Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Makes a "Real" City?

Big cities hold an attraction for me that I can’t really understand. Whenever I visit a region for the first time, I would always want to visit the big cities. Big cities give off some sort of energy that I seem to “absorb” – it makes me want to walk faster and longer with a skip in my steps.

For most people – especially young ones – choosing to move to or near big cities is a matter of pragmatism. There are more job opportunities in big cities; more bars, clubs and restaurants to patronize; more like-minded young people to meet; and perhaps better schools.

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I lived in upstate New York for two years when I was in graduate school. In New York State, you can generally guess the population and physical size of a municipality by its incorporated name. For example, a village generally would have a population ranging from hundreds to thousands; a town’s population will usually be between thousands and tens of thousands; and cities generally have populations measured in multiples of ten thousand (or millions in the case of New York City). In New York, a village is usually part of a town, and a town is generally near a city or is a reasonably large incorporated place in a rural area.

I’ve never been to California, but I understand that there is no such thing as a village in California, and there is no legal distinction between a city and a town in that state. Having lived in northern Colorado for the past six months, I also learned that there are no municipalities incorporated as villages in this state, and that there are few legal distinctions between a city and a town.

So who or what factors decide when a municipality is a city, a town, or a village (if a state recognizes such a legal entity)? There appears to be no standard definition among states in the United States, much less around the world.

In Southeast Asia and most parts of India and China, if you mention “village,” what comes to mind is a rural place surrounded by miles of rice fields, dotted with huts with no running water, electricity and very likely dirt floors.

In the heavily urbanized city-state of Singapore where I’m from, when you mention “village” in the Singapore context, the image that you conjure consists only of fond memories from my parents’ generation of their childhood – there are no real villages in Singapore à la most parts of Southeast Asia.

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I visited my friend, Jonah, who lives near Indianapolis, Indiana this past summer. We decided to take a short trip to visit the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. On the way there, we drove past an exit on the Interstate Highway which leads to a place named “Illiopolis.”

Curious about Illiopolis because both of us had never heard of it, I started talking about why I thought the municipality was named thus. I thought that the founders of the town probably envisioned it to become a big city, hence the “-polis” in the name of the town. Another explanation I offered they wanted to make it sound big and full of opportunities so that it would attract lots of visitors and settlers in its early days.

I also mentioned the little factoid about the non-existence of villages in California, and wondered if that state had chosen not to recognize villages as a political division because it wanted to portray the image of the land of great and plentiful opportunities to gold rush prospectors.

When we got home, I ran a search on “Illiopolis, Illinois” on the internet and found that it was a village with a population of less than one thousand.

That started a whole new conversation between Jonah and I on what makes a “real” city.

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So what makes a “real” city? Clearly, a status bestowed upon or decreed by the local, state, provincial or national government doesn’t make it so. A quick search on the internet reveals different ideas, thoughts and opinions.

While there is general consensus on the criteria that make a “great” or a cosmopolitan city, it is very difficult to agree on what makes a “real” city. In my next two articles, I will come up with a “checklist” of sorts to define a “real” city.

(Continued in Part Two.)



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