appears as well structured and visible, and one can detect forms of (relative) integration. If not, the city reveals itself as less structured and as such no longer a significant subject for study: somewhere where decisions are made externally by separate actors. Such an analysis examines the interplay and conflicts of social groups, interests, and institutions, and the way in which, to some extent, regulations have been put in place through conflicts and the logics of integration. Cities do not develop solely according to interactions and contingencies: groups, actors, and organizations oppose one another, enter into conflict, coordinate, produce representations in order to institutionalize collective forms of action, implement policies, structure inequalities, and defend their interests. This perspective on cities highlights the informal economy, the dynamism of localized family relations, the interplay of associations, reciprocity, culture and ways of life, the density of localized horizontal relations, and local social formations.

The Industrial City

The industrial revolution led to a new wave of urbanization. Concentration in great metropolises and large industrial areas lent a different dynamic to cities, changing them both socially and physically: a new type of industrial city emerged in the nineteenth centurymost often around coal mining, textiles, or iron and steel, then later chemicals, electricity, and mechanical engineeringenjoying an extraordinarily rapid growth fueled by immigration and leading to the formation of dense industrial regions and centers as in Britain, the German Ruhr, or the northeast of France"Coketowns" as Lewis Mumford put it. The "tyranny of fixed cost" (transport) also supported the rise of industrial ports and the pace of concentration in large industrial cities such as Calcutta and, most decisively, in large U.S. cities of the Northeast and MidwestNew York and Chicago in particular. Cities became places where capital was tied up in major fixed assets, with labor forces that varied in composition and size, and with a high level of internal diversity.

The industrial city is first and foremost a place of social conflicts, inequalities, urban poverty, social segregation, and speculation. Karl Marx and his followers sketched a view of the city organized by capitalism, a place of class struggle determined to a large extent by the economy. The Marxist analysis was "urbanized" by David Harvey, who stressed the role of land and property for capital accumulation, investment together with the contradictions of capitalism in cities. He underlined both the role of the built environment in capitalism and the social struggle of social groups to prevent the disinvestment in industrial cities, which fed the dynamics of deindustrialization and urban crisis. Others have developed the role of class struggle to analyze the dynamics and culture of cities in different parts of the world. Changing forms of capitalism after 1945 gave rise to the analysis of the "Fordist city"that is, the city organized around and for the needs of the large industry.

Industrial cities are characterized by their social structure and by their form and organization. Although U.S. cities had large firms and major entrepreneurs, they were above all workers' cities, sites of immense poverty and exploitation, and crucibles for working-class organization. The industrial city took the form of this combination of industries, workers' housing (slums, social housing, suburban houses), minimal communal amenities, transportation infrastructure, and, later, social democratic forms of urban government. Overpopulated workingclass districts mixed with factories in city centers, driving out the bourgeoisie (in a configuration that reversed that of the old European cities, where industrial activities and working populations had most often been pushed out to the periphery) into what became the suburbs. Social surveys were initiated in Britain, France, and Germany to assess poverty and the terrible conditions of public health. Working-class culture was organized around work, clubs, cafés, dances, and sport, although with considerable variations from one city to another. Even beyond the structural opposition between the bourgeoisie and the newly forming working class, these industrial cities were socially diverse places: artisans continued to exist and to develop, and the number of shops increased, if only to feed the abundant populations of vagrants, prostitutes, and white-collar office workers.

After the 1960s, the most industrialized cities declined in the United States and Western Europe, leading to a postindustrial landscape, a mix of derelict land and buildings and new cultural or housing activities. By contrast, other cities in the worldfor instance, in rapidly urbanizing Chinahave become the new workshops of the world, comprising a high concentration of the working class in the manufacturing sector.

The Rise of the Metropolis: Centers
of Experiment for Modern Social Life

For observers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Simmel in particular), the development of the large metropolis is a major phenomenon, both in Europe and in the United States.

Capital cities benefited from the consolidation of states, the shift of political life onto the national level, and the strengthening of the states'and therefore the bureaucracies' (including the army's)capacity for control, as well as from industrial development and colonization. These major cities absorbed a large part of the flow of migration, thus providing sizeable reserves of labor. They were the first beneficiaries of the transport revolution, from tramways to road and rail networks. Open to the world in an era that saw increasing numbers of different kinds of exchanges, discoveries, and technical innovations, they established their role by organizing universal exhibitions and great fairs. Concerned with public health and safety, governments organized major improvement works, created wide avenues, and constructed new public buildings: stations, squares, and monuments that symbolized their dynamism and technical progress. These cities were also places of speculation, of public and private investment in housing, and of financial capital. Their cultural influence changed scale because of more rapid diffusion, transports, and colonial empires. In particular, London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna were the theaters of extraordinary physical and cultural transformations. As university cities and cultural centers, they were the focus of unrest and the sites of the political and social revolts that punctuated the nineteenth century. The great metropolis became the site of consumption, of department stores and wide avenues, of overstimulation that changed the urban cultural experience. This led also to physical transformation with the ever-increasing diffusion of urbanization around those large metropolises, hence the rise of suburbs, either working-class ones such as the red belt in Paris or bourgeois suburbs where the middle class abandoned the center.

The rise of the large metropolis became an American feature: New York and Chicago and later Los Angeles in particular gradually replaced European cities in the urban imagination of the modernist metropolis. They grew thanks to stunning economic development and massive immigration. In the 1920s both the American and European metropolis became a place of strong inequalities, anti-Semitism, violence against foreigners, racism, anticommunist movements, and flamboyant cultural creativity. The U.S. model is constructed around the industrial city with its low-income neighborhoods linked to manufacturing districts and close to commercial cores and its middle-income neighborhoods beyond. Out of the suburban migration of the middle classes accentuated after World War II emerged the prototypical metropolis with its central city ringed by suburban enclaves. In the best case, the commercial core became dominant. In the worst cases it, along with the manufacturing district, was in decline. The dynamics of development was horizontal, with activities deconcentrated and decentralized.

The metropolis and the neighborhood are associated with the Chicago school of urban sociology, which for several decades developed ethnographic studies on different ethnic communities and neighborhoods, and alsoin research such as that by Robert Ezra Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzieon groups such as hobos, gangs, and the like. Such work concentrates on interaction and on the density of interactions within the city, leading to an ecological model of the urban process based upon the dynamics of competition and conflict between different groups and their evolution in terms of social and spatial mobility. The city is the place of dense interaction, of mobility, within a context of rapid social change, industrialization, and immigration, a "social laboratory" of modernity where more classic social structures are eroded.

The issue of immigration and the presence of ghettos became central, and racism was quickly established as the leading cultural divide within cities. The question of race and relations between ethnic groups, particularly in U.S. cities, became the cornerstone of American sociology and urban sociology. Ghetto formation, competition between ethnic and racial groups, and assimilation remain the main lenses through which cities are analyzed.

Related debates concerning the integration of diverse ethnic groups took place in European cities during the period of mass migration to industrial cities in the 1960s and 1970s, and the urban-ethnic issue also became central in the political and social dynamics of cities: suburbanization and the rise of xenophobic organizations.

Cities of Difference: Globalization in Progress

Urbanization was reaching new highs in the contemporary world with the rise of mega cities whose greater metropolitan populations exceeded 15 million, such as Calcutta, Cairo, Tokyo, Bombay, and Seoul. Beyond the modern metropolis, researchers try to make sense of those large urban areas with terms such as "postmetropolis," "global cities," and "global city-regions." The processes of globalization, including transnational migration, architecture, financial transactions, transport flux, and dissemination of technological innovations contribute to the rise of mega cities in different parts of the globe.

In contrast to the modernist view of the metropolis, cities have been a major subject of the cultural turn in the social sciences suggesting that culture orients our behavior and shapes what we are able to know about the world. According to cultural studies that have taken place within cities, the question of identity and culture has become a central paradigm. Immigration and the pluralization of identity pave the way for the image of the city as fragmented mosaics. The city is about "the other," and the risks associated with diversity.

The first impact of the cultural turn is about the questioning of classic Western categories such as cities, gender, ethnic, militarism, surveillance, and colonialism. A body of research has made visible issues of sexual, racial, age, religious, gender, and ethnic minorities, together with class, stressing the fluidity of cities, the role of informal organizations and social movements in social conflicts; it has raised issues of justice and the pluralization of identity formation beyond the state. The city is therefore analyzed through representation, discourse, objects, arts. Cultural studies scholars now take up goods as texts that signal the important social processes of their time and context. They look at cities as worked out through perception, memories, and imagination, everyday life and practices, interactions and events, a space simultaneously real and imagined, material and metaphorical, ordered and disordered: from gay enclaves to fortress cities and postcolonial environments. The city is seen as a fluid process, constantly reshaped, chaotic and indeterminate, subject to rival and contradictory claims.

Culture is now a major determinant of migration and the dynamics of cities. From the studios of Los Angeles and Hong Kong to the old neighborhood of Istanbul or Bombay and the cultural clusters of Florence and Prague, all places have culture industries from museums to choirs, county fairs to religious buildings, galleries to theaters. Each city is unique, and its uniqueness relies both upon the interactions within the city, a place for spectacles, and upon interactions with other cities. Tourism, migration, economic development, and urban regeneration seem to rely now, at least in part, upon culture.

"Fantasy cities" are on the rise (as documented by John Hannigan) and one exemplar, Las Vegas, is the fastest growing city in the United States. Surveillance technologies, marketing, standardized entertainment, and culture give a new boost to cities as places of cultural consumption under strict surveillance, at the expense of local groups, social conflicts, and local culture.

The traditional ideas of the city, the modern metropolis or the industrial city, are now associated or replaced by contradictory images of those mega cities where one either emphasizes cultural diversity and the infinite range of interactions or the strength of control and capital accumulation by dominant groups. The rise of mobility and transnational flux within more globalized capitalist cities raise new issues about assimilation, social order, politics, and culture in cities. Cities are reshaped by local groups and culture interacting, adapting, or protesting against globalized flows.

See also Civil Society ; Cultural History ; Globalization ; Social Capital .


Bagnasco, Arnaldo, and Patrick Le Galès, eds. Cities in Contemporary Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities. London: Penguin, 1962.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London and New York: Verso, 1990.

Eade, John, and Christopher Mele, eds. Understanding the City, Contemporary and Future Perspectives. Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

Fincher, Ruth, and Jane M. Jacobs, eds. Cities of Difference. New York: Guilford Press, 1998.

Hannigan, John. Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Harvey, David. The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capital Urbanization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

King, Anthony D., ed. Re-presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital, and Cultural in the Twenty-first-Century Metropolis. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Logan, John R., ed. The New Chinese City: Globalization and Market Reform. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Mingione, Enzo, ed. Urban Poverty and the Underclass. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origin, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.

Park, Robert Ezra, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: London, New York, Tokyo. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Scott, Allen J., and Edward W. Soja, eds. The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Sennett, Richard. The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Smith, Michael Peter. Transnational Urbanism: Locating Globalization. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Storper, Michael. The Regional World: Territorial Development in a Global Economy. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Walton, John, and David Seldon. Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 2 vols., edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Originally published as Wirtschaft und gesellschaft, 1925.

Zukin, Sharon. The Cultures of Cities. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Patrick Le Galès

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"The City as Cultural Center." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 26 Jun. 2017 <>.

"The City as Cultural Center." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 26, 2017).

"The City as Cultural Center." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from

The City as Political Center

The City as Political Center

In Western political thought, ideas about cities, citizenship, and democracy have always been inextricably linked. Since Socrates suggested in The Republic that his interlocutors help him to create a city in speech, the city has functioned as a real and metaphorical center for struggles over what it means to be political. Ideas about civilization and barbarism, egalitarianism and exclusion, virtue and vice, civic participation and social unrest, all find expression in discussions of the city. Yet the city is and has always been an ambiguous achievement; its success (or failure) as a form of political organization rests on its citizens' dubious abilities to govern themselves, deliberate with strangers, act on principles beyond narrow self-interest, and collectively determine their future. Thus the state of a nation's cities is often used as a barometer to judge the quality of its political life.

City as Democratic Ideal

In its most utopian incarnations, the city is common ground, a space where the democratic values of equality, heterogeneity, public life, and creative expression might be freely lived. In the United States the roots of its democratic heritage are routinely traced to ancient Greece, where in Athens in the fifth century b.c.e. the vision of the "good life" was concomitant with city life. As Pericles famously argued:

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. [J]ust as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get in a state with our next door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way. We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politicsthis is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. (Pericles' Funeral Oration, in Thucydides, pp. 145147)

Equality before the law, tolerance of difference, and civic participationthese are the qualities of city life that are found desirable and worthy of imitation.

In the modern context, the ideal of metropolitan democracy is grounded in the potential found in these three aspects of city life originally articulated in Pericles' speech. First, as Max Weber argued, modern city lifeas characterized by economic and bureaucratic rationalization and autonomous law and administrationdisrupted feudal and paternalistic forms of governance. Traditional and often immutable hierarchies (such as tribe, religion, or kinship) thus were replaced by more egalitarian political associations.

Second, democratic urbanists exalt the city's inherent heterogeneity as democracy's greatest good. The city is a place where citizens are required to negotiate many different axes of identity and difference (for example, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation), so city life cultivates an appreciation of diverse groups without necessarily assuming either assimilation or exclusion. While in ancient Athens the boundaries for demarcating "citizen" and "other" were considerably narrower than they are in the early twenty-first century, the principles of toleration and noninterference are cornerstones of democratic urbanism. The city functions as a place where persons unknown to each other and often without shared familial, religious, ethnic, or cultural ties have the opportunity to act in concert to achieve mutual good; a certain kind of cosmopolitanism (or an ability to "move comfortably in diversity") is intrinsic to discussions of democratic urbanism (Sennett, p. 17).

Third, because political life is not based on private relationships but on the whole body of citizens deliberating among themselves (the public's business is everyone's business), the presence of truly public spacesboulevards, parks, and plazasis a requirement for collective action. In fact such places serve as stages for political activity, facilitating interaction among diverse groups with different interests and creating the necessary conditions for collective decision-making. This very material public sphere both presupposes and cultivates political imagination by encouraging citizens to think and act in ways that transcend their particular experiences.

The City as Democratic Menace

From its inception, however, the city's equality and diversity have also signified its instabilitythe threat it poses to moral, social, and political order. The city has been regarded as the site of sinful excess and moral turpitude, where upstanding citizens may risk succumbing to the depravity of the mob. Despite (or because of) its status as the rationalized center of Western political and economic life, the city has also been the site of its revolutions; from Europe in 1848 to the United States and Paris in 1968, cities have been recognized as the epicenters of democratic upheaval.

Attempts to secure the city as a political and cultural center have historically often sought to contain, control, or eliminate many of the very elements urban democrats find so promising. Efforts to create meaningful, modern urban life have varied greatly, ranging from the reinvention of Paris by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (18091891), the Garden City of Ebenezer Howard (18501928), the City Beautiful of Daniel Burnham (18461912), and the Radiant City of Le Corbusier (18871965), to numerous public housing projects across the United States and Europe. But as Elizabeth Wilson notes, what these efforts have in common is the desire to replace chaos with order, heterogeneity with uniformity, and the noise and commotion inevitable in lively public places with placidity and good behavior.

Contemporary Challenges to the City's
Democratic Potential

One of the widely debated issues regarding cities in the early twenty-first century is how their democratic possibilities might be realized in practice. While (at least implicitly) remaining sympathetic to the ideal of the city as a democratic space, important contributions in critical urban thought examine the inequalities woven into the urban fabric that delimit the amount and quality of freedom allowed to citizens, especially through residential segregation and the privatization of public space.

Residential segregation is caused by any number of factors. In the American context, typical examples of these include the use of racially restrictive covenants and redlining up through the 1960s; the priority placed on the federal highway system rather than public transit; federal tax incentives offered to homeowners (via deductions for mortgage interest) rather than to renters; and the use of local property taxes to fund public schools. These practices are not accidental but institutional and political, and they work to create, sustain, and embed economic and racial inequalities in the urban landscape. All result in widely divergent experiences for living, working, and pursuing educational opportunities in the context of modern city life.

As a result of these practices the inner city and inner-ring suburban areas are increasingly racially segregated and economically isolated. The results of this are myriad. First, the economically privileged have less and less contact with working-class and poor people, especially persons of color. Second, geographic segregation often produces serious spatial mismatches, where jobs and workers move in opposite directions; as more companies move to areas outside the central city, low-wage workers have more difficulty finding jobs and then commuting to them, since they often cannot afford to work, live, and find child care in the same areas. Finally, residents in poor and working-class neighborhoods often pay more for basic goods and services, such as groceries (Dreier et al., pp. 4177).

These costs are not only directed at the economically underprivileged, however. Instead, what is commonly referred to as "urban sprawl" (low-density development at the edges of an existing city) is the other side of concentrated poverty and has its own burdens: complete car dependency and longer commutes, shrinking green space and loss of farmland, increased pollution and flooding, and higher taxes to support new infrastructure (roads, schools, water and sewer, and power lines). Furthermore, these sprawling, redundant netherworlds between city and suburb defy Kevin Lynch's (1960) aesthetic prescriptions for memorable, livable cities: a legible city, he suggested, would be one whose physical features and landmarks are easily identifiable. As a result of sprawl, urban peripheries look more and more similar (freeways and off-ramps, chain stores and traffic), while also looking less and less like traditional urban centers.

Intensifying residential segregation finds its apotheosis in gated communities, which not only include elite suburban housing developments but also increasingly many inner-city, middle-income apartment buildings. While scholars stress numerous reasons for Americans' affinity for living behind walls (ranging from fear of falling property values to craving privacy, security, and/or like-minded neighbors), they generally agree that such arrangements inhibit, rather than promote, democracy. In gated communities, typically public spaces such as streets, sidewalks, and green spaces are walled off and "forted up" (in Blakely and Snyder's evocative phrase), privatizing not only individual residences but community space as well. Gated communities also are often racially homogenous. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2001 American housing survey, while the white and Hispanic middle classes are embracing gated communities in greater numbers, African Americans are much less likely to live in such areas. Although gated communities take a variety of forms and serve myriad functions (from retirement communities to inner-city security zones), spaces that promote homogeneity and exclusivity can only have a chilling effect on democracy. Their net result, then, is division rather than diversification, thus "undermin[ing] the very concept of civitas, organized community life" (Blakely and Snyder in Ellin, ed., p. 85). Residential segregationespecially as exemplified in gated communitiesthus undermines the city's potential to foster tolerance of and political alliances across class and racial differences.

In part gated communities are symptomatic of the second challenge to urban democracy: the rapid privatization of public space. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis observes that "the American city is being systematically turned inside outor, rather, outside in. The valorized spaces of the new mega-structures and super-malls are concentrated in the center, street frontage is denuded, public activity is sorted into strictly functional compartments, and circulation is internalized in corridors under the gaze of private police" (p. 226). Boundaries between public and private spaces are consciously constructed through the use of walls, landscapes, and police or private security guards, but they are also marked through less tangible (though no less real) obstructions: commodities some cannot purchase, real estate that some cannot afford, a history and traditions that are not commonly shared. Davis argues that while architectural critics (often members of the dominant racial group and economic class) are often oblivious to these sorts of spatial segregation, marginalized groups recognize these borders immediately (p. 226).

This is all to say that urban space is no longer exemplified by truly public places. Instead, urban space at the millennium is increasingly contained, sanitized, monitored and defended; its goal is not to promote democracy (as in the Athenian polis) but rather to provide safe spaces for (predominantly white) middle-class suburbanites to work, shop, and play (Davis, p. 227).

Whither the City Center?

Many predictions for the future of urban democracy are dire. As Elizabeth Wilson plainly states, "The result is that today in many cities we have the worst of all worlds: danger without pleasure, safety without stimulation, consumerism without choice, monumentality without diversity. At the same time, larger and larger numbers of people inhabit zones that are no longer really either town or countryside" (p. 9).

These indeterminate zones that are not "town or countryside" indicate a final challenge for the city as political center: a new kind of urbanism typified by exurbs or edge cities that are no longer economically dependent on an urban center and defy the "core-periphery" model of the twentieth-century city. In fact, some would argue, casting the "city as political center" at the new millennium is entirely misguided. Rather, as Robert Fishman contends, "the true centre of this new city is not in some downtown business district but in each residential unit. From that central starting point, the members of the household create their own city from the multitude of destinations that are within suitable driving distance" (p. 185).

The "city" as it exists for most people, then, no longer matches the traditional picture of centrally concentrated economic and cultural life but rather comprises travel routes and endpoints, transportation and communications networks that together form weblike metropolitan regions that often include more than one urban center and frequently span several states. Edge cities and exurbs, some commentators assert, are almost entirely disconnected from their nearest urban centers, containing within themselves all the necessities of life: opportunities not only to live (as in traditional suburbs) but also for commerce and leisure, functions previously delegated to cities. Faced with the dilution of urban public life, the "city on a hill" is replaced by the "dream home" as the site of utopian possibilities.

The diminishment of the city as political center raises the question of whether or not the city has declined in importance as an economic center. Some theorists of the global city argue that industrial restructuring and the development of sophisticated communications networks have rendered city space less crucial than what Manuel Castells calls "the space of flows," or the continual movement of people, goods, technology, and information over large distances, and the material infrastructure that makes this movement possible. For Castells, what is important is no longer centers but networks, which allows real-time interaction between dispersed actors. Others, most notably Saskia Sassen, contend that the past few decades have seen the emergence of truly global cities, which provide an immense telecommunications, design, and service infrastructure for transnational corporations. This has created an unprecedented concentration of wealth and labor power in these cities while at the same time forging even greater disparities of wealth.

Throughout history people have staked claims to better lives in better cities, knowing that this particular spatial form of organization carries with it the potential both for hegemony and equality, disenfranchisement and deliberation. The question for advocates of urban democracy is how to correct some of the egregious inequalities rendered by twenty-first-century urban planning practices and globalization and how to best modify governance systems to take into account the changing shape of metropolitan democracy. The shapes presently given to cities and towns, the lines drawn with concrete and steel or building codes and zoning ordinancesor the connections forged with digital communications networksenable citizens to make material their ideas about assimilation, stratification, and segregation. Uncritically adopting the city as a normative ideal, however, ignores the ways in which the built environment can legitimate and perpetuate exclusion, inequality, and even disenfranchisement from the ranks of proper citizenship.

See also City, The: The City as a Cultural Center ; Democracy ; Public Sphere .


Blakely, Edward J., and Mary Gail Snyder. "Divided We Fall: Gated and Walled Communities in the United States." In Architecture of Fear, edited by Nan Ellin, 8599. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.

Blakely, Edward J. and Mary Gail Snyder. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997.

Castells, Manuel . The Informational City. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso, 1990.

Dreier, Peter, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom. Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1961. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1993.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press, 1960.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. 2nd ed. 1968. Reprint, New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. 2nd ed. 1991. Reprint, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. 1974. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1992.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 1921. Reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.

Wilson, Elizabeth. The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Margaret E. Farrar

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"The City as Political Center." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 26 Jun. 2017 <>.

"The City as Political Center." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 26, 2017).

"The City as Political Center." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from

City, The


This entry includes four subentries.

The City as Cultural Center
The City as Political Center
The Islamic and Byzantine City
Latin America

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"City, The." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 26 Jun. 2017 <>.

"City, The." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 26, 2017).

"City, The." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from