The Essence of the City

Love... is the feeling that impels us to seek the companionship of our fellows, and the actions of love are all the things we do in the attempt to share our joys and griefs with others.

(De Crescenzo)

LoveThe essential character of the city, “its urban character,” evolves through a confrontation of the public and private domains; a constant exchange, a separation and coming together of these two domains. Only when inhabitants live in both domains, can the city meet its full potential for enhancing the life of each, and serve its social and cultural functions.

The basis of social life, in Martin Buber's words, is twofold: "One... the wish of every person to be confirmed as to what he or she is, or can become...by other persons; and two, the innate capacity in human beings to confirm their fellow human beings in this way. Actual humanity exists only where this capacity unfolds..."

The experience of life in the city comprises the sum total of all encounters, relationships and experiences with other people during the course of the day. Well-being arises from contacts that are satisfying, and enjoyable, that affirm persons as individuals and as members of a community. The city must provide occasions and places for such good experiences to occur. Participation in social interactions makes an essential contribution to personal well-being. Impoverishment in social contact may result in a sense of isolation, meaninglessness for individuals and in the dissolution of social bonds for the community.

Once we think about cities in terms of this conception, we must consider the nature of public social life, the conditions, both architectural and social, under which it flourishes, and how the public and private domains interconnect.

ConfirmationThe relation of public and private involves the flow of interest and attention from the private to the public world, - to "what is happening out there"- as well as from the public to the private world. In the public realm, multiple perspectives and viewpoints prevail, that inform and correct the single one-sided perspective of the private world.

The public realm makes possible the exchange of opinion and information that forms the basis of civic dialogue and development of consensus.

It is in the public realm that we learn about each other, through observation and participation, and develop a public conscience that pays heed to the foibles and needs of our fellow citizens.

Often the public realm supplies, and compensates for functions that the private realm cannot meet; whether educative, informational, monitoring or supportive functions.

Let us explore some of these ideas further. In the public world, multiple perspectives and view-points prevail. The reality of the public realm as Hannah Arendt pointed out, “relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself ... Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life, compared to which even the richest and most satisfying family life can offer only the prolongation or multiplication of one's own position with its attending aspects and perspectives.”

“Under conditions of radical isolation, human beings have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.”

DialogueSecond, there is the importance of dialogue, of conversation, of "palaver" that is made possible in public. Mumford wrote "perhaps the best definition of the city is to say that it is a place designed to offer significant conversation. The dialogue is one of the ultimate expressions of life in the city."

"The common world remains inhuman - in a very literal sense - unless it is talked about. The world is not human because it is made up of human beings, but only when it has become the object of human discourse. However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only in speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human." (Arendt)

Being in public promotes conversation with other human beings. Conversation reinforces involvement and provides opportunities for the receipt and transmission of information. In these conversations in public much information is exchanged about each other's lives and about other persons known to those engaged in conversation. Many intimate details about family life, work situation, state of health, finances, plans and hopes of all kinds become public. Information exchange helps maintain kinship and friendship networks by keeping people "au courant" with the lives of acquaintances, relatives and friends. Knowing each other’s stories makes the fabric of everyone's life more visible, and thus cements the social bonds among members of a community.

Wendell Berry asks how can community members know each other "if they have forgotten or have never learned one another's stories? If they do not know one another's stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another".

Public RealmThe public realm meets complex social functions; processes of compassion and caring can be explicit, and learned, especially by the young. Anger, judgment and criticism can be heard and then suspended! When there is a genuine public community, there exists monitoring of minor infractions (especially as they pertain to children and adolescents), and natural equilibrium maintaining processes operate.

It is by now a truism how little disruption occurs at community celebrations throughout the world despite the often substantial presence of large numbers of diverse people. Similar equilibriating patterns emerge whenever there is a regular, continuous presence of persons in the public realm whose private lives overlap with their public presence.

The public realm facilitates learning about ways of being and relating! We learn how persons relate within and across generational, social class, and experiential difference, and become skilled in making inferences about the fate and biography of our fellow human beings.

We learn about the humanity and dignity of all persons, their potential for joy, delight, and also for pain, and that these are not contingent on station in life, ethnic background, skin color, or physical or mental health.

Learning about ourselves, about our reactions to the strange or different, about the depth or limit of our compassion, about our desire to shut out the experiences of the vulnerable or disabled among our fellow human beings may be painful, but important for our humanity.

Children have the opportunity to observe a variety of models of how people relate, and learn from their skills and flexibility in contacts with the less fortunate of our fellow human beings.

AffirmationThis awareness of others – the different, unfamiliar, less fortunate - raises questions in our mind: how would we feel in their shoes, how do they see us, how do they perceive our attitude. “I usually do not see or hear the other (person or object) because I know that if I were really to see or hear the plight of the other, I would have to do something about it: love is the attitude of the soul which, in seeing and hearing, knows that it must help." (Buber) In public spaces we cannot shut the co-users and their plight out of our awareness.

If we want to rediscover the Idea of the City and benefit from what the city can be at its very best, then the attention must again be paid to the public domain in both theory and practice. It is not enough to make streets and places for pedestrians and to make them attractive. Public space must be an organizing principle for the city, for its design, architecture and planning, that must be involved in all thinking about the city to produce that urban milieu (ambience, character) that is the precondition for sociability and social life.

The people who created traditional cities, and their public spaces, whether these were professionals or the inhabitants themselves, knew how to create places in which to celebrate and experience joy, to exercise sociability, to pay attention and show interest in each other and to transmit culture (its rituals and ceremonies); they created places where they could experience a sense of trust and belonging or even the emotions of compassion and grief. To ask architects or planners to again design places, locations to experience trust, joy or remorse would indeed be a challenge!

Richard Sennet writes that the way our U.S. cities look reflects a great, unreckoned fear of exposure. "Exposure" more connotes the likelihood of being hurt than of being stimulated. The fear of exposure is, in one way, a militarized conception of everyday experience, as though attack and defense were as apt a model for subjective life as they are for warfare. What we make in the urban realm, therefore, are bland neutralizing space, spaces which remove threat of social contact; steel walls faced in sheets of plate glass, highways that cut off poor neighborhoods from the rest of the city, dormitory housing developments.

Indeed, the emotions of fear characterize our approach to public spaces, generated by real factors, or by paranoia fed by special interests. Our cities, therefore, have become monotonous and sanitized, the city centers primarily to serve a homogeneous population of professional males on their way in and out of the city from the suburban ghettos where their children and many of their wives spend all of their time.

In most U.S. cities and towns, there are no "genuine" public places. Our public domain neither encourages nor generates the good experiences, relationships, and emotions the inhabitants of other cities and towns of the world take for granted.

It is a vicious cycle: We have forgotten, repressed or never known the traditional uses of public spaces; we are unable to plan for, or design the spaces that would support, be hospitable to, or generate community activities or useful human experiences. The absence of such "good experiences and activities then leads to further neglect of the public domain, its design, both in its physical and social aspects.

One reason for the study of the best of European cities and towns - their festivals, markets, events and public art - is that they demonstrate that emotions other than fear or paranoia can prevail in the public realm; that the very resurgence of public life in many cities and towns - though perhaps not exactly in its earlier forms - shows that positive emotions can dominate, that the experience of places can be exhilarating and conducive to mental health.

Certainly the European tradition of city making, especially in the design of public places, makes possible both the events - the civic dialogue, the celebrations, the markets, the sociability - as well as the good, positive emotions experiences by the inhabitants that are present in those places. Europeans have not rejected the idea of the traditional city but have revived it in as far as their city centers are concerned.

Unfortunately, they too face the monotony, formlessness and in-hospitality of suburbia and massive urban sprawl. They too have not recovered the essence of the city in what has been built during the last forty years at their city's periphery - but at least some of their outstanding planners and city officials have recognized the problems, while there are few in North America who have done so.


Henry L. Lennard was Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and Co-founder and organizer the International Making Cities Livable Conferences. This article is adapted from a presentation given at the 11th International Making Cities Livable Conference, San Francisco, November 1991. The work of the IMCL Associates, especially of Andreas Feldtkeller, contributed to the ideas expressed in this article.