The Atlantic Cities staff have done a nice year-end piece on Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014. In the next few days I'll do quick posts on them all.
Amusingly, the Atlantic's title for its Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014 uses one of the ten words it's questioning, a good sign of how hard buzzwords are to unwind. But they took on that problem as #1:
Urbanism: At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and-ism, meaning a "distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement," a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it's frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues (shouldn't that be urbanology?) or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning. -Sommer Mathis
Like the Atlantic Cities crowd, I use urbanist routinely to mean "people who care about sustainable cities and the livability of dense cities in particular. " I haven't found another good word for this, and on reflection, I think urbanism deserves a vigorous defense.
Here are three questions to ask about a word, if you're suspicious of it:
- Is it trying too hard to please me? (Or: Is it trying to sell me something?)
- Does it say what it means?
- Is it easily misunderstood? (Ask especially, "what opposites does it suggest?")
Sometimes we have no choice but to use a word that fails on some of these points, but if we want to help people think, we should resist those that fail on most or all (see "Smart Growth".)
As Mathis concedes, Urbanism seems to approximate its meaning fairly well, and it seems to be referring more than selling or flattering us. What's more, it's a word worth fighting for because urban is a word with fighting for, and the fight is on between two definitions of that word:
- As including the suburbs, i.e. "the opposite of rural." This meaning shows up in the term urban area and in numerous social-science and statistical categories. It's also implied by the term urban sprawl. This meaning, I will suggest, is not helpful and a source of confusion. It could even be called hegemonic or imperialist in a sense I'll outline below.
- As distinct from suburban, as well as from rural. This sense of urban refers to the generally pre-war dense and walkable parts of cities. Urbanism, to the extent it's about both promoting those places and fostering similar new places, tracks this meaning, and needs to insist on this meaning.1 The history of the word suburban — whose Latin roots imply separation from the urban — is also on the side of this meaning.
Why be dogmatic on this point? Does a dull bureaucratic term like urban area really constitute threat to the thriving walkable inner cities? Yes, for this reason: It prevents people who care about dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities from saying what they mean. It prevents me, in many reports, from saying urban and forces me to find ways to say "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities" over and over.
This is not a two-way street. Insisting on the second meaning does not make it impossible to discuss the first, "urban area" meaning. There is still a perfectly good word for that: metropolitan, metro area, etc.. Talk about metro areas, metro area mobility, and there's no problem.
As anyone who's explored the language dimension of civil rights history can tell you, dominant cultures routinely co-opt and corrupt the words that the minority needs to think about itself and its situation.
Not suprisingly, the Texas Transportation Institute, whose "Urban Mobility Report" is a study of inconvenience to motorists, uses urban in the first, imperialist sense: as referring to an entire metro area and denying us the language to talk about dense and walkable areas as something different from suburbs. But again, if we concede that meaning, what word is left to mean "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of cities"?
City, as you've noticed, experiences similar tension, as any patch of development, at any density, can decide to call itself a city. Ultimately, it's the same battle, because in practical language urban has become the adjectival form of the noun city. So it is the same struggle.
That's why I like urbanist. It's not just saying what it means, it's helping to fight for the word urban, without which people who care about walkable cities simply can't talk about them, and be understood.
1African-American uses of the word urban, as in "urban music" and "National Urban League," also deserve credit for holding this original sense of urban. There are likely other threads I'm not thinking of.