Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

Understanding Cities through Metaphors

Written by Max Muller

Although I have never been to an Alicia Keys concert, I imagine it must go something like this: first you excitedly wait in line, eagerly waiting for the moment you’re allowed to enter the sold-out stadium. After you and your friends have found your seats, you share some food and thoughts on her latest album. Then, the lights fade. The buzzing noise of chatting people immediately follows suit. A few seconds later, a roar from the crowd breaks the silence: she has arrived. You sing and dance your heart out to her classics, including “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No one”. You get a sore throat and you’re exhausted from the intense experience. And yet… something is missing. Until you realize she has saved her best song for the finale: “Empire State of Mind (Part II)”:

“Baby, I’m from…

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothing you can’t do”

You finally find closure, as she has put the cherry on the cake.

Well, at least that’s how I imagine the experience. To me, that’s her best song. Her beautiful voice and talented piano playing notwithstanding, there is another element of the song that appeals to me. It’s the lyrics: they’re clever. The comparison of New York with a “concrete jungle” strikes me as particularly insightful.

Transformations of Meaning

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote their now seminal book Metaphors We Live By. Until their work, the role of metaphors in philosophy and linguistics had only been deemed of peripheral interest. Lakoff and Johnson made huge swathes of people realize that metaphors are not just stylistic devices to spice up a mediocre novel. They showed, on the contrary, that they’re essential ingredients for people to concoct an overarching view of reality. In other words: people largely understand the world through metaphors.

Consider, for instance, the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This conception of arguments or discussions is deeply entrenched in our understanding of the concept. Our language betrays it. For us it is completely natural to say things like:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.

Chances are you haven’t even realized that we use ideas from wars to metaphorically speak about arguments. Moreover, Lakoff and Johnson point out that we do not just talk about arguments in terms of war. We actually win and lose arguments. The idea of war thus gives us an indispensable tool that allows us to understand the concept of having an argument.

Throughout their book (which I heartily recommend) they give countless other examples of metaphors we use to grapple with complex phenomena, including IDEAS ARE RESOURCES (“he ran out of ideas”, “don’t waste your thoughts on useless projects”), LOVE IS MADNESS (“I’m crazy about her”, “she drives me out of my mind”), and SEEING IS TOUCHING (“I can’t take my eyes off him”, “he wants everything within reach of his eyes”).

Perhaps that is why Alicia Keys’ lyrics stuck with me. Though I sympathize with her fondness for New York in particular, I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to view all cities as forests, or, within an even wider perspective, ecosystems.

Let’s confine ourselves a bit and stick with the metaphor CITIES ARE JUNGLES. Obviously, the buildings are trees in this regard. It is perhaps for this reason that the English expression “to climb up the stairs” exists. In addition, hints of organic perceptions of cities can be found in sentences like “these are the world’s fastest-growing cities” and “Beijing is expanding rapidly”.

The process of incoming and outgoing commuters bears some similarity to the rhythmic movements of lungs filling and releasing air. Just like photosynthesizing trees that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, the buildings of the city can breathe people in and out. Antonio Gaudi’s “La Sagrada Familia”, a church that seems to have grown organically from the ground upwards, epitomizes this conception of buildings.

Illustration by David Fleck, 1972

Baucis, the tree city from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” , as illustrated by David Fleck. The motif of the city as a forest also appears in Calvino’s book “The Baron in the Trees.”

Modern man has thus linguistically incorporated cities as a natural place to live, just like early humans discovered that they could find a safe haven away from the savanna and into the forest. The trees provided shelter against the rain and their height proved very useful for evading predators. The higher and bigger the tree, the more protection it could provide.

Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth, points out that one can tell what’s informing society by what the tallest building is. In medieval towns, it was the cathedral. In an 18th century town, it was the political palace. Whereas in modern cities, the tallest buildings are the office buildings. We attach great significance to our centers of economic life. This is consistent with the cultural value “Bigger is Better”, which in turn is coherent with Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphor GOOD IS UP (“we hit a peak last year, but it’s been downhill ever since”, “he does high-quality work”).

Another metaphor that pervades our languages and myths is that of Mother Nature. Thus we undoubtedly attribute nature with feminine characteristics. It is a bringer of life. The ancient Greeks, who coined the term “metropolis”, highlighted the nurturing character of cities as forests in particular. The word is a combination of the words mḗtēr (mother) and pólis (city). From their perspective, the city lied at the very heart of the origins of life. Since then, cities have only become more and more important. Nowadays, more than half of the world’s population consists of urban dwellers.

If cities are so important to us, it is perhaps not so surprising that the CITIES ARE JUNGLES metaphor is not the only one that has entered our collective subconscious. Concepts that are at once important to us and difficult to understand require multiple ways of viewing them.

This is because when we focus on one aspect of the concept, we necessarily leave out or ignore many others. Take love, for instance. Not only do we take the above-mentioned metaphor LOVE IS MADNESS into consideration when we speak and think about it. We also have the metaphors LOVE IS A PATIENT (“they have a healthy marriage”) and LOVE IS MAGIC (“she cast her spell over me”) in our mental repertoire. These other metaphors enable us to look at and think about love from different angles.

Berlin is, like, a pretty cool guy

So where does that leave us with regards to our beloved cities? Again, Lakoff and Johnson provide us with a hint, as they explain that personification is a widely employed metaphorical device. We could say, for instance, “his theory explained to me how tidal movements work”. In this case, the theory of tidal movements is personified. We conceptualize the theory as a person, or perhaps more specifically as a teacher.

Cities, too, are seen as people. Each of them has its own, distinct personality. Evidence of this is found in the adjectives to describe them. We use words such as “charming”, “rebellious”, “enterprising”, and “endearing” to speak about them. In turn, they reveal how we think of these places.  

Who wouldn’t agree with me that Amsterdam is a rebellious, free-spirited, slightly scruffy but also strong, experienced, and battle-hardened guy with a mustache? He’s a man of extremes: both a party-person and a sophisticated art-lover, at once a rich business man and a poor, single father with a kid.

On the other hand we have Chartres, the medieval French town with the beautiful cathedral. She is more of a charming woman with long, brown hair and an elegant ocher dress. Whereas Amsterdam is tall and heroic, Chartres is petite and endearing. If Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant, Chartres is calm and composed.

Of course, cities are often too big to be described as having monolithic personalities. Amsterdam, for instance, is composed of a mosaic of different neighborhoods, each with its own personality traits. Amsterdam Zuid is old, rich, cultured, and of high stature. But Noord is more like the Wild West: adventurous, enterprising and experimental.

Some neighborhoods harbor multiple personalities. As a result of the quick gentrification process, the Pijp is hip, upcoming, and expensive. Its trendy restaurants and cafés act as magnets to young urban professionals hailing from all over the country. But it used to be the true Amsterdammers who lived there.

A glimpse of Amsterdam’s topographically
distributed personality types, by Nomad List

A while ago, I saw the words “Alle yuppen de Pijp uit!” (“All yuppies – young, urban professionals – should leave the Pijp!”) sprayed on a wall on the Albert Cuyp market. Viewed from a metaphorical perspective, the words signified a clash of personalities to me. It was also an expression of frustration about what kind of personality or image the neighborhood ought to have.

I hope this description of metaphors gives you some insight in the way we perceive our cities, and that it can aid you as a conceptual tool for greater understanding of all sorts of things. Considering cities in particular, we might wonder where the branches of the trees are in cities, if they are jungles. And if they are people, how do they relate to one another? How do their personalities change? Are there any other metaphors that characterize cities? I leave these questions for you to answer.

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