The People Define the City

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Technology allows lots of people to work from home in a snow storm. Colleagues email one another. They catch up on newsletters unread and webinars unviewed. But there is little satisfaction in it.  Most bide their time until the office or business reopens. Upon returning, friends and peers reengage with a vengeance. There is invigoration in the swirl of humanity on the street, in the train car, or at the coffee shop while moving through the line.

We are social creatures who have built cities and towns in order to share our lives. After all, the word “community” derives from the Latin communitas, translated fairly as ‘coming together with gifts’.

Alexis De Tocqueville described the United States a nation of joiners; a place where people come together for purposes great and minor. Fast forward to 1995 and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone takes a different tack. Americans as a people are distrustful, isolated and absent a unified social purpose. According the Putnam, the same technology that connects the world allowing people to work from home also is fostering disconnections.  How’s that for irony?

A snow storm turns out to be a wonderful laboratory for exploring instances of communal cooperation and support; the kind of support that seldom graces the evening newscasts or a scholarly paper. Neighbors sharing the duty to clear a side walk of snow. Two strangers who agree to divide the market’s last loaf of bread between them. The jovial “hello” of unacquainted parents whose gang of kids are engaged in building the world’s biggest snow fort. Volunteers who use their SUV’s to shuttle health workers and firefighters to their shifts.

Does it matter if a community is forged in hardship or in plenty? Are the bonds any less valid or lasting in one case or the other? In the end, what matters is that people need each other and they take steps everyday to solidify the bonds of community. This is why cities have so much potential for greatness. The people make it so.

1 comments on “The People Define the City”

  1. Great article James, thanks. So many people speak of cities as bricks and mortar and tarmac. These are important, but what about the people? As you say, it is the people who give a city the potential for greatness. I write about making our cities more for people on my website Cities for People. Would you drop on by some time?

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