Monday, August 18, 2014

What is urbanism?

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."

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? What should we make of Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston that is politically a city, that is physically predominated by single-family houses and strip malls, but that 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 daily 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 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 physical facsimile of urbanism, rather than foster urbanism as a way of life.

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.

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