Wirth’s (1938) piece is a seminal text on defining and conceptualizing urbanism as described through the social consequences of three factors: density, size and heterogeneity—three seemingly interrelated elements he keeps separate in order to differentiate among consequences.
Numbers alone cannot distinguish a city from the rural, but the clear distinction of larger amounts of people produces secondary rather than primary contacts. That is, relationships that are “impersonal,” “superficial,” transitory” and formalized through associations. This places a premium on efficiency and utility and gives the corporation advantage over individual business owners. Interests are better heard through representation. In more densely populated areas, a large number of divergent personalities and modes of life on one hand may lead to a toleration of differences but it also leads to a more competitive spirit and increased loneliness in neighborhoods that lack sentimental and emotional ties. Heterogeneity in cities associates with social stratification, which creates a different framework for societies than a more homogeneous neighborhood. Rapid turnover in these societies places a premium on novelty, performance, inventiveness, but also favors mass production, standardization of processes and products and perhaps mass appeals through propagandistic techniques. Essentially, urbanism leads to fewer ‘true’ ties amongst people and weaker interpersonal communication.
Gans (1961) focuses on similarities and differences among contemporary settlement types: the inner city, and the outer city and suburb. He draws in other important variables like income and education to explain these different areas to question Wirth’s three factors. Gans favors distinction among outer city and suburb from the inner city. He places large import on characteristics of individuals (class or where they are in their ‘life-cycle stage,’ such as child-rearing) and factors that place less agency on the individual (such as political, economic and social processes that influence where people reside). Gans does not place much import on the physical differences between city and suburb (for instance, is driving to the drugstore so different from walking to the cornerstore?). Ecological concepts of physicality cannot solely explain humans and their environment. Institutional and social processes or human interactions are also important factors.