Urbanist, urbanism, urban planning

BTW: Forgive bad proofing. I’m off to commencement today and should probably not look like an unmade bed when I get there.*

I recently had a friend from my old Masters’ program in planning (UIowa; Go Hawks) ask on my Facebook page: what’s an urbanist? I was going to answer on Facebook, but then I realized I developed a vocabulary around this strategically because of the way I teach my intro class on cities.

Urbanism for me is an analog to humanism; it’s an interest in human affairs and activities in cities. It covers a big tent in scholarship. Academic urbanists, too, come from big group from scientists, social scientists, and humanists theorists thinking about cities and space. There are plenty of urbanists out there who aren’t are academics, just like I am interested in the classics but not a professional classicist. I tuck “urban studies” here into “urbanism” the way I’d put gender studies into humanism.

One of the big influences on me was Louis Wirth’s “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” (In fact–yes, I’m going to say it out loud; I find this short piece much more profound about the nature of cities than Life and Death. There, I said it. Here the comments come: “Have you ever read Jane Jacobs? Actualleh”….blargh. Look at them both. Wirth manages to get at large portion of what takes her 100 pages, without taking cheap shots at anybody or romanticizing self-organization. Relax. Life and Death is a wonderful book. It’s just overly long and I swear people revere it more than they read it anymore, and that bugs me.)

Anyhoodily, urbanism is a way of life, to some degree, but it’s so many modes and ways of life I don’t find that definition terribly useful beyond introducing the idea that city life is generally a life lived among many strangers. That is a profound change in the human condition, but it doesn’t help students understand the wide range of academic thought that has gone into trying to suss out those changes in the human condition and what those mean for individuals and groups in cities.

Defined in this way, we have a lot of wonderful urbanists at USC, for example, in addition to the planning faculty: urban economists like Richard Green, Jorge de la Roca, and Christian Redfearn all fall readily into the category.

I prefer to treat urban planning as a subset of the big category, as an activity and as a profession focussed on intervening in the material form and (thus) social life of cities. Plenty of urban anthropologists are out there doing work that can inform planning, but they don’t necessarily get up in the morning with the specific purpose of trying to make neighborhoods and places nicer. Some might, and in the sense that they advocate for their preferences and interests on the subject, they engage in urban planning even if they are not urban planners per se.

So that’s how I use the terms.

*Who am I kidding? I always look like an unmade bed no matter how hard I try.