Durable Growth

Intro to urbanism, part two: Definitions and synonyms

Streetlight in Greenwich Village

Streetlight in Greenwich Village

This post will continue my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  In my last post, I wrote about my reasons for writing this series of posts, including a desire to provide a step stool for new readers trying to join the urbanist conversation and an interest in consolidating my own thoughts on the subject.  I also provided my credentials, which are modest, along with notes about the syllabus and the duration of the Intro.

I noted an uptick in readership for the last post.  New readers are always welcome.  However, I’ll reiterate a point made in the last post.  If you’re looking for a definitive review of urbanism, there are far better sources.  Here, you’ll get an earnest, but likely idiosyncratic, introduction from a dedicated student of urbanism, but not a leading practitioner.  With that point understood, let’s proceed.

In today’s post, I’ll attempt a definition of urbanism and note a few synonyms, some that I like and some that I don’t.

Definition:  While getting my Masters in Water Resources at Cal, I took a class in hydraulic and estuarine mixing from my faculty adviser.  He was a long-jawed, shock-topped, ruddy-complected Englishman with a laconic, almost languorous way of speaking.  I enjoyed his Mojave-dry sense of irony and wit, but several classmates bridled at his style.

The first day of class, which was taught from the galley proofs of Professor Fischer’s upcoming book, the first textbook that would be devoted solely to hydraulic mixing, Fischer took us through several working definitions of “estuary”, definitions that attempted to distinguish estuaries from the mere widening of rivers before emptying into the sea and from the bays along a coastline.  The definitions relied on physical parameters such as the surface area, tidal action, salinity, and net hydrologic balance.

But Fischer pointed out that every known definition failed on some point.  An estuary that all the experts agreed was an estuary wouldn’t meet some element of the definition.  Nor was anyone able to construct a flaw-proof definition.  As a result, the general agreement became that everyone knew an estuary when they saw one, even if a viable definition remained elusive.

Urbanism is similar.  All of us can look at a downtown filled with multi-story buildings, busy sidewalks, and active storefronts and recognize it as an urban place.  Similarly, we can look at homes on quarter-acre lots without a school or store reachable except by motor vehicle, and recognize it as suburban.  But, although many have tried, a definition of the difference and the dividing line between them remains elusive.

When I began this blog a little more than three years ago, I described its focus as “new urbanism”.  (The use of various adjectives in front of urbanism is a subject on which I’ll touch in my next post.)  As I then viewed the question, “old urbanism” was fixing existing urban places and “new urbanism” was building new urban places.  My complete definitions, copied from the long-ago post, were:

“Urbanism”:  The planning theories and practices to prepare existing metropolitan areas for the 21st century.  The changes to be sought in cities are accommodation to changing business, cultural, and demographic conditions and remediation of wounds inflicted on cities in the 20th century, such as suburban flight, ineffective accommodation of the automobile, and poorly conceived urban policies.

“New Urbanism”:  The planning theories and practices to translate the best aspects of urban life, such as walkability, access to transit, and use of public places, to towns that are increasing need of those features in the 21st century.

They’re not bad definitions and I don’t feel a need to disown them, but probably implied more of a dichotomy than necessary.

More recently, Rik Adamski, a Dallas urbanist and member of the organizing committee for the upcoming annual meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism, tweeted these definitions:

“Urbanism”: A set of timeless principles.

“New Urbanism”: A movement dedicated to applying those principles to contemporary conditions.

Working nicely with the 140-character limit, Adamski retains some of the flavor of my definitions, but erases the dichotomy between old metropolises and new towns.  He also turned new urbanists into advocates, with which I agree.

Then there is the definition in the Wikipedia article on urbanism:

“Urbanism”: The characteristic way of interaction of inhabitants of towns and cities (urban areas) with the built environment.

This one completely turns the equation around, instead focusing on how people relate to their settings, rather than how to provide more salubrious settings.

Overall, it’s a jumble.

But for the purposes of this Intro, I’ll try to build around a single, simple definition:

“Urbanism”: The study of and advocacy for built environments and operating systems that allow communities to be fiscally viable and environmentally sustainable.

Please note that I eliminate all reference to density, transit, walkability, or any of the physical elements typically associated with urban settings.  But by calling for fiscal and environmental sustainability, it will lead us back to those elements.  In essence, I’m retreating a step to check the underpinnings of urbanism.  I don’t have any concerns about those underpinnings, but occasional check-ins are reasonable.

It may be an idiosyncratic definition that I’ll revise when I update this Intro a year from now, but for today, I feel good with it.

Synonyms: While I’ll mostly use “urbanism” in these posts, there are several supposed synonyms that readers may encounter.  The most common is “smart growth”, which is a problematic term for me.

I agree that urbanism is smart.  I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t believe that.  However, I also think that being an urbanist should involve building bridges to those who haven’t yet seen the light.  Starting those conversations with the implied assertion that urbanists are smart and therefore others must be dumb doesn’t seem a good way to lay the foundations for new bridges.

That isn’t to say that those who use the term “smart growth” are bad folks.  Smart Growth America is a fine organization and three of the leading urbanists were induced, with some reluctance, to title a recent book “The Smart Growth Manual”.

But I don’t like the message behind “smart growth” and will generally avoid it.

Another synonym is “compact development”.  While I think it short-changes urbanism by focusing solely on density, at least it doesn’t imply the superiority of “smart growth”.  I’ll use the term on occasion.

Lastly, I occasionally see “urban planning” used as a synonym for “urbanism”.  That usage implies a fundamental misunderstanding.  Urban planners have gone through academic training to learn the nuances of making the pieces of a city fit together well.  They’re professionals and deserve the respect that their dedication has earned.

Conversely, many urbanists are lay people who advocate for urbanist solutions.  They may lack the training of urban planners, but substitute for it with passion and a willingness to learn at least some of the urban planning skills.  Although I’ve occasionally been disappointed, I would hope that all urban planners are urbanists.  But, with myself as an example, I know that not all urbanists are urban planners.

I had hoped to begin exploring the reasons for urbanism in this post, but spent too many words wandering in the thickets of fuzzy definitions and estuarine mixing.  (Although I will note that not all who wander are lost.)  So the justifications for urbanism will be deferred to the next post in the Intro series, which is probably just as well.  The reasons behind urbanism are many, varied, and fascinating, and therefore deserve their own post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

1 comment to Intro to urbanism, part two: Definitions and synonyms

  • I agree with many of your definitions, but not your definition of “urbanism.” Urbanism is one of those fuzzy terms that means several things. Usually when urbanists talk about urbanism, they mean urban environments and the planning and development of urban environments. There can be good urbanism and bad urbanism –it’s not a normative term.

    “Compact” is another fuzzy term that means several things. It is sometimes used as a synonym for density, but I like the mathematical definition: a low perimeter/area ratio. In other words, compactness can be completely independent of gross, net, or perceived density.

    There’s no other word that expresses the idea so simply.

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