Cities and the Big Sort

Why do we love cities? One of the main reasons is surely that cities create opportunities to meet many different people, and many different types of people. The notion of a rural-urban cultural dichotomy has existed as long as cities have, and the distinction has always been characterized by the diverse social opportunities that cities offer.

Smaller towns undoubtedly provide more homogenous social climates than cities, partially because of sheer numbers—the fewer the people, the fewer the types—but cities have homogeneity problems of their own. The culprit: a phenomenon author Bill Bishop and the Economist have called the Big Sort. As a society, it seems, we are getting better and better at seeking out those who are most like us and surrounding ourselves with those people.

Kazys Varnelis writes on his blog that “mobility is leading individuals to cluster in communities of other like-minded individuals.” Communication technology, especially the Internet, certainly facilitates this sorting process. The mobility Varnelis describes finds its ultimate expression in the instant communities we form online, and the tools that help us comb through cyberspace allow us to hone in on exactly what we’re trying to find. In short, the Internet allows us to sort ourselves more effectively than cities ever could.

Christopher Alexander managed to get way ahead of this problem in 1977, viewing the Big Sort through the urban lens. In A Pattern Language, he acknowledges the value of some degree of societal sorting: a compromise between the two extremes of ghettoization and uniform heterogeneity, both of which stifle diversity. He calls this compromise the Mosaic of Subcultures and he describes it as follows:

“The metropolis must contain a large number of different subcultures, each one strongly articulated, with its own values sharply delineated, and sharply distinguished from the others. But though these subcultures must be sharp and distinct and separate, they must not be closed; they must be readily accessible to one another, so that a person can move easily from one to another, and can settle in the one which suits him best.” (Alexander 48)

Alexander’s solution makes perfect sense for a physical city, but given the layers of information and digital connectivity that overlay contemporary cities, it may not be so simple anymore. Yes, the Internet lets us move from subculture to subculture more easily than in the past—more easily than in the most vibrant and diverse city—but that same technology lets us ignore other subcultures just as easily. One of the virtues of the physical city is that it forces us to face others in realistic way, unpleasant though the experience may be. As long as this keeps happening, we'll remember how to live amongst those who approach life differently than we do. A true mosaic of subcultures, in other words, is an urban asset worth preserving.

(Photo from Flickr user wenstrom.)

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