The City That’s Not a City

Article first appeared in Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic #6.

What do you call a city that’s not a city?

No idea.

But the label isn’t really what matters. What does a city that’s not a city look like? That’s where it gets interesting.

The settlement of cities is one of the primary traits that distinguishes a civilization from other forms of societal structuring, like a band or a tribe. And if we’re looking to move past civilization (which is the core theme of my column), we’d better take a closer look at cities themselves.

My dictionary told me that a city is a large town. That didn’t do me much good, so I turned to town: “an urban area that has a name, defined boundaries, and local government….” And immediately, a lot of the problems with cities are apparent.

Government is an easy one for me to dismiss: I’m an anarchist. I don’t believe in “the State” or what is traditionally construed as government. I don’t like the idea of one central body that makes all the decisions. And I don’t like being told that all I get to do is pick the person who makes the decisions for me. I’m much more interested in community and individual self-governance. There’s that old cliche: democracy is two sheep and three wolves deciding what to have for dinner. Well, at least that’s a cliche in the circles I run in.

There’s a lot of information out there, if you’re curious, about anarchism and horizontalism and ideas like that, so I won’t get too into that stuff here.

My second problem with the city, as defined by my computer’s New Oxford American Dictionary, is its “defined boundaries.” Definied boundaries are, if you ask me, one of the most emblematic pathologies of civilization. A mountain range doesn’t have a defined boundary, it has foothills. A storm doesn’t have a defined boundary. And neither does my gender.

Labels can be useful as descriptors, but it’s a pretty crap idea to define oneself or one’s environs into “defined boundaries.” Besides being essentially untrue (boundaries are always more permeable or outright illusory than we give them credit for), they lead to all sorts of horrors, like nationalism. For example: I’m a vegan. I don’t feel defined by this, but it’s the most convenient way to describe the way I eat. I don’t have any nationalistic feelings about veganism. I don’t care what you eat, not really. I just hate animal agriculture and want to have nothing to do with it.

So cities have governments and defined boundaries. Count me out.

Anti-civilization theorist Derrick Jensen chose to define cities (and I paraphrase) as people living in such density as to require the routine importation of resources. His problem with this is that when a society requires the routine importation of resources, trade is well and good until there’s a shortage and the other group doesn’t want to trade. Then you’ve got war.

I’ll throw this third element in as what we ought not let our urban areas continue to be.

But we can’t abandon urbanization. It would be utterly ecocidal. The human population of the earth being what it is, we need most people living in high densities so that we can minimize the footprint of each individual.

And honestly, I like living in the city. Well, I like living in lots of cities, but that’s because I’m nomadic. I also love the wilds, but if I want the wilds to exist, I know that I need the cities to exist too.

Cities have long been a locus of the multiculturalism that makes our world so interesting. They’re where ideas and peoples foment and intersect.

Now, to be honest, I don’t really have a problem with continuing to just call urban areas “cities” and just change what we mean when we say that word. It could be argued that the same could be said of “civilization,” actually, and just change what it means to be “civilized,” but my personal opinion is that the word civilization is just too drenched in blood to salvage. And why do we need a word to represent “the society that is considered most advanced”? I’m not so interested in this whole “linear progress” thing. But I digress.

The Non-City

So if we don’t want government, defined borders, or the routine importation of resource (all features of most cities up to this point in time), let’s just ditch those things and figure out something more interesting, useful, and liberatory.

The more I learn about tribes, as distinguished from bands or civilizations, the more the system appeals to me. I used to think that a tribe was sort of an enlarged family unit, a homogenous group that one was born into and only escaped perhaps through marriage or isolation. Turns out I was probably wrong.

As near as I can figure my anthropology, tribes are heterogenous with fluid boundaries. People and ideas move between tribes in ways that nation states would never allow.

The way I like to see a city without its government or boundaries is a geography shared by a large number of overlapping tribes (or cultures, if you will).

And this is largely what cities have always been, right beneath the veneer of homogeny that the government encourages in the populace. Cities change drastically, block to block, building to building, even room to room! My experience of New York City (or Amsterdam, or anywhere I’ve lived) is a totally different experience than someone else who walk the same streets but hangs with a different crowd. Besides some shared resources, like the subway, we might as well be in different cities.

There are a number of alternatives to top-down government that have been proposed (and often tested to good results, though unfortunately the State has a tendency to reimpose itself by force). I personally like the idea of a federation of the tribes (or cliques, or cultures, or, hell, trade-unions if you’re into that sort of thing) that comes together to make the decisions that affect the whole of the urbanized population.

Some folks have asked me what decentralization on such a scale would mean for specialized trades that depend on such a complex web of industry, like space exploration. My suggestion is that everyone is going to have different priorities. The people who want to be involved in space travel can be involved in space travel. If enough gardeners and the like want to support the degree of deep specialization involved in a field, they would be free to do so.

Personally, I think that anyone interested in space exploration has a long way to go to prove that such a program can ever be ecologically sustainable, but I don’t put it past people to figure out a way how at some point. One fiction book, in fact, discusses this very thing: in My Journey With Aristotle To The Anarchist Utopia by Graham Purchase, we are introduced to our bioregionalist, trade-federated space pioneers working on bioplastic satellites. Wingnutty? Of course. All the most interesting ideas are.


The profit motive, capitalism, needs to be replaced with a sustainability motive. I challenge anyone who’s now thinking “nurr… capitalism and profit and selfishness are a biologically-predetermined part of human nature” to go out and read some anthropology and biology before reading the rest of this magazine. Pay particular note to how the study of cooperation as an evolutionary impulse is given increased credence in biology today.

Now, sustainability is a biologically-predetermined priority for us as humans. That is to say, the survival of ourselves and our species is dependent on reaching a balance with our environment. It really is do or die.

Finding sustainability within urban areas is a particular challenge, but one that is already being met by the agricultural pioneers of vertical farming, hydroponics, and permacultured systems. It’s been argued that agriculture (well, monoculture, really) is what got us humans into this civilization nonsense in the first place, but these more thought-out techniques might save us from much of the horrors of mass-scale farming.

Can we grow enough food in urban environments to avoid the routine importation of resources? Sure, why not? We have rooftops and we’ve got floor after floor of sunny rooms in skyscrapers. We have an unfathomable amount of vertical space as well.

The vegetables and fruits will be easy. The cereals and proteins will be more difficult, but certainly not beyond us to figure out.

Much of what it takes to be sustainable is actually made easier by human density: rather than setting up every small household with its own compost (for food and human waste both, although of course shit needs its own treatment), every apartment building can pool its resources. Well-designed (or organically designed, for that matter) urban areas don’t require individuals to have cars. Most of the city is within walking distance, and there can always be public transportation.

The Urban Wild

The city can be as wild a place as the forest. Buildings come and go as their use demands, outside of central planning. Organic growth and decay all take place, and biodiversity is actually quite high in large city. The city, or non-city or whatever, can easily be the home of the rewilded humans, the post-civilized.

2 thoughts on “The City That’s Not a City”

  1. “What do you call [it]…what does [it] look like?” One question suggests at most a phrase, and the answer to the second question could last… a blog post or more. Both ideas could claim to mean, what is its essence? There’s more than these two answers, spanning a lot of territory in between No Idea and Getting Interesting.

    In length an answer could be a haiku, a paragraph, a caption to a photo of an interesting urb-scape on Earthnow, a Craigslist ad, a query letter, a list of demands, an application for a new city charter, an invitation to an occupation, or a plot of a short story.

    It sounds like we’re talking about “F,F, and WS 2moro” (PK) extended at suburban destiny over most non-polar land area?

  2. I’ve got to admit, I don’t understand everything you’ve written, but if you’re talking about suburban human density spread over the entire globe, then absolutely not. I’m talking about higher densities of people spaced out with large amounts of wilderness.

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