Paradigm City

What’s the difference between a hamlet, a village and a town? Or A town and a city? A city and a mega-city? A mega-city and a county?

When people originally said the word “hamlet,” they were actually developing a distinction between religious districts. Hamlets were tiny villages that didn’t have their own churches, and instead you had to go into larger, formal “villages” to pray, which were distinctly called villages because they had their own parishes. Villages were considered patently smaller than “towns” because towns had municipal leadership. There were no mayors in small villages, they were considered more like collectives plus a church or two. Towns also tended to have one or two commercial centers (even if they were open-air markets), where people could congregate. These commercial centers are probably the reason local municipalities were developed in towns instead of villages or hamlets: you need order to maintain safety in the market.

The traditional difference between a town and a city is less distinct though. Appropriately, the term “city” also originally referred to a religious community that was controlled by a Bishop ordained by the King to rule over a borough (although, in old-timey days, the term borough actually meant fort). In other words, cities were the humble abodes of Battle Bishops. Today, we see “boroughs” as only components of the fuller city. When you say things like “downtown” or “going into town,” you’re probably thinking of one of two things though: the economic center of your area (which reflects the original definition of the word town) or the nearby city because it is the economic center. But when you get right down to it, a city is different from a town because it’s much more populated. When we think of towns, we tend to imagine communities no larger than a few thousand people. Cities can be anything from the tens of thousands into the millions. Therein lies the distinction between what we would call a city versus what we’d consider a mega-city: cities can have a population up to 9,999,999 and megacities are 10 million people or more.

So far there are 18 mega-cities in the world, with the largest being greater Tokyo with a population of 34 million people… about 4 million more people than there are living in the entire country of Iraq. And we still feel comfortable calling it a city. Just like Bueno Aires with its measly 3 million residents, or Omaha with its pathetic 440,000.

If you include greater Los Angeles into the mix when you refer to the “city of Los Angeles,” we have about 18 million people living here, and therefore can constitute a megacity. Counties are more interestingly defined though, since they were meant as a way for one local official (a Count, appropriately enough) to rule over a series of towns, villages, hamlets, and whatever else was handed down from their parents. From that definition, we have determined that counties are collections of cities that fall under the jurisdiction of a wider, regional municipality.

What I find interesting about how we consolidate what we name a place, its population and the actual place itself is that we have essentially developed fictitious distinctions for we somehow chose to divide our municipalities based on weird historical paradigms. For example, what dictates that the city of New York has five boroughs, instead of New York being a county and the boroughs each being its own city? The fact that each had their own forts for battle at one point? Who has the right to say that Echo Park isn’t a town when it’s population is half the size of Omaha? In fact, who has the right (knowing that the population of South Los Angeles is almost 521,000) to say that they it isn’t a city unto itself? It’s bigger than the cities of San Bernardino and Irvine combined and somehow still isn’t considered a city!

In some ways, we’ve arbitrarily elevated the positions of politicians—such as our playboy Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or any of our county supervisors—based on almost whimsical understandings of how our community should be organized. Facing a gigantic budgetary shortfall and problems with the misalignment of city department to city services, it would be helpful (I think) to stop for a moment and question the fundamental organization of Los Angeles, it’s villages, boroughs, city and county. Certain economic models may be better fit for a smaller or larger organization based on their needs and roles of the communities inside whatever we call “L.A.” For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District may not need to be its current size in order to run effectively. This may mean that a series of smaller organizations may be better suited to represent (and allocate of funding for) our schools, or it may mean that a much larger and more broadly organized system will be required. Los Angeles Public Works may—as an organization—be better suited to increase its influence and structure throughout the county, similarly to how the Los Angeles County Fire Department did. The Los Angeles Mayor’s office, on the other hand, may be better suited to a smaller domain to limit the expansive scope of the office’s influence.

Dense urban areas, in general, have a lot of good stuff going for them in comparison to smaller, less populated regions. Wages are 30% higher in cities of 1.5 million people or larger, and there is significantly less greenhouse gas emitted per person in urban areas than rural ones. But if we cut to the meat of this argument, cities per se are utterly arbitrary distinctions for urban space. Zipf’s Law in terms of urban planning, discussed recently in the NY Times Economix blog, argues (simply) that the larger a city’s population, the lower the rank will be among all cities. In order words, the largest city in America will twice as many people as the second largest city, and four times as many at the fourth largest city. Although this doesn’t hold entirely true all the time, it’s pretty close if you ever get a chance to see a distribution for populations in similar areas. The city of Los Angeles, with its 4 million residents, is more than twice the size of the second largest city in California, San Diego (which has 1.4 million residents), more than three times bigger than San Jose (which has 1.02 million residents) and more than four times the size of San Francisco (which has roughly 856,000 residents).

But Zipf’s Law is totally contingent on the arbitrary edges of each of these cities. If Los Angeles were physically and municipally cut in half, Zipf’s Law would simply be wrong. And yet, our collective minds have been tricked into thinking that the current dense urban population and municipal organization we deal with every day somehow dictates the limits of our counties, cities, towns, villages or hamlets.

How drastically would things change if we partitioned Los Angeles into halves? Fourths? Twelfths? Or more interestingly, eliminated the city level of government altogether and submitted to a higher, county or regionally-led board of supervisors under the assumption that we’re living in a megacity? I guess that would all depend on which size and scope you would consider the paradigm.