A City is Nothing (Without Its People) – Final Draft

Reading through “Walking in the City” by Michel de Certeau is much like walking through a big city: there are tall columns everywhere with small spaces in between, unexpected roadblocks, and lots of signs telling me where to go, but getting to the point of the final destination is a bit tricky and may require a map. In the essay, Certeau analyzes urban life by walking through it and using this perspective, rather than one from a view atop of a high building in the city, to speculate what makes a city, a city.


He seems to be criticizing city planners for their lack of perspective on urban life: they are forgetting the origins and reasons for the practices they are implementing in the city. They have a “god-like view” of the city, but they are not the ones that write the “urban text.” For the city planner’s part, a “concept-city” is abstract. The “progressive symbiosis” is what links the actual city with its concept: to plan a city, he says, “is to know how to articulate it and be able to do it” (94). So not only does there need to be a plan, there needs to be a plan of action and the know-how to carry it out. They are not living the urban life, only setting it up. Adding homes and walkways and, especially for Pittsburgh’s abundance of hills, lots of steps for others to use to navigate the city. It is the people of the city, the walkers, who make the city a living, functioning thing. They create the “urban text,” though they do not have to power to “read” it.

There seems to be a contradiction between what the city is supposed to represent and what the city really reflects. Or what the intentions originally were for setting up a society and how society really functions. What was life like before civil society was established, he asks. “The city,” he says is like a proper name: a way of summing up a “finite number of stable, insolatable, and interconnected properties” (94). In other words, the city, like an individual person, is made up of many different parts that work together. If the little parts are not functioning together, if there is too much deviance from the established system, the city (or person for that matter) will cease to exist or at the very least fall into decay. Mass movements of people through the city is what creates the “urban text” that de Certeau talks about. Each person’s individual differences, added together, create a collage or a patchwork quilt that make up the city. These individual differences of course can be physical, but they can also include opinions and viewpoints. The city is basically a gathering place: for different people, things, and ideas. For different perspectives.

As I mentioned above, we can look at a city as a representation: either of its people, as I’m assuming de Certeau would prefer to do, or of the city planner’s intentions or dreams for the city. A city can be planned out, changed, and accommodated until it’s reached near perfection, but according to de Certeau, is still nothing. When I try to think of this I picture a vast city that’s completely empty: no sign of people ever living there. It’s either very clean or reaching the point where nature has almost completely reclaimed the land the city sits on. It’s nothing. It serves no purpose. It doesn’t matter what it was intended for, what it was supposed to represent. Without people, it serves no function. Without people, it might as well not even exist.


As I checked and rechecked my map that is de Certeau’s essay, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is trying to say that a city is basically nothing without its people. Buildings would remain empty without people. Streets would be empty and useless. What purpose would a traffic light serve? Aaron Naparstek’s interactive infographic helps to illustrate this: the street of the future is a liveable street. Things we take for granted like dedicated bus lanes and curb extensions, why are they there? For people, of course. A city that recognizes that people make the city what it is makes these additions to their streets for the benefit of those people. They want those people to stay so the city can continue to thrive and grow.

The city itself does not make use of its space; the people make use of its space. They create functions for the space: the buildings, the streets, the subway tunnels. “City space” is only defined by walkers in the space, otherwise it’s nothing. We can think of literally anything this way: what is a thing? It’s nothing until given a name. And that name then gives it a meaning and we’re able to describe it. (And sometimes the name changes). To be something requires that we have a basis language for naming, describing, and therefore giving meaning to, things. What is the Earth floating around in? Outer space, the universe, etc. Names and meanings created by people. Once again, we come back to the idea that a city is nothing without the people that live and work and walk there.


Mostly what I’ve taken from this essay is that the world is literally what we make of it. We create “things.” We create cities and make them serve us some kind of function. We use streets to navigate the city to the building where we’ll sit in an office and maybe look out a window at the city. Whatever our opinion about the city, or whatever we use it for—home, work, school, vacation—defines it for us.  As a Pitt student, I’m constantly using crosswalks and obeying traffic lights. I make use of public transportation to get to and from downtown for my internship. And I previously took this for granted. City planners want people like me to use these things; keeping order where there would otherwise be chaos (especially with Pittsburgh traffic). Going forward, I’ll pay more attention to these little details when I’m doing my research. It’s not always the big things that hold the most importance, not to say Pittsburgh’s green projects aren’t significant. But these little details make a big difference, too. And how the people of the city feel about these projects and details is now on my list of important things to consider for my project. I’ll keep the idea that a city is for its people in the back of my mind and use that perspective.

I’m now seeing a city like a bee hive: it wouldn’t exist without the bees to make it, but it also would be useless without the bees, too. Like a bee hive full of bees, a city is bustling with people that give the city, the city space, a purpose. I’ll probably never think of a city as simply existing ever again. It takes people to plan it, but it also takes people to keep it alive.

Information: Michel de Certeau “Walking in the City”

Image Sources: animationinsider.com; citysilhouettes.com; city-data.com; shutterstock.com


One thought on “A City is Nothing (Without Its People) – Final Draft

  1. Noel January 22, 2015 / 11:18 am

    Erin, this is a beautifully written and well articulated critique of De Certeau’s book chapter. Kudos to you—”Walking in the City” isn’t an easy piece to parse. I have only a few small revision suggestions:

    First, I love the graphics that you include, but because so much of “Walking in the City” and your response, by extension, are about mapping through movement, graphics that play around with these ideas of mapping, pedestrian traffic, and purpose (as in, the people giving purpose to the city) would really enrich your text. They could be inserted into your text or hyperlinked. If you poke around online, you’ll find a lot of interesting infographics and experimental maps exploring these ideas. For instance, I did a quick search and found this interactive graphic which speaks to the way that people give purpose to the city, keeping it alive (and thus evolving): http://magazine.good.is/infographics/the-street-of-the-future-is-a-livable-street. A couple other places to check out: Eric Fischer’s flickr page (he makes some neat maps of where people go in cities based on social media data): https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/sets/, and Amazing Maps (which you can also follow on Twitter): http://amazing-maps.tumblr.com/. You’ll have to slightly tweak some of your paragraphs to remark on the things that you decide to present to us.

    Second—and this is basically an extension of suggestion #1—I would like to see you use hyperlinks throughout this post. Seek a few opportunities to branch out into what the internet has to offer in terms of what you’re thinking about, and link your text to a few different sites.

    Third, the only question I have for this piece is how we can think about “Walking in the City” in relation to the work and living that we do in Pittsburgh. Towards the end of your response, try to speak more specifically about what your response—the conclusions that you have drawn from “Walking in the City”—might have to do with Pittsburgh. Has de Certeau changed your experience of Pittsburgh at all? Going forward, how might de Certeau inform your project?

    When you submit your final draft, you can either edit and rename this post, or delete it. Great work! I really enjoyed reading this.


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