Yesterday I found myself thinking about the second of the two words at the head of this blog. Should it have read "Hudson Urbanist" instead of "Hudson Urbanism?" That small change might have granted me the freedom to write here about what interests me on a given day—baseball, politics, life minutia, and so on—instead of fixating solely on the urban condition. I didn't settle that debate, but my musings 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 widespread misuse of it.
Consider the U.S. Census Bureau's report that 81 percent of Americans live in urban areas. This piece of data (datum?) places the cul-de-sac-dwelling, automobile dependent suburbanite in the same category as the sidewalk pounding Brooklynite. I have to think this makes the fight against the environmental and social ravages of suburban sprawl ever more difficult and diffuse. Geographers, sociologists, historians, and others concerned with broad patterns of societal development make the same conflation: when they compare modern societies to ancient or tribal societies, they place a label of "urban" on those having water and sewer infrastructures, formal governments, advanced methods of goods production and distribution, and so on. They lump the suburb with the "urb."
Such questions point to two things we need to do if we are to realize more sustainable, more local, and more urban ways of building and
living. One, we need to define urban and suburban in a way that clearly
and concisely differentiates their physical characters.
To this end I offer the following: Urbanism is high-density mixed uses, and
suburbanism is low-density segregated uses. It doesn't matter if a settlement is within a city or not; its actual makeup is what counts in this categorization. There remains a finer
grain to explore, but this distinction covers more ground more effectively
than anything I have come across in thirty years of study.
Two, we need to go beyond physical definitions and reinstill the dynamic realities that support urban
places. As our Back Bay friend demonstrates, one can "live suburban" in
an urban place. This largely negates the point of urbanism. Yet the distinction is often lost on the urban planning establishment, which easily defaults to accommodating a suburban social order within a
facsimile of urbanism, rather than foster urbanism as a way of
This will not do. It is not enough for citizens to establish residence
in an urban place while chasing around the region to fill
their life needs. Nor is it acceptable, as is so often the case, for residents of urban
neighborhoods to insist that their neighborhoods not change—that they not grow denser or birth new businesses. It is not enough to preserve existing urban environments; one must support those policies, practices, and processes that foster greater
density and more mixed uses, and thereby more local living.
Because this is what urbanism is.