How Cities Matter: Interview with Richard Harris

To mark the publication of new contributions to our Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History series, we will feature interviews with authors and share short excerpts from their work. Here, series co-editor Tracy Neumann interviews Richard Harris, the author of our first Element, How Cities Matter (2021). Richard Harris is Professor Emeritus at McMaster University and the author of many books, articles, and essays on urban and suburban development. An excerpt of How Cities Matters follows the interview.

Tracy Neumann (TN): I think we have to open with the obvious question: How do cities matter, Richard? (No spoilers, please!)

Richard Harris (RH): Short answer (suitable for subtitle or movie poster): In every way imaginable.

Informative elevator pitch (with spoiler alert): Everywhere, as artificial environments, they enable anonymity and new forms of community, promote efficiency, encourage innovation, pose unique challenges of governance, and bring cultural change, broadly defined.

Long answer: Read the book or, as the publisher prefers to say, the Element.

TN: You were trained as a geographer and call yourself an “honorary historian.” How has this liminal identity influenced your relationship to the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of urban history you discuss in How Cities Matter

RH: It has prodded me to read, think, and write in an interdisciplinary way. As part of my training as a geographer, I read some of the works of social, economic, political, and cultural theorists, as well as historians. Drawn increasingly into history, I learned to appreciate narrative, and (imperfectly) how to construct it. For good or ill, How Cities Matter reflects that diverse background. I think that eclectic thinking is what urbanists need, as much or more than in any other field of research. More obviously than the nation – or the world – cities jumble things together so that everything affects everything else. Anyone with a specialized focus risks missing important contexts. Historians and geographers tend to be aware of that fact, which is why I think both have important things to say about cities.

TN: What made you interested in writing an Element, with its novel format, and who do you hope will read it?

RH: It solved a problem for me. Over the years I’ve read many arguments that urban places do not have distinctive consequences for the way we live, or that such claims apply only to certain types of cities. I’ve always believed that that’s wrong. But have never come across an article or book that makes the whole case. Writing this Element gave me the opportunity to organize my thoughts on the question, which I found very satisfying. The other motivation was of course to try to convince others. I figured that that something short would stand a better chance of being read. And so, although I know this Element is part of a series that is intended primarily for urban historians, I hope that anyone who is interested in cities might read it, and find it thought-provoking. Following the example set by historians, I have tried to write it in an accessible way.

TN: How Cities Matter is one of several projects you took on after “retiring” in 2019. Tell us more about your current and future research projects. What can we expect from you next?

RH: I’m currently immersed in writing a History of Canadian Neighbourhoods, 1880-2020. This, too, is my attempt to make sense of a diverse body of material that has long intrigued me. I am writing for Canadians in general, not just urbanists, and indeed non-Canadians too. I see some of the arguments I’m developing as being relevant elsewhere, most obviously in the United States. Everyone says that, because of greater daily mobility (pre-COVID, that is), neighbourhoods matter less than they used to. That may be true. But in more important ways I believe they matter more. Ask any homeowner with children how they came to choose their home and they will talk about schools and real estate. Education, and homes-as-investments matter more than ever, and so do the neighbourhoods that enhance them. 

TN: The Elements series explores the interconnectedness of the world through the lens of the urban past. What are your favorite texts (classic, recent, or forthcoming) in global urban history?  

RH: For me, two books stand out. The first is Anthony King’s The Bungalow, in which he traces how a house form, and then just a name, travelled from India to Britain and around the world. I’ve always had an interest in housing but initially within a local or at most a national setting. For me, as for many others I believe, King’s book opened a new way of thinking. The second is Carl Nightingale’s Segregationwhich explores how the ideas and practices of enforced segregation travelled, notably between India, South Africa and the United States. This, again, is a subject that has interested me forever – well, at least since my time as an undergrad, which these days feels like forever ago. Like Tony King, Carl made transnational connections that I was only dimly aware of, if at all. Not just that, he showed how those connections mattered to places that I thought I knew something about.

Writing these answers prompts me to reflect that the question that has consistently informed my research – even if I sometimes buried it – is how the built environment affects our lives. It obviously does, but somehow we often manage to overlook the fact. Maybe being cooped up in our homes for the past year or more has made us more conscious of what we have often taken for granted. I’ll drink to that … at my local, as soon as I can. 

How Cities Matter is available in paperback and as an e-Book; the e-book is free to download until July 1.

Join us on June 17, 2021, for the Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History series launch!

Excerpt from How Cities Matter

I was sitting in Peter Goheen’s graduate seminar on urban historical geography when it happened. He had just introduced the idea that only some of the things that happen in cities are truly urban, that is, caused wholly or in part by their urban setting. Doubtless, some of my peers shrugged and began to think of lunch. But for me it marked the slow dawn of a revelation. 

I soon discovered that many writers had dismissed this suggestion as being unfounded. Some said that what appears to be the significance of cities – a word I will often use to denote urban places in general – is in fact the product of other forces, commonly the dynamics of capitalism. Others conceded cities might matter but in different ways, in different places, making generalization impos- sible. And many others reckoned that at one time, perhaps when cities had walls, they might have counted but that that is no longer true. In time, the issue resolved into a question. Apart from the forces that create and work within them, do cities still matter? Put that way, the question answered itself. Of course! Why else would they exist? Why would people cluster together unless they perceived some advantage? And what can we call that advantage other than ‘urban’? The relevant question was no longer whether but how cities matter. This Element is my answer. 

As you can tell, I became a believer. I address myself to those who are curious about the truth but above all to those like my younger self who have not yet asked the right question. At one point, trudging home at dusk through the first snowfall of a Canadian winter, I reflected that this book could turn into a useful but dull bibliographic survey. After all, there is a lot of ground to cover and, as recent surveys and encyclopedias have shown, there is a superabundance of published material on the history of cities (Daunton 2000; Clark 2013; Ewen 2016; Gilfoyle 2019); and so I have tried to make it engaging enough to encourage skeptics to keep turning the (paper or digital) pages. 

Yet why should we care how cities matter? What difference does it make to how we understand our daily lives or, for those of us who are academics, to what we research and how we teach? For the urbanists, and particularly the urban historians who are my first audience, there is surely the matter of intellectual satisfaction. Having an answer to what Manuel Castells (1977) called ‘the urban question’ grounds our scholarly identity, explains our engagement with ‘urban’ organizations, our decision to examine cities and to publish in ‘urban’ journals. Beyond such professional considerations there is the more public argument that, if cities matter, then to understand the world it behooves us to figure out how. 

We owe it to . . . to whom? There are many answers. The most general is “any urban resident who is interested in understanding the places in which they live,” and I hope that this book will appeal to them, too. A more specific audience consists of those who manage and plan cities. Given my own interests, I think of those who wrestle with the challenges of affordable housing. Some argue that residents need higher incomes or easier credit; others that builders must become more efficient, that municipalities should cut red tape, or that homeowners should accept higher-density development. All of these can have merit, but none get at the root of the problem, the high cost of urban land, which arises from the way modern urban housing and land markets work. Among other things, this Element explains what that means. 

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