Questions about Cities

Cities are a complicated and fascinating subject. They pose endless questions. For example, as individuals, are our life opportunities more defined by particular cities than particular countries? How much loyalty and sweat should we invest in a particular city? What makes a good city? How important is it for a city to be well-known, and what can they do about it? The UN lists 4,416 cities in the world with a population of over 150,000. The biggest (Tokyo and Jakarta) have over 30 million people. Cities usually want to be “recognized” to attract some kind of advantage, usually economic. Is this kind of ‘city exhibitionism’ a waste of time? .. and more questions that you can think of.  

Thor May
Adelaide, 2016








This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Cities" topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 




















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=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:


1. Introduction

Each day I run three times, about 8km altogether, and on different suburban routes. It is not a bad way to engage with the character of a city. After pounding pavements like this since about 1961 in seven countries there is a memory-movie of street scenes to draw upon. At the moment, the images come from suburban Adelaide, Australia. This is a city of tidy, well-cared for houses, but it looks as if it has been hit by a neutron bomb. On my daily runs I rarely see another human being. Something like this:


The contrast with my last country of residence could hardly be more startling. Here is an inner urban area of Zhengzhou, China (Henan Province) in 2008, just around the corner from where I lived and worked. Note the typical mix of retail and residential development:


Needless to say, running in this precinct was more hazardous than Adelaide, but also more interesting. In China, “ghost cities” excepted, it is rare to be out of sight of other human beings. This street scene from Kaifeng, China (2008) will give the general idea:


Somewhere between the relentless crowds of China and unpopulated streets of private houses in Australia, is South Korea, where I worked for seven years:


This vast tower block in Chungju, central South Korea, was also my home, and absolutely typical of a country where the same building is cloned endlessly, making the cities difficult to tell apart, at least for a non-Korean. Until quite recently, street names were rarely used, which made things even more confusing. The level of efficient urban planning, though perhaps lacking in imagination, is far more thorough than in China. Outside of greater Seoul (which has half of the nation's population) South Korean cities are very compact, with rather sharply marked boundaries. Here are some winter-protected market gardens on the outskirts of Chungju, with the city skyline in the distance:

city-marketgarden3 chungju_sept2004.jpg

Moving through these landscapes, it is natural to invent a narrative about their inhabitants. This is exactly what every kind of mass media does, not to speak of more artful creations by novelists and other craftsmen of ideas. These created cities of the mind can be very persuasive, and anticipating  travel to a new locale, we may lean upon them to shape our expectations before arrival. Surviving for a few days as a tourist, we might see exactly what we have been told to see, cut and pasted onto the tidy foundations of our own life experience half a world away.

The truth is that everyone finds a somewhat different truth. Chinese or Korean people, looking at that picture of an empty Adelaide street, Australia, on the Internet are likely to create a mental pastiche of meaning from half-remembered American TV dramas and the very mixed cultural messages they might have extracted from advertising billboards in their own hometowns. What version of reality, for example, did the inhabitants of Kaifeng, China extract from this street projection of some American “ideal humans” in 2008? [Side note: all the dolls I saw in toyshops in central China had blue eyes and blonde hair …] :



For myself, as a foreigner (and “alien” as the visa documents so charmingly put it) in China and South Korea, my imaginary invented lives for people of the streets of Zhengzhou or Chungju would hardly be recognized by those individuals in their daily lives. It can never be otherwise, although with shared personal experiences our dreams can come closer. Paradoxically, the less alien we become with folk in distant lands, the more alien we become in our home cities. In 1971-72 with very little money and at personal risk, I backpacked alone through SE Asia, across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey … through to England. Much later, arriving back in Sydney with many tales to tell, my birth family scarcely looked up from their TV set. “Oh, it’s you”, they said, uninterested. No it wasn’t the “you” they thought they knew, but there was now a moat between us, never to be crossed again.


2. Is a city an idea, or a collection of buildings?


Perhaps the major life ambition of most Australians is to own a house (see May 2014). For many it can even come ahead of founding a family, and “owning” property (probably with an enormous mortgage) is a major qualifying plus in the mating game. Having secured their hovel, personal and political interest focuses on bidding up the price of real estate, so that even ordinary working people become paper millionaires, while the barrier to entry becomes ever steeper. I’ve been a lifelong member of the lower classes by virtue of displaying little ambition to participate in the real estate casino.

In Australia, a vast continent with only 24 million people, the property lust thing seems to be a cultural hangover from English class-stratified society. Not all cultures have this obsession. Germans, for example, take a somewhat different approach. Regardless, the each-man-in-his-castle mental construct has led to Australia becoming one of the most urbanized countries in the world.  In stark contrast to the vertical ant heaps of South Korean cities, Australian cities spread forever, a flat layer of single-owner blocks, isolated residents mostly out of sight, and a costly infrastructure dilemma. At a human level, personal cars are an essential mechanism to link people into any kind of community, and the second largest lifetime item of expenditure.

The linguist, Eleanor Rosch, and colleagues developed an approach to thinking about words called prototype theory. They noticed that in categories of objects, neither the most precise categories, nor the most general became the best known words. “Orange” was more familiar than both “Valencia orange” and “citrus fruit”. “Dog” was more familiar than “terrier” and “canine”.  If we apply this kind of thinking to levels of human community, the outcome seems to be a little more obscure, and also influenced by cultural practice.

In Australia, a personal street address seems to have high importance. This includes a post code, which is often a marker of social status. People will instantly know their suburb, but may pause to recall the name of their local government, and probably don’t know any of the councillors. They will know their city, but probably not the mayor, and the state, but have only a hazy idea of who state members of parliament are. They will have an opinion about the nation’s prime minister, as a media construct, but feel generally powerless to influence national political outcomes, even if they are aware of them. Most of them are not in the habit of talking about “my country” or “my city” as glorious cultural inventions. Their idea of “my country” tends to come down having a blue passport, while “my city” means “where are the shopping centres?” and “my house in Adelaide” means “what are the commuting times and utility costs?”.

One interpretation of the above description is that Australian cities are mostly built from the bottom up, house by house, according to personal ambition, albeit guided by the ambitions of real estate developers and local council construction regulations. In spite of these rather ad hoc origins, the cities themselves function fairly efficiently.

On 16 May 1703, while looking over sparse marshlands near the mouth of the Baltic Sea that he had taken from the Swedes, Tsar Peter the Great cut two strips of turf from Hare’s Island on the Neva river, laid them in a cross and declared: “Let there be a city here.” As he spoke, an eagle appeared overhead in an auspicious omen… Or at least that’s the myth of St Petersburg’s founding”. (Luhn 2016)

The city that Tsar Peter the Great founded in 1703 on some recently acquired land, by conquest, was utterly different in conception and design to the city (to be) of Sydney, Australia, founded by Captain Arthur Philip on behalf of the British crown in 1788. The British wanted a penal colony, as far away from England as possible, and the city which eventually emerged had grown piecemeal, organically, with some basic construction by prisoners to get the thing moving, then countless personal decisions by property owners. Tsar Peter wanted a warm water port, a military fort, and a commercial entrepôt to the riches of Europe. St Petersburg was precisely designed as a trophy city, a Russian front door to Europe, and constructed with ruthless drive over the dead bodies of thousands of Cossack labourers.

Russia continues as a top-down directed nation to this day. Individual Russians find personal space either within the official proclamations of what-shall-be, or by cunningly evading them. Their rights to actually set the agenda are pretty well non-existent. Outside of St Petersburg and Moscow, the reach of the state becomes more tenuous and the solutions more ramshackle. Overall outcomes are patches of excellence and large swathes of badly constructed, even downright dangerous built- environment. The very different cultures of mainland China have quite a lot in common with this paradigm of top-down state control and very uneven actual construction across China’s many hundreds of cities. One of China’s premiers, Zhu Rongji, acidly described the ubiquitous unsafe construction in China as “tofu architecture”.

It may be no cultural accident that the conception of city and nation promoted to citizens in both Russia and China leans heavily on abstract ideas of glorious history, national pride and a defiant assertion of superiority to other cultures. They have no monopoly on any of this posturing of course (reference the dis-United States of America), but dependence on it in the absence of institutions actually functioning well is striking.


3. Cities as incubators of change


If you want to change the world, starting with the world is pretty silly. It is too damned big, too many people are going to disagree with you, and most of them won’t care anyway. Probably the best place to experiment with is changing yourself. Changing your family or your partner is a tougher proposition, maybe impossible. On the other hand, if you have a winning style, you might be able to make a Youtube video to draw a thousand enthusiasts, or even start a church.

Is it possible to change a town? On particular issues it has been done. A good mayor with dynamic ideas can work wonders. The main trick is to motivate enough people to work towards some specific, achievable ends. Scaling this sort of thing poses problems. In a small town, everyone knows everyone. As the size of a settlement increases, personal contact becomes less and less viable. Middle-men, representatives, are elected with the supposed function of mediating between local groups of citizens and an institutional bureaucracy. This doesn’t work terribly well. The representatives become self-interested. The citizens have other things to do. Managing the interests of a big population generally means simplifying choices put to the people, even to the point of slogans. The detailed stuff, which is what actually affects outcomes, is too large and too complicated to hold the attention of strangers. People begin to feel helpless, and eventually alienated.

Politics is the art of the possible. What is possible has a lot to do with money, power, influence, compromise and deception, all in varying proportions. Running a country of multiple millions of people is a dilemma for governance to which no very good solution has ever been found. The crudest and most popular solution historically has been some form of tyranny. Various flavours of democracy attempt to find a way through the governance thicket with limited success. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. The tendency quite soon is to wind up pleasing a few special paying friends, and to hell with the rest.

Nevertheless, all nation states are in a condition of constant flux at many levels, from whether the sewerage systems work (India hasn’t managed that one yet) to who is allowed to open a shop without paying protection money (lots of countries haven’t managed that yet). Making a proclamation from the governor’s palace is rarely enough to fix stuff like this. Throwing a billion dollars at an issue nationally might not fix it easily either. Large sums have a habit of winding up in Swiss bank accounts.

With the preceding caveats in mind, a major problem of managing improvement and change is the scale at which it can be attempted. If we look at actual examples around the world, the city is often a unit of size where a new idea can be trialled at a level large enough to test complex challenges, but not large enough to bankrupt a nation or throw it into political turmoil. When Deng Xiaoping wanted to bury the madness of Mao’s mis-governance of China he didn’t just sit in Beijing in 1978 and declare that everything would magically be done in a different way henceforth. He made a southern tour and established Shenzhen as a demonstration experiment for the rest of the country. 

Even without the deliberate selection of a particular city as a demonstration agent of change for a country, this is in fact how countries and cultures “develop” spontaneously. It might be a school, or a factory, or a computer program which shows the way to countless imitators. In the case of countries, they are like large containers where lots of things can be happening simultaneously, some regressive or destructive, some experimental and creative. Making a flying visit to some part of the world and saying that country X is like this or that is meaningless, particularly if country X is large and in a flux of change. China for example, with 20% of the world’s population, is a mass of contradictions. When I first worked in Wuhan in 1998, a city then of about 7 million, the place seemed like a vast rubbish heap of mouldering concrete. But there were a few nice spots, and the residential buildings of the Party leadership were painted at least. Gradually good ideas spread. By the time I left China in 2011 enough apparatchiks had made junket tours to European and American cities to pick up some ideas of town planning, and be embarrassed by the grim vistas of their home towns. Bit by bit, a town here, a city there began to beautify the environment, create some green spaces, make a pedestrian mall … and so on. What goes for park benches goes for business practice, education, and everything else. First a model on a workable scale, then gradual replication.

In so-called mature democracies like Australia there are often complaints about the apparent waste and inefficiencies of multiple levels of government. There is indeed waste and inefficiency. On the other hand, multiple levels of scale – and the city level is critical in this – means that there are multiple entry points for innovation and change. It seems to be a law of human nature that at any given time human stupidity and obstruction will mostly neuter the best intentions. In a monolithic system of governance, the outcome is that overwhelmingly effective adaptation fails to happen. With a jumble of competing levels, none entirely controlling the other, sooner or later some genius will come along and get an elbow into “the system” long enough to actually implement some genuine improvements which have a chance of spreading above and below.  


[more to come]



Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)



Adelaide City Council - website online @ 

Andersen, Michael (October 23, 2015) "What makes cities change? 11 questions for Shin-pei Tsay". People-for-Bikes website online @ 

Baxter, Jennifer and Alan Hayes and Matthew Gray (March 2011) "Families in regional, rural and remote Australia". (Facts Sheet). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies online @

Canberra Times (January 2, 2016) "Cabinet papers: very fast train would threaten Defence sites in the ACT". Canberra Times online @ 

Davies, Alan (April 18, 2012) "What makes our cities special?". [very interesting comments] Crikey [Australia] online @

Ferguson, Adele (March 22 2016) "Massage parlours around the country are being accused of systemic wage fraud ... the latest development in the foreign student and 417 working holiday visa wage exploitation scandal .. With 1.3 million workers on visas, which is equivalent to one in 10 workers, it is undermining the economic fabric of the country, as well as being a violation of human rights... ". Brisbane Times online @

Gillies, Craille Maguire (7 April 2016) "What's the world's loneliest city? In Tokyo, you can rent a cuddle. Loneliness is a health issue in Manchester. And perhaps nobody is as isolated as a migrant worker in Shenzhen. But can we really know what makes a city lonely?" The Guardian online @

Greenfield, Patrick (21 March 2016) "Story of cities #6: how silver turned Potosí into 'the first city of capitalism' - The discovery of a mountain of silver (and a new way to extract it) transformed this remote Incan hamlet into the economic centre of Spain’s empire – larger than London, Milan or Seville. But then the silver ran out …". Guardian online @ 

Hawkes, Helen (16th October 2012) "The great Australian health debate: City vs country living". Sunshine Coast Daily online @

Kaw, Jon Kher  (21 October 2014) "Three questions about India’s “smart cities”.. Weforum blog online @ 

Koutonin, Mawuna (18 March 2016)  "Story of cities #5: Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without trace - With its mathematical layout and earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China, Benin City was one of the best planned cities in the world when London was a place of ‘thievery and murder’. So why is nothing left?" The Guardian online @ 

Lavelle, Peter (06/03/2003) "Country life: a health hazard? - Stressed city folk like to think that rural living is a calmer, healthier alternative. But the facts are otherwise. What's so toxic about country living?" Australian Broadcasting Commission online @    

LeBlanc, Dave (Nov. 19, 2015) "City of Art exhibition asks questions of how we design our cities". The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada) online @

Leitner, Ray (2016) "Unknown 16mm tourist film of Sydney 1940 discovered in a garage sale in San Jose CA". @" 

Long, Heather and Jessica Reed (18 August 2013) "City v country: where's the better place to live? - Big metropolis or big yard? Culture or nature? Heather Long and Jessica Reed debate the merits of urban lifestyle and rural retreat". The Guardian online @

Lowe, Ian (March 23 2016) "50 years after The Lucky Country, Australia's sustainability challenge remains".

Luhn, Alec (23 March 2016) "Story of cities #8: St Petersburg – is the 'city built on bones' starting to crumble?". The Guardian online @

Mann, Emily (22 March 2016) "Story of cities #7: Philadelphia grid marks birth of America's urban dream - William Penn’s city was planned as a utopian ideal; a grid of broad streets to promote green urban living for settlers to this 17th-century colony. While Penn grew disillusioned, his design lives on in Philadelphia, and around the world". The Guardian online @ 

Marozzi, Justin (16 March 2016) "Story of cities #3: the birth of Baghdad was a landmark for world civilisation - The foundation of al-Mansur’s ‘Round City’ in 762 was a glorious milestone in the history of urban design. It developed into the cultural centre of the world". The Guardian online @

Martek, Igor (October 22, 2015) "Short-term political thinking hurts our nation - Big projects such as a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne, benefits the whole country, but our short-term leaders cannot plan long-term infrastructure". Sydney Morning Herald online @ 

May, Thor (2014) "Property and Life Choices". online @

May, Thor (2003) “Dog Days”. [a discourse on the phenomenon of Korean apartment dogs, as opposed to Korean dog-soup-dogs - one of the odder by-products of urbanization]. Thor’s Korea Diary, online @

May, Thor (2000) “The Dialects of Wuhan”. Thor’s Old China Diary, online @

May, Thor (1999) “Foreigners Plant Trees”. [escorted visit for official propaganda to the Chinese city of Huangshi in 1999] Thor’s Old China Diary, online @

May, Thor (1990) "LANGUAGE IN SUVA - Language use and Literacy in an Urban Pacific Community". [extensive research paper] online @

Mourby, Adrian (15 March 2016) "Story of cities #2: Rome wasn't planned in a day … in fact it wasn't planned at all". The Guardian online @

Newman, Peter (March 18, 2016) "‘The 30-minute city’: how do we put the political rhetoric into practice?". The Conversation online @

Reuters (January 19, 2016) "World's richest 1 per cent own more than the other 99 per cent put together: Oxfam". Brisbane Times online @

Shenker, Jack (14 March 2016) "The story of cities, part 1: how Alexandria laid foundations for the modern world". The Guardian online @  

Vu, Huong Lan (06/19/2012) "Wanted: Your questions on challenges and benefits of living in the city". The World Bank online @ 

Wainwright, Oliver (17 March 2016) "Story of cities #4: Beijing and the earliest planning document in history - The seemingly incoherent sprawl of modern Beijing is based on meticulous plans to bind citizens together under imperial rule. Conceived as a means of enforcing social order, the impact of planning remains strong in the city today". The Guardian online @

Ward, Tim (25 February 2016) "Building Safer Cities: 5 Questions for Francis Ghesquiere". Huffington Post online @ 



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


Questoins about Cities  ©Thor May February 2016


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