Monday, January 12, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Three: Why Urbanism Matters

This is the third post in my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  It’s my attempt to connect with new readers who may have an interest in the subject, but feel they don’t yet have the background to partake in the conversation.

In the first post, I gave my reasons for writing this series of posts and noted my modest credentials for the task.  My limited qualifications mean that this Intro may lack the comprehensiveness that other, more experienced urbanists could bring to the job.  But I’ll offer suggestions for reading material in a later post for those who wish to continue their education beyond my stumbling efforts.

In the second post, I tried to come up with a definition of urbanism with which I felt comfortable.  I eventually settled on “The study of and advocacy for built environments and operating systems that allow communities to be fiscally viable and environmentally sustainable.”  I’m not fully comfortable with the words and will likely tweak the definition when I update the Intro for New Years 2016, but I can work with it for this year.

Also in the second post, I covered some of the synonyms for urbanism, giving a stamp of approval to “compact development”, but expressing discomfort with “smart growth”.  (I agree that urbanism is smart, but don’t believe that we urbanists need to define ourselves as smart.  It’s better to let skeptics come to that conclusion on their own, rather than beating them over the head with a word.)

Today, I’ll introduce the reasons why urbanism matters.  It’s a subject on which I’ll touch many times during the remainder of the Intro, but today will lay the groundwork.  I’ll start with the many questions of contemporary land use to which urbanism provides a reasonable response.  From there, I’ll note the common elements in the various forms of urbanism.

Justification: I have a philosophy that, when multiple questions have similar answers, the answer begins to have universal value.  So let’s look at the questions for which urbanism is a possible answer.  (Note: I may have coined some of the urbanism terms below, but they’d all be readily recognized and accepted by proponents.)

How do we create settings in which more people walk, resulting in improved public health, less traffic, and fewer auto emissions?  An answer is walkable urbanism, a form of urbanism that encourages homes and frequent destinations, such as schools, grocery stores, and coffee shops, to be in close proximity and connected with safe routes.

How do we preserve the undeveloped recreational lands surrounding towns?  An answer is greenbelt urbanism, a form of urbanism that focuses on density, allowing towns to grow more upwards and less outwards, protecting the nearby undeveloped land.

How do we preserve nearby farmlands, encouraging the farm-to-table movement and reducing the transportation costs of produce?  An answer is agrarian urbanism, a form of urbanism that, much like greenbelt urbanism, focuses on density, leaving nearby farms safe from encroachment.

With green backdrops known to have beneficial effects on daily life, how do we bring more elements of landscaping into city settings?  An answer is landscape urbanism, an approach that seeks to redefine the relationship between buildings and landscaping, giving a more integral role to landscaped spaces and increasing the areas of landscaping without resulting in sprawl by pushing the buildings upward

How do we address the increasing crisis in municipal budgets?  An answer is fiscal urbanism, reconfiguring towns to support the same tax base with less infrastructure to maintain.

What can we do about the risk of climate change, which may well be driven by carbon emissions?  An answer is environmental urbanism, living in close enough proximity that non-automobile transportation options are viable, reducing carbon emissions.

What if your environmental concerns go deeper than carbon, perhaps including water supply or other essential elements of life?  An answer can be sustainable urbanism, based on the knowledge that people living in closer proximity use fewer resources.

What if your focus is more effective use of transit, with the resulting reduction in energy use and carbon emissions?  An answer can be transit-oriented urbanism, with a focus on effective livable communities near transit stops.

This list may seem exhaustive, but can actually go on longer.  A speaker at CNU 22, the most recent meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism, was concerned about the proliferation of different “urbanisms”, warning us that we were at risk, like many revolutions, of succumbing to internal dissension.  She asked us to remember that all of us were urbanists first, with the various adjectives second.

Until that speech, I’d called myself a “new urbanist”.  I immediately dropped the “new”.

In future Intro posts, I’ll explore the supporting arguments behind some of these urbanist answers.

Key Elements of Urbanism: So urbanism, in its multitude of forms, can address many concerns.  But I’ll note that all of the solutions revolve around two elements.

First, urbanism requires sufficient density to meet community goals, whether financial sustainability, preservation of surrounding countryside, or some combination of multiple goals.  This doesn’t mean that everyone must live in concrete, multi-story bunkers.  Indeed, there’s a place in urbanism for a wide variety of housing options, including single-family homes, as long as the densities are sufficient to meet the community goals.

Second, urbanism requires transportation options, such as walking, biking, or transit, that provide viable alternatives to the automobile.  Cars are still allowed, very much so, but many daily chores should be able to be completed without a car and people who choose to live without a car should be accommodated without unreasonable inconvenience.

In future Intro posts, I’ll explore the forms that density and transportation options can take.

So that leaves me with two paths to follow in future posts, the justifications behind urbanism and the forms that urbanism can take.  For my next post, I’ll tackle the basis behind fiscal urbanism, but I’ll return to both paths several times in future posts.

(Note on the photo: In developing her essential observations on urbanism in the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs noted the value of a neighborhood meeting place, not only for the neighborhood connections but also for its role in maintaining street activity into the evening hours.  The meeting place she could observe from the window of her writing space was the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.  The photo is of the White Horse Tavern in 2010.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment