las vegas at night

The answer to what a city is seems so clear to many of us until, much like the cities themselves, we begin taking a look at their edges. The difference between a town and a city isn’t clear and there is no universally agreed upon definition of where that line can be drawn. Sure, local governments often define cities, towns, villages and the like for legal purposes that are locally subjective.

What constitutes a city is also a question that comes up every year in The Best City To Visit Travel Tournament. So it seems an appropriate time to take a look at this question in depth and find out if you’re in a town or city and whether it matters at all.

quito from aboveLet’s Eliminate Features You May Think Make A City But Do Not

You may think cities requires certain features to be called cities. Maybe an airport or big buildings – a large population perhaps? The problem with that is many major cities around the world don’t have airports within their government-defined limits. Washington D.C. has 3 servicing the local area but none actually within the District of Columbia. Technically speaking, Stockholm, Johannesburg, and Tokyo don’t either. Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport is within the city limits but occasionally planes smack into the mountain it sits on, so it’s being replaced later this year to 20km further out in Tababela.

dublin street statueCity Sizes Feel Bigger In Our Minds

Fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, Samuel Arbesman (I highly recommend following him on Twitter) says our concept of city sizes are very localized. That is, we tend to compare cities to only others in the same country.

“Kansas City would be the second-largest city in France. Similarly, many European cities that we think of being incredibly important and central to global affairs are not as large as they feature in our minds. Dublin, Amsterdam, and Brussels are all smaller than Cleveland, for example… Did you know, for instance, that the unoccupied section of Detroit is actually the size of the entire city of San Francisco.” [The Atlantic Cities]

Population, too, doesn’t seem to mean much when you consider that Brecksville, Ohio with its 13,000 residents, is officially a city according to the state government.

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Where Does The Word City Come From And Why Governments Bother Defining It

The word “city” in English comes from the French word, cite, dating back to the 13th century. It basically meant a large town and didn’t bother distinguishing what large was – other than there might be a cathedral in nearby. For urban anthropologists, who focus their studies on city environments, their definition roughly is: a relatively large, permanent, human settlement with economic and social ties that form a community which has dependent, smaller communities surrounding it. (Sometimes those smaller communities are simply absorbed like Georgetown was into Washington D.C. in 1895.)

That’s a pretty vague but intuitive definition of a city as you can see. But governments generally don’t like being vague when it comes to taxes, legal disputes, or security forces. Therein lies the reason many governments bother defining differences between towns, cities, townships, and others.

gustav II adolf statue gothenburg swedenShow Me Your Cities Baby

Some countries have very specific requirements for the legal status of city (e.g. Romania), some are based primarily on population (many states of the US), and some countries have gotten rid of the distinction between city and town altogether like Sweden and France. (Polish, Urdu, and Dutch are a few that don’t even have different words for them in their languages.) Governments primarily make the distinction to determine administrative, economic, and legal jurisdiction.

In many countries, cities get less government financial aide and their local governments taxed more heavily than ‘towns’ (it’s not uncommon for towns in the UK for example to resist being given “city” status for this reason).

Technically in Turkey for example, Fethiye is not a “city” but rather a town (of 80,000 people) in the district of Mugla. (As Turkeys For Life points out, Fethiye is actually larger than Mugla; which only has a population of 60,000.) This legal set up means the Fethiye local government, for most matters, has to go through Mugla if they want funds for larger projects.

Such distinctions also help some governments decide who gets to build what road where, where you can smoke, and whose jail you’re going into if you break the law.

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Recognizing It’s Pretty Subjective And Doesn’t Stop There

Of course all of this confusion which stems from the English language (or the French if you want to blame them for the word) that describes human settlements that aren’t ever clear cut. And, as I came across on Everything Everywhere’s Monday Links, the confusion about borders doesn’t stop at cities…or countries for that matter.

In the end, the lines we draw on maps are arbitrary, whether they’re around cities, towns, or continents. Much like the Inuits have multiple words for snow, some cultures have multiple words for town…and city happens to be one of them.