What is a city, anyway?

This, believe it or not, is London. Image by Tom Tired of London

Okay, there's a question we're going to be wrestling with a lot at CityMetric. I'm not saying we're going to answer it any time soon, but the least we can do is ask it, and explain why it constitutes a problem. Here it is:

What, actually, is a city?

At first glance this probably looks like a stupid question, the sort of thing you'd get from a four year old, like "What are unicorns made of?" or “Why is the sky blue?” But (spoilers) it's not.

To explain why, it helps to have a worked example or two. London, official figures tell us, has a population of somewhere around the 8.3 million mark. Paris has a population of roughly 2.3 million. So, one might naturally conclude, London is a lot bigger than Paris.

Except, if you look at a different set of figures, it's very clearly not.  Demographia has been publishing a statistical guide to the World's Urban Areas for a decade or so now. Its latest edition, published in May, has Paris on 11 million – four times larger than the official statistics and well ahead of London's 10.1 million.

Then you look at this dataset from the official statistical agency of the European Union and the figures get even bigger but the order's swapped again. Eurostat has Paris on 11.9 million and London on 13.6 million.

You don't have to be a geographer to guess that these three sets of figures are working from different definitions. You can probably even make an educated stab at what each set of figures represents. They are, respectively, the population of the region governed by the city's own authorities, of the continuous built up area, and of the larger metropolitan region.


But which of these is ‘right’? The answer is, infuriatingly, all of them – or, if you prefer, none of them.

To most people, most of the time, none of this is actually a problem: no one ever failed to understand the concept of London because they were unclear on whether you were counting Watford or not. But there are two contexts in which it matters a great deal.

One is its impact on the workings of city governments. If you're the official charged with coming up with a strategy for meeting an area's housing or transport needs, say, then it would help to have some control over the whole of that city.

Very often, though, you don't, so infrastructure investment is likely to focus on the city proper: not only is official power strongest there, but its population get a vote in local elections. Administrative borders can thus end up warping the fabric of the city itself. Just look at the apparently arbitrary places where the New York Subway terminates.

The other reason why which this definitional confetti matters is that it poses a massive barrier to anyone who actually hopes to analyse the urban landscape. Professor Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist at the Santa Fe Institute, who in recent years has conducted a number of comparative studies on cities. “You'd think by now all the urban planners would have an operational definition of a city that you just could look up,” he says, with some exasperation. “Well that doesn't exist."

As a result, the moment you start trying to quantify any aspect of city life – or worse, compare two cities – you run into difficulties. How many people live in Mumbai? What's the size of New York's economy? Which is more densely populated, London or Paris? All too often, the answer is ‘it depends’. "It's a problem that's plagued a lot of our research," West adds. "And it reflects how little work has been done to quantitatively, analytically, and scientifically understand cities."

The upshot of all this is that what a city is, and where it ends, is a surprisingly subjective matter, and any attempt to nail it down is likely to throw up anomalies. All you can do is keep track of which definition you're working from, and make sure you never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones.

Here, for future reference, is a quick guide to the main ways of defining cities, which we’ll be trying very hard not to mix up.

 

The municipality

The political definition of a city. Paris is 20 arrondissements, New York is five boroughs, London is 32-plus- that-awkward-finance-y-bit-in-the-middle.

The advantage of this definition is that it’s nice and straightforward and easy to exert political power over (or find data on, come to that). The disadvantage is that it tends to throw up anomalies: some municipalities exclude large swathes of suburbia; others include sudden patches of countryside. The official definition of London includes North Ockendon, a tiny Essex village outside the M25, but excludes Buckhurst Hill, a contiguous central line suburb well inside it.

 

The urban area

This, one might think, is the contiguous urban sprawl: the thing you can point to on a satellite photograph, or from a plane by night.

Life, though, is rarely so simple. For one thing, areas of development separated by less than 200m of open space will generally be bracketed together as a single urban area, on the grounds that anything you can cross in under two minutes doesn’t count as ‘the country’.

For another, there are features like parkland and forests to contend with, so sometimes you’ll notice a distinction between ‘urban area’ (which includes suburban open spaces) and ‘built up’ area (which doesn’t).

There is also no single universal definition of what counts as an ‘urban area’. Most countries define it as one with at least 400 inhabitants per square kilometre. In the US it’s 1,000 people per square mile, which is nearly identical; in Australia, it’s 200 people per square kilometre, which isn’t.

 

The metropolitan area

A city's effective economic footprint, typically measured by commuting patterns. Satellite towns and ex-urbs may not look like part of a city – but since they wouldn’t exist without it, the thinking goes, they should count.

There are two problems with this idea, however. The smaller one is that you end up counting a lot of people who reject the idea they live in a city at all, if only because they made a conscious decision not to (hello, Surrey).

The bigger problem is that it's largely subjective. What proportion of people need to commute into a city to be part of its travel-to-work area is a matter of judgement. And what if a town between two cities contains large numbers of people who commute to both? Is Warrington a satellite of Manchester, or one of Liverpool? Does Princeton belong to New York or Philly?

The consequence of all this is that different countries use different definitions. While agencies like Eurostat have attempted to harmonise these, there's no current data set that does so worldwide.

Here’s an example of all these various definitions at work. This is Paris, c2008:

That tiny maroon nucleus is the city proper. Surrounding it you have the larger built up area (red), the official urban area (orange) and the metropolitan area (yellow). Suddenly, you can understand why the figures for the city’s population seem to vary by a factor of four. 

 

Just to make things more complicated...

While a metropolitan area will typically contain more than one urban area, the same can be true in reverse. Look down from an aeroplane, and you might think that San Diego and Tijuana are a single city. But there’s a whopping great international border between the two, which most of the area’s population aren’t free to cross. So is it one city, or several? How do you define them? As ever, the answer, awkwardly, is “it depends”.

 

Lastly, some definitions we won’t be using

The bizarre official phenomenon of British city status, an honorific handed out by the queen, which means that Ely (pop: 20,000) and St David’s (pop: 2,000) have the same official status as Manchester. The equally bizarre habit in some parts of the US, of appending the word ‘city’ to any cluster of four broken down sheds and a dog. What of these, eh?

Well, these are silly and we intend to ignore them. So there.

Images: Photo of Pratt's Bottom courtesy of Tom Tired of London, taken from Flickr under a creative commons license; map of Paris adapted from Wikimedia Commons.


 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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