From Hudson Urbanism
Yesterday I found myself wondering if I should have called this blog "Hudson Urbanist" instead of "Hudson Urbanism." The former might have granted me the freedom to occasionally write about things not directly concerned with the urban condition—baseball, politics, life minutia, and whatever interests me on a given day. I might take such license anyway; in any event, my internal dialogue got me thinking about the word "urban" and the extent to which America's urban problem—or is it our suburban problem?—is exacerbated by misuse of the term.
Consider the U.S. Census Bureau's report that 81 percent of Americans
now live in urban areas. This important example of who-America-is data
places the cul-de-sac-dwelling, automobile-dependent suburbanite in the
same category as the sidewalk pounding Brooklynite. I can't help but
think this makes the fight against the environmental and social ravages
of suburban sprawl ever more difficult and diffuse. Similar conflations
are found among geographers, sociologists, historians, and others
concerned with broad trends in human development. In their comparisons
of modern societies to ancient or tribal societies, they typically place
the "urban" label on those with water and sewer infrastructures, formal
governments, advanced methods of goods production and distribution, and
so on. Again, they lump the suburb with the "urb."
Such questions point to two things we need to do if we are to attain
more sustainable, and necessarily more urban, ways of building and
living. One, we need to define urban and suburban in a way that clearly
and concisely identifies and differentiates their physical characters.
To this end I offer this: Urbanism is high-density mixed uses, and
suburbanism is low-density segregated uses. While there remains a finer
grain to explore, this distinction covers more ground more effectively
than anything I have come across in more than twenty years of study.
Two, we need to go beyond physical definitions and begin working to
reinstill the dynamic realities that underlie the physical form of urban
places. As our Back Bay friend demonstrates, one can "live suburban" in
an urban place, which negates the point of urbanism. And not to push
this point too far or paint too broadly, but I often think that the
primary, unrecognized goal of the urban planning establishment over the
past several decades has been to accommodate large numbers of such
individuals—to support a suburban social order within a physical
facsimile of urbanism, rather than to promote urbanism as a way of
This will not do. It is not enough for citizens to establish residence
in an urban place while continuing to chase around the region to fill
their life needs. It is not acceptable for residents of an urban
neighborhood to oppose their neighbors opening new businesses if those
businesses would make that place more urban. It is not enough to fight
for the preservation of existing urban environments in their current
state; one must support those policies and practices that will lead to
greater density and more mixed uses, and thereby more local living.
Because this is what urbanism is.