How are cities built and who builds them; Can Cities be entirely self-organizing?

By Mutabazi Sam Stewart

The purpose of this write up is to help clarify the role played by government in city formation and building and to determine whether cities can be entirely self-organizing and self-regulated without any state intervention whatsoever.  To help us get the right answers, we pose thirteen questions (below) which we believe will lead us close to the right answer.

What is a city?

A city is an area where people live in close proximity with each other and have access to better amenities including infrastructure, communication, health care, education etc. A city is a place of business

What a city is not

A city is not any place where people live in large numbers because then, even a concentration camps would pass as a city. A city is mainly defined by modernity and more specifically it’s a built up place where access to goods and services are within easy reach with a heightened business sense.

Who creates a city?

Most cities are created spontaneously by individuals who one by one, chose to work or settle in an area while others keep joining them hence the conurbation getting expanded in time and space. Save for a few areas where governments have built cities from scratch, most cities start as small trading centers before they expand as large cosmopolitan areas.

How is a city created?

A city is created through individual efforts which when aggregated translates into a large area of human activity and settlement.

How is a city sustained?

Though some cities start as self-organizing centers, often times, governments normally come in at some stage to create order and regulate activities so as to achieve coherence in terms of development and better human relations among the residents. There are very few cities where government doesn’t have a role to play save for private cities, in which case they are smaller and often are offshoots of the main city

What makes a city a city?

A place cannot be called a city unless it has people. The basic characteristic of a city therefore are big populations.  Other elements are buildings, roads, schools, hospitals, industries etc. Note that for every element in the city, human beings is the only constant.

How is a city different from a rural area?

Cities have large number of people living and working close to each other while villages may be sparsely populated. The other major difference is that villages have limited infrastructure compared to cities or urban areas.

Where can a city be founded or located?

A city can be positioned in almost any area but majority of them typically avoid mountain tops and hill sides. Most cites are situated either in valleys, flat lands or by the sea and lakeside.

Who is in charge of founding a city?

Most cities in Africa were founded in areas which were centers of slave trade and other trading activities. Later however, cities grow either along major roads or road intersections. Some cities sprung up in areas where there were factories while others near mining areas yet others started on river banks. In almost all cases, there are very few cases where a city is founded by an individual or a few individuals. Most cities grew from “nothing” and kept attracting large numbers of people until they became large urban areas that we know of today.

How long does it take to build a city?

Cities are majorly driven by business. The more the business the factor the city is likely to grow. Secondly the pace of growth of a city is also dependent on how connected to the outside world it is. Cities that are isolated from the other cities tend to experience slower growth that those that have high interactions with the rest of the world. It’s therefore not a surprise that Sea port cities are likely to experience greater growth than those located in the interior. Also, the greater the population the high the rate of growth of the city. Some cities in Europe are more than one hundred years while in Africa it takes an area an average of fifty years to be declared a city.

Who ensures that a city stays a city?

A city can only remain relevant and operational as long as it serves the interests of the people who came into it whether for business or settlement. Cities are like living organisms which must always reinvent themselves if they want to stay active

Are there any cities that are self-organizing?

Most cities tend to be self-organizing at their formative stages but later governments take over in form of guiding the infrastructure set up like issuing building permits and zoning to determine which activity takes place where. However, in most parts of Africa, cities more so in down areas, most activities remain informal with very little government interventions if any. Evidence shows that most self-organizing cities are often disorderly and chaotic as individual interests often override the common interests.

Are there cities that are built exclusively through state guidance?

China has built several cities under the command and guidance of government. The more reason why Chana is one of the fastest urbanizing place on earth and more so in a modern way is that the government has created long term deliberate plans to move people from villages into newly created urban centers with the all basic amenities provided as start up. In Africa, there are very few examples of urban areas exclusively built by the State.

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