There are several conversations going on that consider the growth and decline of cities given their changing function in a Covid world. Such as why live in a city if I only have to travel to the company office once or twice a week? To understand what is meant by urban needs to be defined and situated in the cognate subject of economics. 

Reference to the Urban is discussed in disciplines of human geography and social science as relating to the phenomenon in towns and cities. The traditional concept of a town or city is a freestanding built-up area with a service core with a sufficient number and variety of shops and services. A city also has administrative, commercial, educational, entertainment and other social and civic functions.

With regards to connectivity a city will generally have a local network of roads and other means of transport as a focus of the area, and it is also a place drawing people for services and employment from surrounding areas. For a town, its definition is in being a human settlement that is bigger than a village but smaller than a city.  The size of a town is relative depending on the country in question as the geographic size of a town in the US for instance, could similarly be of equal size as a city in the UK.

Often it is the administrative area that defines a town, for the UK it could be defined by whether it is administered by a borough or town council. However, Sometimes the boundary lay well beyond the town’s built-up area and included tracts of rural countryside. More often towns lay within the built-up area and so included only part of the totality of the urban area.

Cities have equal confusion in their definition and need further clarification and sub categorisation to understand its make-up. Firstly a city might simply be the historical core municipality (local authority area), such as the city of Chicago. Secondly, a city could be one of many cities (or municipalities) that make up a metropolitan area that can too be described as an urban area.  For example, the Paris metropolitan area has 1,300 cities, the New York metropolitan area more than 700 cities and the St. Louis metropolitan area nearly 400 cities.

Focus on urban analysis can be more on urban areas rather than metropolitan areas.  The difference being that the metropolitan area tends to consider an entire labour market, whereas the urban area will describe an area of continuous urban development (or an agglomeration or urban footprint) that is almost never a single municipality. To make further definition, an urban area can also take the form of ‘conurbation’ when two or more urban areas grow together, as has occurred in Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto or the Washington and Baltimore urban areas, which are converging into a single urban area.

The urban area also contains key components of the central city, the urban core, and the suburbs.  The central city or core city is viewed as the place (or metropolitan area) that emerged historically as the most prominent in the urban area.  As an example New York City is the prominent historical central city of the New York urban area.  The urban core, as another element of the urban area, it can contain the inner city and includes adjacent municipalities that developed during the same period as the core.  Examples include, L’Hospitalet as a part of the urban core of the Barcelona urban area, and Cambridge as a part of the core of the Boston urban area core.

The suburbs are also part of the urban area that is under discussion here, and they are seen as part of the continuous urbanisation that extends beyond the core city. To illustrate with a London example, Epsom would be a suburb that is within the urban area as it is a municipality that is outside the Greater London Authority but inside the greenbelt.

In considering these traditional components of a city, Chinese cities (as the word is translated) use slightly alternative layering of geography to denote its associated urban area.  These layers tend to take form conceptually at provincial level (e.g. Shanghai, Beijing), sub-provincial level or prefectural level.  Prefectural levels are where there has been a provincial or autonomous regional subdivision. To highlight prefectural level connection to city status in China, out of approximately 333 prefectural level subdivisions, around 283 are cities.

There are, however, at least three other approaches to defining an urban area.

  1. It may be defined either in terms of the built-up area (the bricks and mortar approach)
  2. It may be defined in terms of the areas for which it provides services and facilities – the functional area. The functional area may embrace not only the built-up area but also freestanding settlements outside the urban area together with tracts of the surrounding countryside if the population in these surrounding areas depends on the urban centre for services and employment.
  3. A third method is to use density (either of population or of buildings) as an indicator of urbanisation. However, implementation of any of these approaches involves some arbitrary decisions in drawing up boundaries because, in practice, towns tend to merge physically and functionally with neighbouring towns and their hinterlands.

Urban areas, can also be defined on the basis of land use that is irreversibly urban in character. For instance, ‘urban land’ can comprise several land use features.  For instance, urban land can contain:

  • Permanent structures and the land on which they are situated (built-up site)
  • Transportation corridors (such as roads, railways and canals) which have built-up sites on one or both sides, or which link up built-up sites which are less than X metres apart
  • Transportation features such as airport and operational airfields, railway yards, motorway service areas and car parks
  • Mine buildings (but mineral workings and quarries are excluded)
  • Any area completely surrounded by built-up sites (Areas such as playing fields and golf courses are excluded unless they are completely surrounded by built-up sites)

Quite clearly, there’s more to what we mean by ‘the urban’ nature of our places.