word wars: urbanism, urban

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


18 Responses to word wars: urbanism, urban

  1. Eric Fischer January 5, 2014 at 11:43 pm #

    I was just in a conversation earlier today about the “urban fantasy” literary genre (meaning paranormal romance) vs. “urban fiction” (meaning by African-American authors). There just aren’t enough good words to go around.
    I think “inner city” is the traditional term for the walkable part of a city, but it’s been too loaded for too long to be usable any more.

  2. Rob January 6, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Connecting this post with your last one (which I’ve been hoping to find a quiet minute to chime in on), the thing that’s made me less comfortable with “urbanism” lately has been what I perceive to be an attempt to make density into a wedge issue politically, and to suggest that neighborhood advocates are all on the other side (it’s the urbanists vs the NIMBYs, where neighborhood advocates find themselves cornered). Those who think density should fit with the neighborhood context are I placed in the “anti-urbanist” camp in this world view. I agree with you that urbanism is a fine word by itself; it’s the determination to make everything divisive and dualistic that is bothering me about it lately.

  3. Morgan Wick January 6, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    “Urban fantasy” is *supposed* to refer to fantasy set in a modern setting as opposed to more Tolkienian invented settings that tend to espouse a more rural, Middle Ages context, but the fact that Twilight, which is set in a Utah woman who’s never been on the Olympic Peninsula in her life’s idea of what Forks, Washington is like, can be placed in that category suggests the insufficiency of the term.
    I think a lot of urbanist advocates claim to want to create neighborhoods, but if the existing neighborhood context consists of single-family homes or is otherwise insufficiently dense they will tend to reject it, classifying it as “really” being suburban in character, not a real city. Any “watering-down” of density is unacceptable in their view. I agree with the point Jarrett’s trying to make, but he needs to take care that it doesn’t become a no-true-Scotsman fallacy.

  4. EngineerScotty January 6, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    Urban legend? 🙂

  5. Herb January 6, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

    “Urban” is a general word implying all things “city” as opposed to “suburban” and “rural” with plenty of gradations, so it requires modifiers or explanations.
    “Urbanism” could mean, “people who care about sustainable cities and the livability of dense cities in particular.” It could also mean “people interested in densification, building tall buildings with narrow sidewalks.” We know what “fascism” is because fascists defined it. But there’s no one, identifiable creed of urbanism.
    “Urbanist,” on the other hand seems to mean someone interested in creating cities or who studies cities, but is another word too general to have a specific meaning. It’s probably better to start of saying what you mean by a word rather than assuming everyone is one the same page, or paragraph.

  6. Alan Davies January 6, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    In Australia, we routinely use the term “city” to refer to an entire metropolitan area, not just the central county. The metropolitan area is also referred to as the “urbanised area”. If I say “Sydney”, others assume I’m referring to the entire urbanised area, not just the inner city. So a term like “urbanism” naturally relates to settlements, big and small, but not just to the older, denser inner parts around the CBD.
    I don’t think there are many here who seriously feel this convention “denies them the language to talk about dense and walkable areas as something different from suburbs”. For example, the term “new urbanism” is just one of a number of ways of differentiating and conveying those sentiments and aspirations, just as terms like “new left” did in the past.
    In any event, “new urbanism” conveys a bundle of values and prescriptions that define a certain stance and are contested. They’re potentially applicable, moreover, to the whole metro area, not just the inner city. That’s a good thing; but it’s better to leave a generic term like “urbanism” as value-free as possible.

  7. Jeff Wegerson January 6, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

    As for defending the concept of urbanism, I personally am not afraid to insert a hyphen where it belongs. Since the best defense is often a good offense, and the best offensive is often subtle, a subtle reminder of your roots can not be beaten. Of course, sub-urban written out hyphenated like that is anything but subtle in and of itself, so one must construct a milieu such that when it is finally sprung on your reader it seems actually natural and proper.
    I do not fault those who abandoned the city during those times of willful neglect by those Jarrett rightfully calls imperialists. It gave those who stayed and were later joined by the children of those who left a chance to grow the culture of urbanism in a denser supportive medium. Our successes are now attractive. So attractive that we find ourselves needing to be able to inform, and to inform we need clear vocabulary. We need to inform sub-urbanites who wish to move to the city, of course.
    For me urbanism is a written culture. I rarely get a chance to speak it. I can only imagine the subtle jolt one might experience on hearing suburban pronounced sub-urban. Again proper use of this now charged word is important. We do not want to imply that anyone personally is inferior or lacking. It was this concern that no one feel slighted that caused the purveyors of the concept to push the “b” away so as to disappear the notion of “sub.” “Sa-Berben” now had the dual effect of disappearing the other concept as well. “Urban” became “burban” as if it were an intoxicant. And to disappear ideas of urbanism even further there was the shorthand of “burbs,” as in “Oh we live in the burbs.” It’s a process of alienation that we can now to some extent counteract with a judicious use of a hyphen.

  8. Simon Vallée January 6, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

    “Urbanism” does wear many coats for me.
    I use “Urbanism” in general to mean the study of the creation and organization of inhabited areas. I don’t only include “inner cities”, but also suburbs and small towns in this.
    Then, I also describe many “urbanisms”, which are sets of ideas and principles, or sometimes even practices without underlying ideas, about how inhabited areas should be built. To me, the car-centric suburban sprawl is the result of a form of urbanism, just one that cares mainly about separating people so as to give them privacy and the ability to choose when and with whom to interact (the anti-social agenda of Le Corbusier and his modernist ilk, about eliminating shared public spaces in favor of private bubbles: isolated apartments, isolated offices and isolated cars to link them together), and about facilitating car travel at any cost, even if it makes all other modes of transport useless by doing so.
    I have to admit sometimes using the term “urbanist” to mean people who have thought about “Urbanism” and have adopted a specific approach, an “urbanism”, that is based on creating communities based on walking, transit and shared public spaces, an interconnected inhabited area (whether it be city, small town or even suburb). But even by my criteria, that’s an abuse of the term the way I use it.
    Still, I think that it’s important to name all approaches to city-building “urbanism”. If you reserve the word “urbanism” only to the ones in favor of walkable cities, the impression you give is that these people, and these people alone, are ideologues, whereas the supporters of sprawl are painted as pragmatists who care more about people than about ethereal ideas. By calling the sprawl a form of “urbanism”, I want to draw the curtains back on the fact that at the basis of it are assumptions about the way that cities must be built that are just as ideological as anything else, maybe even more ideological and dogmatic. I want to show that there is no neutral approach to “Urbanism”, even the status quo involves decisions to perpetuate ways of doing things that have consequences for the way we live.

  9. Alan Davies January 7, 2014 at 1:14 am #

    Good sense from Witold Rybczynski on urbanist buzzwords, esp ‘placemaking’:

  10. Transit Riding Transit Planner January 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    I’m partial to the word “walkable.” I find that almost everyone knows what it means automatically, even if they’ve never heard those syllables put together that way before. It is pretty direct in saying what it means and, while not 100% objective, is far less subjective than terms like “smart growth.” It captures the concerns of the active transportation set, the good urban design/place making/new urbanist set, transit advocates (walkability is a prerequisite for a good transit city), and compact development/preserving open space types. Lastly, it is not as alienating to suburbanites. Almost everyone can imagine the place they live could be improved by becoming more “walkable.”

  11. Rob January 8, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    I like “walkable”. But you can make suburban and lower density areas walkable, and to many the term urbanist connotes significant density, parking reductions, and maybe limits to the power of neighborhood groups and steady reductions in auto mobility. I think it’s one of those words (like sustainable) that lots of people use believing they share a common definition when in fact different people attach very different meanings to it.
    I’ve occasionally used the term anarchism to mean “replacing state and corporate power with individual responsibility and agreement” and the term faith to mean “remembering what you know you care about even when you don’t feel it” – but these are musings about what I’d like those words to mean. If I try to use those words as I define them I know most people i talk with will get a very different message than the one I’m intending. So if I care about communicating I try to avoid terms that different people attach different meanings to. For now, I think urbanist falls in that category.

  12. Phil January 8, 2014 at 3:12 am #

    Which war are you talking about Jarret? Do you mean pre-war or pre-Model T?

  13. Chris January 8, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    The UK statistical agency (the ONS) has recently replace its use of ‘Urban Area’ with ‘Built-up Area’, presumably to reflect the fact that a lot of the areas it was including were not particularly urban, but do have buildings in them.
    Of course its possible to have inner city areas that are urban, dense but not very walk-able, so we might still need more than just ‘urban’ anyway.

  14. Jase January 9, 2014 at 1:04 am #

    Reading these comments, sounds like nobody knows what urban/urbanism means to everyone else.
    In the early decades of a field of thought it’s probably terrific to feel unified, present a unified front. But as the field matures better words will be needed or else “urbanists” will spend their time fighting about what is and isn’t urbanism, just like feminists and feminism.

  15. Miles Bader January 10, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    It seems like there’s a similar problem with the word “suburb.”
    Does it mean simply a community which is just outside a city and subordinate to it (has a large commuter flow into the city, people often go into the city for major shopping and activities, etc), or does it mean a low-density car-dependent American-style postwar suburb?
    The former type of area can also be dense and walkable with good transit, but if you say you live in a suburb, people will often think of the latter…

  16. Geoffrey Clifton January 12, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    Metropolitan is not an appropriate word for contiguous built up areas. The term metropolitan is used to refer to the built up area and the non-built up areas that are adjacent to and influenced by the built up area (i.e. through commuting and the provision of services).

  17. D January 13, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    Much of the talk is about a noun for the theory or advocacy of some kinds of places (urbanism), and an adjective for such places (urban).
    The adjective in Jarrett’s sense, “walkable, dense, gridded, and pre-war,” might be too exclusive. Just walkable might do. There are great urban neighborhoods that lack grids or density. The Mouffetard neighborhood in Paris and the old part of Aix-en-Provence retain their rabbit-warren medieval street networks. I don’t know of better examples of urban neighborhoods. There are still countless villages and small towns throughout Europe that are still compact and walkable, even when they lack great density. Some of them retain the street network of walled cities. The grid is one method for creating great urban environments, but lacking a grid is not a problem with a rich, well-connected network.
    Why not create a new word, like “urbs?” “Cities” has too much baggage denoting jurisdiction or population size. Urbs could include villages, towns, and big cities as long as they are walkable. An urb need not be dense when it lacks large population, but it needs to grow in density as it increases in population. Walkable places scale up through density.

  18. DTM January 14, 2014 at 6:22 am #

    There is at least a third definition in the “fight”, hinted at in some of the comments above: urbanism as referring specifically to the form of development, without being restricted by definition to areas within the political boundaries of large central cities. Given this definition, “suburbs” and “towns” located outside those boundaries may be more or less urban, and slogans like, “Future suburban developments should be more urban” make sense.
    What is the argument for this third definition? First, it is less arbitrary. For example, whether “dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war” neighborhoods fall within or rather outside the political boundaries of a given central city is dependent on things like local and state annexation/consolidation policies, as for that matter are whether many low-density, autocentric, post-WWII neighborhoods fall within those political boundaries. While the relative size and reach of the central municipal unit within a large metropolitan area is an independently interesting policy issue, it is not (I believe) what discussions about urbanism are really about.
    Second, it gives urbanism relevance outside of the sharply limited geographic areas located within the existing central cities’ political boundaries. This is really quite important because even if there is a dramatic and sustained shift in population and development trends, it will still be the case that a very large percentage of future growth and development will occur somewhere outside those boundaries, and it would not be conducive to good policy outcomes if urbanism, simply by definition, had nothing to say about how that development occurs.
    Finally, in a related point, restricting urbanism to the political boundaries of large central cities also means restricting the political constituency for urbanist policies to the residents of large central cities. That can be a poor political strategy given the number of relevant policy decisions that are made at higher levels of government (county, metro, state, federal, and so on), particularly when you consider the first point above (that some central cities have not annexed/consolidated nearly as much of the local pre-WWII core area as others, and therefore contain a much lower percentage of their metro’s population).
    For that last reason alone, this is an extremely serious issue. If you are an urbanist who happens to live within the political boundaries of your local central city, and particularly if your local central city has been relative expansive, you may not immediately see why this matters. But you really will be alienating a very large number of potential allies if you insist that true urbanism cannot happen outside of such political boundaries, enough such that within many counties, metros, states, and in fact nationally, you would be making urbanists into a permanent political minority by definition.