The ‘City’ and the ‘city’


In a recent Facebook exchange, a rural friend noted that an article I shared referred only to city government. Why couldn’t the emerging principles for an innovative city apply also to rural areas too? She reminded me that I work with two distinct meanings for the word “city”. Here’s how I use them.

The “City”, with a capital ‘C’, is the municipal corporation. It is our city government that fulfils the role of civic governance, looking after the things we collectively have an interest in, such as the city’s physical infrastructure, social and cultural programs, and support for economic development. The City, as we know it, collects resources (taxes) from property owners and provides us services in return. This role of civic manager is different from three other roles in the city: the citizens, the business community and community society. (For more on these four roles, visit my post on Marilyn Hamilton’s four integral city voices).

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

The “City” is the upper right quadrant, with a focus on the needs of the “city”, with a small ‘c’, which is the whole thing, the economic, social and physical habitat we make for ourselves. Here’s a metaphor I use to make the distinction: the City is the brain, the city is the body. They are not the same thing.

Here’s another distinction. While the City is defined by a boundary, its jurisdiction, the city has no such boundary. Yes, we can discern the difference between urban areas and rural areas, but it isn’t about what is or is not the other. They come together; they are intertwined, inextricably in relationship. The city does not exist without the rural, and the rural does not (mostly) exist without the city. The energy the city needs comes mostly from rural areas (food, fuel, for example), and rural residents are in constant relationship with cities. The exchanges are numerous: economic, technological, educational, cultural and health. There are very few people who have no connection to a city.

Cities are the result of human effort, not simply urban human effort. Cities belong to all of us. Those who live in them and those who do not.

So back to my friend’s Facebook query. The article was by Sacromento Mayor Kevin Johnson, naming three emerging roles for City government: open source leadership, City government as the ultimate service provider, and to be the hubs of innovation for the ‘Next’ economy. For Mayor Johnson, cities 3.0 are driving the revitalization of the nation. There is, however, no reason why any level or size of local government could benefit from his insight. His message is for small cities and large cities. Small municipal governments or large municipal governments. For all the parts of a city and its region, for no city stands alone.

Mayor Johnson’s real message though, is for Cities to rethink how they engage with the other three voices of the city. There’s no need to wait for other orders of government to get involved. Just get things going on the ground.

And guess what – that’s where you are.


My invitation to you, whether you live in the city or a rural area:

  1. Notice the interconnections, everywhere, between the city and its region. Where do you fit into this web?
  2. Notice the boundaries between the City/rural relationship. Where are the boundaries helpful, not helpful, to the city and its region as a whole?



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