The Evolving Notion of “City Center”
The notion of city is morphing, including how it is structured and how it functions as a center of commerce.
As they have done down through the ages, cities today are continuing to evolve. They are developing new forms of society and methods of commerce by weaving people and digital technology into dynamic systems not tied to a particular locale. These new forms are sociotechnological ecologies that enhance people and their livelihoods by collectively untethering them from geography and time zones. The emerging Information Age cities, while being part of a common human social trajectory, are quite different from cities of the past. Their birth will bring many advantages, together with many adventurous and complex challenges.
William J. Mitchell, the late MIT architect and urban theorist, spent many years of his career exploring this complex and, at times, radical shift in the nature and operations of cities. He dreamt of what Information Age cities can be, as well as what they need to be. After his passing, the NY Times described him as critically reflecting upon and envisioning “how the relationships between humans and their social environments were undergoing a fundamental transformation in an era of wireless digital information, with limitless possibilities for making new connections and sharing information.”
For quite some time, cities have been a key subject of study. But the advent of globalization, the increasing economic interdependence among nations, shifts in global marketplace dynamics, population growth in developing nations, the world-wide migration of people seeking work, and global climate change and resource sustainability issues are making “city science” a critical area of research.
Human, social and organizational behaviors are changing with regard to how people form societies, how they communicate with each other, and how they live and work together in cities. Thus, older forms of social gathering and urban development are no longer adequate to meet the needs of citizens, business entrepreneurship, and commerce. As evidenced by the emergence of smart cities, digital technology is playing a central role in both shaping the “cityscape” and making urban areas meaningful, sustainable living environments.
In the past, cities were characterized as physical places—points or geographic locations—where people came together. Fundamentally they were viewed as locations where individuals settled—made their home and work life, engaged with each other, and formed recognizable societies where people could prosper. Cities had marketplaces. In varying degrees, they were hubs of economic activity.
Urban areas had “civic centers.” The town square, “the downtown,” and/or the central business district were all considered hallmarks, and essential elements, of what it meant to be a city. But today these geographic elements are becoming less essential. In some ways Facebook has become the “new town square” where people meet, and LinkedIn has become the “new workplace or career networking commons” for professionals.
Even more than in past generations, today’s markets are dynamic networks of people who join and participate. As the Cluetrain Manifesto states: “markets are conversations.” Markets are not merely “demographic sectors” or impersonal profiles of people.
Shaska Sassen portray’s today’s cities as “linked” members of intricate, ever evolving, global networks. Cities, particularly their marketplaces and business districts, are not solitary entities but vibrant pulsating interdependent civic and commercial systems. She points out:
“Centrality remains a key feature of today’s economy. But there is no longer a simple straightforward relation between centrality and such geographic entities as the downtown, or central business district (CBD)…Today, partly as a result of new technologies, the spatial correlates of the center can assume several geographic forms, ranging from the CBD to a new global grid of cities” (Emphasis added).
Today organizations, residing and being active in the above global social grid, are distributed systems with virtual dimensions, inter-organizational electronic information and collaboration networks, global workforces, and supply chains. A “city center” can now extend “into a metropolitan area in the form of a grid of nodes of intense business activity.”
City centers can also be “transterritorial” in nature. Marketplaces no longer have to be merely local “places” that people visit to purchase items or services. Nor does a business have to be solely a physical location in a particular part of town. A city’s CBD and “marketplace” can exist within digital networks comprised of and fueled by the CBDs and marketplaces of other cities. Such human commerce networks are made possible and able to thrive due to various forms of digital technology, including social media and organizational collaborative platforms.
So, in this type of city and marketplace, what does it mean to be “centrally located”?
One possible answer is to understand centrality as being at the “nexus of commerce activity,” the hub of the network where many critical systems converge and interact. When trying to understand centrality from this vantage point, some critical aspects related to “prominence in the commerce system” to keep in mind are:
- Position (in the network or grid),
- Accessibility to civic communities, businesses, vendors, customers, etc.,
- Role in the network, and
- Leveraging the other members in the grid or network and one’s relationship with them.
Lastly, being collaborative can also be a vital aspect of this new conception of the city-as-living-center. Such an approach seeks to make the system work for all, not just for oneself or a few. This helps to ensure the mutual benefit for all stakeholders and the health of the overall commerce system upon which all depend for success and livelihood.