Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What is urbanism?

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." 

Further poking prompts more questions than answers: is "urban" a proper adjective for "city" even though many city districts are as suburban in their physical makeup as those outside the city boundary? Is it appropriate for a mayor to proclaim his city's "urban renaissance" as he cuts a ribbon for a new strip mall? Is it fair to blame the excessive consumption of land and resources on "urban sprawl" when by definition it is suburbs, not urbs, that sprawl? How should we categorize Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston that is politically a city, that is physically predominated by single-family houses and strip malls, but that also has within it thirteen quasi-urban villages? And what can we conclude of a person living in Boston's Back Bay—an urban neighborhood by probably everyone's definition—who drives thirty miles every day to a job in suburban Westborough? Is she an urbanite or a suburbanite? If she took a new job in downtown Worcester, would that change anything? Wouldn't she, despite structuring her life around two urban places, be living a life that is dynamically suburban?

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 living.

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.