Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is There Such a Thing as Bad Urbanism?

Early in my “Intro to Urbanism” series, I offered a definition of urbanism that focused on the positive aspects of good urbanism, specifically energy conservation and municipal finances.  But even as I did so, I had misgivings about how to describe undesirable urban results like degrading housing, sterile condominiums in the sky, garages without street appeal, and dank pedestrian underpasses.  If urbanism is only good, how do we describe bad solutions in urban settings?

A Vibrant Bay Area reader had the same response, “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.” 

I don’t fully agree with everything he writes.  I’d argue that it’s urban planners who focus on “the planning and development of urban environment”.  I’d argue instead that urbanists talk about how to plan and to develop the urban environment better than we might have done previously, often through an emphasis on development aspects that proven successful.  Urbanism isn’t solely about development in urban places, but about good development in urban places.

But even with that caveat, the reader makes a good point, and one that forces me to update my definition of urbanism.  And it must become a dual definition.  My current thinking is that urbanism is:

(1) The study, promotion, and implementation of development concepts for settings that are significantly denser in residential, working, and commercial opportunities than rural or suburban locations.

(2) The advocacy of concepts for (1) that meet beneficial goals such as improved walkability, reduced energy consumption, stronger social networks, more stable municipal finances, or other identified positive outcomes.

The editorial position of this blog falls squarely into (2).

Some may wonder about using “urbanism” in two senses, both in the broad, nonjudgmental sense and in the more focused sense, oriented on positive results.  But I’ll argue that language often develops with this duality.

One may argue for “education”, presumably meaning the positive aspects of education, while also acknowledging that there are bad teachers and failing schools.

One may argue for “youth sports”, while understanding that youth sports can sometimes have a dark underbelly.

Similarly, one may argue for “urbanism” without advocating for every development concept in an urban setting.

Is my definition perfect?  Probably not, but no definition ever is.  It’s a better definition than my last effort and will hopefully lead me to an even better definition in the future.

My thanks go to reader “Laurence Aurbach” for pushing me along the path.


For what it may be worth, this is the 500th post I’ve written for this blog.  I recall when I first began.  The first five posts were a chore and the thought of fifty posts seemed incomprehensible.  And yet here I am at 500.  It shows the value of moving ahead one persistent step at a time, without being intimidated by the long view. 

But ultimately, this blog isn’t about achievements measured in numbers of posts.  It’s about achievements measured in incremental steps toward a more sustainable, resilient, and affordable world.

Which makes the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort for the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds so important.  In the next post, I’ll provide an update on the process.  But for now, remember to put the Urban Chat meeting on the evening of Tuesday, February 24 on your calendars.  Even if you haven’t participated with one of the conceptual design teams, it’ll be your chance to ponder the plans they’ll put forth and to become motivated to advocacy.

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

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