What Makes A City Great? An American Perspective

H.V. Savitch attempts to break down the attributes that make a city great, and concludes that a city need not score high in all the categories in order to achieve greatness.
November 8, 2010, 9am PST | H.V. Savitch
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This article is an abbreviated version of an article that first appeared in Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning. This is the first in a series of articles in a collaboration between Cities and Planetizen. You can purchase the full pdf of this article and others, or subscribe to the journal here.

Any effort to explain the meaning of a great city is bound to elicit a multiplicity of responses. Journalists often equate a great city with a "hot city" (an influx of people and capital) or with a "cool city" (the presence of jazz clubs, art festivals, etc). More serious accounts tie the "great city" to desirable outcomes, like the ability to effectively govern or bring about sustainable development. Scholars of the subject sometimes infer that a great city is also a "global city." The concept of a great city has been treated as a further step a "world city" can take toward greatness. Despite the available literature on the "great city" the concept suffers from ambiguity and loose meaning.

The ambiguity in scholarship is matched by the fuzziness of policy makers. Mayors from all kinds of cities aspire to the nomenclature of "greatness" with real effects on policies. When we speak of greatness, we mean that a city holds a certain majesty and prominence. Achieving that status means that a city is extraordinary and distinguished in a number of very important ways. This distinction can be encapsulated in attributes that can be projected across the world. The characteristics can vary from military capacity, to cultural assets, to commercial prowess, to the transcendent propositions of philosophy and religion. Periods of greatness may vary and so too will the attributes that brought a particular city into ascendency. At first glance, it may seem that greatness is a matter of random luck, but in reality we can discern consistent patterns that account for a city's distinct quality.

San Francisco is strong on charisma. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stuck in Customs.

The 4Cs of greatness

One way to envision urban greatness is to comprise it in a simple formulation of the "4Cs", with each "C" respectively standing for currency, cosmopolitanism, concentration and charisma. It is the cumulative impact of the "4Cs" that differentiates a great city from other cities.

As applied here, the idea of currency has a double meaning. On the one hand, currency connotes the value of something and its ability to carry weight in crucial circumstances. On the other hand, currency indicates a city is up to the temper (zeitgeist) of the times. Currency conveys that a city shapes the world by the value and forwardness of its actions.

Cosmopolitanism entails an ability to embrace international, multicultural or polyethnic features. In examining how cosmopolitanism shapes a city we recognize it is not the stock of international elements held within a city, but its flow in and around it. This flow enables people and ideas to circulate throughout urban society. More often than not, the interaction across cultures encourages tolerance, pluralism and an ability to absorb different ways of life.

Concentration is a long-standing feature of cities. As used here, concentration embraces the dual ideas of demographic density and productive mass. Taken together, we might theorize that both high densities and productive mass would lead to the most vibrant cities-first because this kind of city pulsates with human activity all the time and second because it provides material well being for most inhabitants. The controversy over whether great cities can also be sprawled cities makes this attribute all the more important. Accordingly, we put these claims to a modest test by examining development patterns in Los Angeles.

Charisma is an elusive concept because so much of it is based on perception and is commonly evaluated by examining mass attitudes. The image of a city can be an important component of charisma, epitomized in a commanding symbol of one sort or another. Lynch demonstrates how symbols can contribute to the "legibility" of a city, enhance its remembrance and thereby advance a deep seated appeal. To be effective, charisma must be authentic and genuinely reside in the history of a city. Beyond the mere sign of a city's logo is a substantive history which is replete with meaning.

The 4Cs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco

Within the United States four cities stand out as worthy of being considered "great". The selection of cities was determined by consulting surveys and data from three sources that ranked cities by various definitions of importance. New York is an obvious leader and it is followed, in no particular order, by Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. We begin with qualitative, thumbnail accounts of how the 4Cs currently work in these cities.


When we speak of currency, the financial drive of New York is almost unparalleled. Fueled by two large central business districts in Lower and Mid Manhattan, the city stands at the top of the globally connected localities. New York's economic influence extends to the rest of the world for good and bad. The force of New York's boom periods (2004–2007) and its cycles of bust periods (2008–2009) have reverberated around the world.

Los Angeles demonstrates a different kind of currency. In an age where media shapes mass perception, Los Angeles has led the way in its ability to house image makers. Today Los Angeles is one of the highest interconnected cities around the globe and is the second highest technology center in the country.

San Francisco is a city of balance and economic diversification. Its financial district is known as the "Wall Street" of the West. San Francisco is also tied to the high tech industries in nearby Silicon Valley; it is a leading tourist attraction and it has significant linkages to the rest of the world. The city's currency is fed by well established industries in health, bio technology and a bevy of first class universities within commuting distance to the city. These assets put the city at the leading edge of innovation.

Chicago is a city that lifted itself into currency during the last two decades. Through two decades between 1970 and 1990, Chicago lost more than 40% of its industrial jobs and 17% of its population. With a rebuilt and expanded downtown, Chicago attracted white collar employment, major corporate headquarters and a burgeoning tourist industry. Thanks to its airport, Chicago now ranks as an international city and its institutions put the city at the top of the technology ladder.


New York is known as the world's immigrant city and for good reason, but New York's cosmopolitanism goes beyond the contributions of its immigrants. The city is home to the United Nations and hosts large numbers of foreign correspondents and diplomats, diverse religious institutions and exotic street musicians. Add to this an influx of migrants from other parts of the country and the ‘‘coming out" of the Gay population, and we can very well understand why this polyglot city is amongst the most socially liberal in the country.

Los Angeles reflects a very different kind of cosmopolitanism. While it does hold a large immigrant population, the majority is Hispanic. Other immigrants also hail from Asia and parts of the Middle East. That said, the city's cosmopolitanism does not solely hinge on people from other lands, but on large influxes of American citizens from the East, Midwest and South. Its critics see Angelenos as an aggressive lot who despoil the landscape and would do anything to turn a profit. Its defenders view the city as embracing the values of freedom, democracy and upward mobility.

San Francisco achieves its cosmopolitanism in altogether different ways than either New York or Los Angeles. For some San Francisco is a trendy, leftist, Gay and altogether eccentric city; for others it represents a progressive, pluralistic, middle class ideal of urban life. The city is all of this and perhaps more. Nobody describes this social profile better than DeLeon who observes that in San Francisco "Everything is pluribus, nothing is unum. Hyperpluralism reigns. That means mutual tolerance is essential, social learning is inevitable, innovation is likely and democracy is hard work."

Again, Chicago seems to slip in between all of our cities with a little bit of everything. Up through much of the 20th century, Chicago was a gruff place, given to clannishness and corruption. But then the city's social complexion changed. A new generation of well educated, middle class professionals sprung from its ethnic neighborhoods and mixed with newcomers from other parts of the country. While the city retains its neighborhood identity it has loosened up and taken on a "new political culture"-one that is socially liberal, highly mobile, anxious for public amenities and open to the rest of the world.


Manhattan's density of more than 70,000 people per square mile is extraordinary-even by European standards. Even excluding Manhattan, the rest of the New York City's density reaches nearly 24,000 per square mile. Every workday, nearly 1.4 million commuters avail themselves of the city's complex subway system, by far the largest in the country. Manhattan's business districts mix freely with residential use as do business districts in downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica, Queens and Fordham Road in the Bronx. Save for the less populated Staten Island, most of New York is continuously developed. On the other side of the continent, San Francisco is also well packed with an average density of 16,000 people per square mile. San Francisco's mass transit carries more than 120,000 commuters to all parts of the city. The focal points of San Francisco are to be found in its downtown skyscrapers and along its waterfront. Rather than imposing mega structures, San Francisco charms its way into the circle of concentrated cities. Its small shops and distinct neighborhoods are matched by a patch-quilt of more than thirty mixed use, tightly packed communities.

Chicago's average density of 12,750 residents per square mile says much for its concentration, but so too does its exciting new business climate. Underground and elevated rail lines carry more than 100,000 commuters daily. Chicago's architectural heritage has been brought to the fore by additions to its skyline. The downtown is now filled with residential apartment buildings and new neighborhoods have blossomed, forming near continuous stretches of mixed use development.

By the criterion of concentration Los Angeles remains an outlier. Its density of nearly 8000 people per square mile is less than one third of New York's, half of San Francisco's and roughly two thirds of Chicago's. Its downtown is small, non-descript and its neighborhoods of low slung bungalows are in distinct. The city's rail is in a nascent stage of development, carrying just 6000 commuters daily. Angelenos depend upon automobiles and a vast highway system to work, play and socialize. What might appear to be liabilities for some people are celebrated by others, who see Los Angeles as the seat of "postmodernism" where everything is discontinuous and held together by the twin strands of freeways and cyberspace.


If charisma can be contained within symbol, New York has much to offer. It is often identified by a dramatic skyline, whose through song and literature; it has an authentic culture and its characterization as "The Big Apple" conveys an authenticity about the opportunities to be realized in America's largest city. The city's unique culture contributes mightily to its appeal and to the mind set it evokes. New York has few rivals in its ability to lure adventurous youth, ambitious entrepreneurs and avant-gardes artists. Chicago has come to embrace the accolade of America's ‘"second city" because doing so gives it an added advantage. The city has found its identity as the big city that is not New York-more manageable, cleaner and more affordable with a hominess of its own. Its magnificent architecture, its sports teams and its celebration in story have enabled the city to fill the promise of greatness. Corporations move their headquarters to Chicago because its image now allows for a prestigious location and its geography provides the advantage of easy access to anywhere in the world. It is this combination of psychic appeal and practicality that makes the word "second" sound like the best.

San Francisco's appeal is not easily duplicated. Its Victorian housing, Bay location and tapestry of different cultures give the city a special meaning. San Francisco is known as a city that tolerates almost every lifestyle. Indeed, the city's acceptance of what might elsewhere be considered "‘deviant" gives it a special sense of social civility. Much of that civility is refracted in the respect with which San Franciscans treat their environment. This is a city that tore down an ugly elevated highway despite the cries of business. Los Angeles is a city whose charisma can only be described with ambivalence. Recent arrivals will complain about the city's shortage of "character", its paucity of intellectual life and the lack of old bookstores. Yet, Los Angeles does have plenty of devotees. Its sunny weather, beaches and Hollywood glamor provide Los Angeles with enough cache to make it appealing. Its surfeit of privatized spaces allows for a huge variety of tastes, proclivities and adventures. Los Angeles' may have inaugurated a different kind of charisma than is traditionally accepted-all of it made possible by a fast moving, free and open environment.

Chicago gets a lot out it's "Second City" identity. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stuck in Customs.

Conclusions: paths to greatness

Whether we accept that a single large nation can have several great cities or not, we can learn a great deal from trying to identify that phenomenon. For one, within the context of their respective eras great cities have enjoyed a global scope, but the converse does not hold-being a global city does not necessarily qualify it as a great city.

Second, this brief examination raises the issue of whether a great city also requires being a large city. Certainly, great cities have been sizeable and a small city will find it difficult to meet the criteria for all 4Cs. We see this obstacle popping up in the smallest of our cities, San Francisco, especially as it pertains to the weight of its economy (currency). Nevertheless, cities of lesser size can be quite high on charisma and even achieve greatness.

Third, we should consider that a city does not have to be at the very pinnacle of every attribute to be great. It does however have to be prominent on enough counts to claim greatness. Chicago demonstrates that a city can distinguish itself by finding a niche position. Chicago is our only city not to achieve the first rank on any attribute. Notwithstanding that shortcoming, Chicago attained distinction by consistently staying near the top in every attribute and coupling that standing to a unique identity. Fourth, Los Angeles is instructive for understanding what greatness might look like in the 21st century. The issue is all the more important because unlike the 19th century inspiration behind New York, Chicago and San Francisco, Los Angeles is a product of the 20th century. The truth of the matter is that Los Angeles is neither conventionally "concentrated" nor classically "sprawled" but rather a hybrid. Over the past 40 years, its densities have increased by 49%. Unlike other cities whose population drifted into rural land, newcomers to Los Angeles have chosen established neighborhoods. There is something both new and unusual about this trend. Compared to traditional cities that grew from the center outward, Los Angeles demonstrates an inverted pattern of growing from the periphery back toward an in-filling of its core.

Last, we should recognize that most cities will not achieve greatness nor should they endeavor to do so. Only handfuls are capable of achieving greatness. While this may seem self evident, many smaller cities in the United States and elsewhere continue to mimic those at the top. It is not uncommon to see this imitation in new convention halls that lay vacant, airports that are relabeled as "international" hubs but have very few overseas flights; and designer buildings that pop through lonely skylines.

Our brief exercise should teach policy makers that greatness is a rarity, to be admired but not necessarily copied. Attempting to emulate the impossible can be corrupting and wasteful. Better for a city to be what it is and aspire to be the best regional center or best small town than pretend to be what it is not. Knowing a city's potential, appreciating it and making the most of it is every bit as valuable.

H.V. Savitch, PhD is the Brown and Williamson Distinguished Research Professor at the School of Urban & Public Affairs at the University of Louisville.

This article was edited for length in this forum. The full article includes a quantitative comparison of these four cities, and is available in Vol. 27 of Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning.

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