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Old 04-24-2013, 04:49 PM
 
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This may be too much of an “academic” discussion, but I’ve been really wanting to discuss the use of the term “urban” on this board, and drill down at what we are all trying to get at… threads comparing the “urbanity” of one city/metro to another are very common, and yet the criteria, let alone a definition, of “urban” has not been produced….

I apologize for such a long post, but I had a chance to get out the thoughts I’d been meaning to put down for a long time now!

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



I think it would be very interesting and valuable if we (as a C-D forum) could explore the emerging use of the word "urban" in the way it is commonly used here and in popular culture. Obviously, the urban planning and urban theory fields have little interest in this topic (otherwise there would be readily-available lists of the most "urban" cities/metros in the US). The New Urbanists are invested in this topic, but even they haven't made comparative examinations or developed a method/criteria for judging "urban-ness" (mainly because New Urbanism is mostly an architecture/formalist-led movement).

I think this conversation would be valuable (and not just to help guide our debates on this forum..), because interest in "the urban" is growing in the US. The proliferation of "urban"-themed residential developments and shopping centers continues nationwide... all while the term "urban" technically just means "more intensely developed/used than rural." People are increasingly demanding "urban" things, but we still don't really know what exactly we mean when we say that.

I think this is primarily because we are living in a post-suburban society that only knows "urban" in relationship to "suburban." Our living generations primarily grew up in the suburbs (even if you individually did not grow up in the suburbs, our cultural norms have been based in the suburban ideal for almost a century now). But what is a "suburb?" There's been some discussion about this lately on the board and in my assessment (studying historical usage of the term in the US), “suburb” has been more than anything else a marketing term used to sell something as "not urban."

200 years ago in the country, it was easy to delineate between urban centers and rural areas. With industrialization came the mass movement of the underclass off of the land and into urban production centers. This made the city centers "less desirable" as tenements began to dominate the urban landscape. The super-wealthy quickly moved out to country estates, keeping only "townhouses" in the centers where they could stay in town while conducting business. As omnibuses, ferries, trolleys, and later, streetcars came on the scene (and of course, cars), this made "country living" more accessible to the middle class, in the form of low-density housing tracts at the periphery. The developers of the first suburbs therefore had to package essentially "urban" housing tracts (even though they were low density, they were definitely not rural) as something that appealed to those trying to escape the city and its supposed underclass ills, and to aspire to the lifestyles of the landed gentry and their country estates. What those developers created was the concept of "sub-urban" as we know it today: as something "not of the city center." Suburbs were therefore defined against something else. We knew what suburbs were because we knew what we didn't like about city centers.

Fast forward 150 years and most Americans have been raised in suburbs. With growing perceptions of suburbs as being socially disconnected, auto-dependent, unhealthy, un-"creative," etc., the culture is now starting to look to city centers as a solution to our ills. We now have developers doing the reversal of what started 150 years ago -- using the word "urban" to market something as not suburban. Thus, we really only know what "urban" is in relation to "suburban.” This is true even if you grew up in a city center, because our cultural norms have been so suburban-focused; you therefore know that you live in an “urban” environment primarily because it is culturally considered not suburban--not because of any specific technical characteristics.

In reality, the built form and use of our cities defies any sort of urban/suburban dichotomy (people live and work all over, in all kinds of buildings, at all kinds of occupational and built densities, getting around by all manner of transportation options, etc.). One Bay Area resident may live in a house in Silicon Valley and commute to a job in a high-rise in San Francisco, while another (who may pass him on the freeway) might live in a high-rise in San Francisco and commute to a job in an office park in Silicon Valley. Which one lives a more “urban” experience? One’s livelihood benefits from high clustering,density, and intensity of use, while the other’s lifestyle benefits from that clustering (they both benefit from metro area-level clustering and density). Just as suburbs are marketed and sold as a commodity for consumption of a certain normative lifestyle, so too are city centers.

I've noticed a general trend of west coast posters finding "urban" to have more to do with the intensity of use (which would be relatively in keeping with the technical definition), while east coast/midwest posters find "urban" to have more to do with the design/form of infrastructure (this includes the arrangement of buildings to the street, the width of streets, the type/arrangement of transportation networks, etc.). In other words, one definition is more interested in behavior while the other is more interested in form.


I would argue that the intersection of urban form and urban behavior is urban function. For urban planners and urban policy makers, the most important measure of a city is: how well does it function? In order to judge that, you have to look at the potential that exists (obviously not every city has the same resources or is going to be able to attract the same type of business, investment, etc), and then measure how well the city supports its residents in making the most of that potential. The city is therefore a tool of the citizenry for wealth generation and quality of life.


Understanding that, I personally think that “urban” should be judged by efficiency. I believe that mass-suburbanization (and the dominance of the suburban ideal) has resulted in some inefficient use of our urban areas and our resources. At the same time, I think that decentralization and the increased accessibility of the automobile have been very good for cities in many ways--by increasing the amount of land that is available for wealth and quality of life generation. I therefore think the most “urban” cities are those that strike the best balance in using available resources to generate quality of life, and doing so sustainably.

I know this definition won’t resonate with most people (and it doesn't get us very far), but I think it is the closest we might be able to get to “getting to the bottom” of what people are using “urban” as a proxy for on this forum. It might also help us define the criteria for “urban-ness” at a metro-area level.
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Old 04-24-2013, 05:22 PM
 
Location: The City
22,331 posts, read 32,176,306 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dweebo2220 View Post
This may be too much of an “academic” discussion, but I’ve been really wanting to discuss the use of the term “urban” on this board, and drill down at what we are all trying to get at… threads comparing the “urbanity” of one city/metro to another are very common, and yet the criteria, let alone a definition, of “urban” has not been produced….

I apologize for such a long post, but I had a chance to get out the thoughts I’d been meaning to put down for a long time now!

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


I think it would be very interesting and valuable if we (as a C-D forum) could explore the emerging use of the word "urban" in the way it is commonly used here and in popular culture. Obviously, the urban planning and urban theory fields have little interest in this topic (otherwise there would be readily-available lists of the most "urban" cities/metros in the US). The New Urbanists are invested in this topic, but even they haven't made comparative examinations or developed a method/criteria for judging "urban-ness" (mainly because New Urbanism is mostly an architecture/formalist-led movement).

I think this conversation would be valuable (and not just to help guide our debates on this forum..), because interest in "the urban" is growing in the US. The proliferation of "urban"-themed residential developments and shopping centers continues nationwide... all while the term "urban" technically just means "more intensely developed/used than rural." People are increasingly demanding "urban" things, but we still don't really know what exactly we mean when we say that.

I think this is primarily because we are living in a post-suburban society that only knows "urban" in relationship to "suburban." Our living generations primarily grew up in the suburbs (even if you individually did not grow up in the suburbs, our cultural norms have been based in the suburban ideal for almost a century now). But what is a "suburb?" There's been some discussion about this lately on the board and in my assessment (studying historical usage of the term in the US), “suburb” has been more than anything else a marketing term used to sell something as "not urban."

200 years ago in the country, it was easy to delineate between urban centers and rural areas. With industrialization came the mass movement of the underclass off of the land and into urban production centers. This made the city centers "less desirable" as tenements began to dominate the urban landscape. The super-wealthy quickly moved out to country estates, keeping only "townhouses" in the centers where they could stay in town while conducting business. As omnibuses, ferries, trolleys, and later, streetcars came on the scene (and of course, cars), this made "country living" more accessible to the middle class, in the form of low-density housing tracts at the periphery. The developers of the first suburbs therefore had to package essentially "urban" housing tracts (even though they were low density, they were definitely not rural) as something that appealed to those trying to escape the city and its supposed underclass ills, and to aspire to the lifestyles of the landed gentry and their country estates. What those developers created was the concept of "sub-urban" as we know it today: as something "not of the city center." Suburbs were therefore defined against something else. We knew what suburbs were because we knew what we didn't like about city centers.

Fast forward 150 years and most Americans have been raised in suburbs. With growing perceptions of suburbs as being socially disconnected, auto-dependent, unhealthy, un-"creative," etc., the culture is now starting to look to city centers as a solution to our ills. We now have developers doing the reversal of what started 150 years ago -- using the word "urban" to market something as not suburban. Thus, we really only know what "urban" is in relation to "suburban.” This is true even if you grew up in a city center, because our cultural norms have been so suburban-focused; you therefore know that you live in an “urban” environment primarily because it is culturally considered not suburban--not because of any specific technical characteristics.

In reality, the built form and use of our cities defies any sort of urban/suburban dichotomy (people live and work all over, in all kinds of buildings, at all kinds of occupational and built densities, getting around by all manner of transportation options, etc.). One Bay Area resident may live in a house in Silicon Valley and commute to a job in a high-rise in San Francisco, while another (who may pass him on the freeway) might live in a high-rise in San Francisco and commute to a job in an office park in Silicon Valley. Which one lives a more “urban” experience? One’s livelihood benefits from high clustering,density, and intensity of use, while the other’s lifestyle benefits from that clustering (they both benefit from metro area-level clustering and density). Just as suburbs are marketed and sold as a commodity for consumption of a certain normative lifestyle, so too are city centers.

I've noticed a general trend of west coast posters finding "urban" to have more to do with the intensity of use (which would be relatively in keeping with the technical definition), while east coast/midwest posters find "urban" to have more to do with the design/form of infrastructure (this includes the arrangement of buildings to the street, the width of streets, the type/arrangement of transportation networks, etc.). In other words, one definition is more interested in behavior while the other is more interested in form.

I would argue that the intersection of urban form and urban behavior is urban function. For urban planners and urban policy makers, the most important measure of a city is: how well does it function? In order to judge that, you have to look at the potential that exists (obviously not every city has the same resources or is going to be able to attract the same type of business, investment, etc), and then measure how well the city supports its residents in making the most of that potential. The city is therefore a tool of the citizenry for wealth generation and quality of life.


Understanding that, I personally think that “urban” should be judged by efficiency. I believe that mass-suburbanization (and the dominance of the suburban ideal) has resulted in some inefficient use of our urban areas and our resources. At the same time, I think that decentralization and the increased accessibility of the automobile have been very good for cities in many ways--by increasing the amount of land that is available for wealth and quality of life generation. I therefore think the most “urban” cities are those that strike the best balance in using available resources to generate quality of life, and doing so sustainably.

I know this definition won’t resonate with most people (and it doesn't get us very far), but I think it is the closest we might be able to get to “getting to the bottom” of what people are using “urban” as a proxy for on this forum. It might also help us define the criteria for “urban-ness” at a metro-area level.

While I understand your points on much of this to me there is one aspect in the bolded above of which I believe is missed.

To me, and will speak for myself it is both form and function, either will generate some level "urbanity" but when together achieve a different level. This to me sums why a West Coast comparison of SF to LA favors SF. While functional levels may be very similar SF (in general) delivers much better on the combination of the two. Personally I believe if there is a distinction NE versus WC it is NE with stronger ties to a combination and some WC more focused on fuction without the intensity of form (most pronounced for LA, but to a lessor extent is also said for places like Dallas or Houston or even Miami.

BTW - actually enjoyed the read, honestly and I generally agree with (alomost) everything you said, also without the described effeciency a form is not good. Look at North Philly, urban in form, significantly lacking in many aspects of functionality (a generalization). That said the effeciency with the form is the most urban reality - Manhattan

Part of that challenge for the combination is form is softer, more like you know it when you see it. Some markers, density, street address, transit etc but no perfect quantifier
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Old 04-24-2013, 05:46 PM
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kidphilly View Post
While I understand your points on much of this to me there is one aspect in the bolded above of which I believe is missed...
Thanks for the comments and the thoughts. I think we may be saying the same thing--I may not be using the best terms, but I was trying to define two different variables, form and behavior, and one outcome: function (ie the functional efficiency of a city derives both from how it's built and how its lived).

A city with high intensity of use and good built form/infrastructure trumps a city with just one or the other.

However, I'm not sure how to make determinations after that...

A city with a high intensity of use might still not be reaching its potential. Likewise, a well-designed/built city may not have much activity (ie might be mismatched to the local economic opportunity or may be inaccessible to certain populations or may have a local culture that is more private, etc.). You might think about the extremes as (crudely), on the use side: a densely-packed shanty-town; and on the built side: a cluster of high-rises in a frozen wasteland with no residents.
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Old 04-24-2013, 05:52 PM
 
Location: The City
22,331 posts, read 32,176,306 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dweebo2220 View Post
Thanks for the comments and the thoughts. I think we may be saying the same thing--I may not be using the best terms, but I was trying to define two different variables, form and behavior, and one outcome: function (ie the functional efficiency of a city derives both from how it's built and how its lived).

A city with high intensity of use and good built form/infrastructure trumps a city with just one or the other.

However, I'm not sure how to make determinations after that...

A city with a high intensity of use might still not be reaching its potential. Likewise, a well-designed/built city may not have much activity (ie might be mismatched to the local economic opportunity or may be inaccessible to certain populations). You might think about the extremes as (crudely), on the use side: a densely-packed shanty-town; and on the built side: a cluster of high-rises in a frozen wasteland with no residents.

Fair points. Also a good form can (though does not always) make for better behavior, whereas behavior pre form, will organically increase the form (generally but doesnt have to be effecient) - though today it seems to behavior mostly push a less intense form if that makes sense.

I guess my next quesation is how to quantify function best. Either way i do truly believe you have something in this notion.

Will ponder this a bit more...
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Old 04-24-2013, 06:59 PM
nei nei won $500 in our forum's Most Engaging Poster Contest - Thirteenth Edition (Jan-Feb 2015). 

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Location: Long Island / NYC
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Requoting an old post. Doesn't really address your OP, though it was an interesting read.


Quote:
Originally Posted by nei View Post
One can make guesses fairly quickly. One notices quickly from walking in Manhattan and taking the subways, that people on the street are of diverse ethicities and many different races are around. Still might feel whiter than it actually it is, and residential segregation would be difficult to measure, but there are some hints.

Downtown Chicago felt whiter, and since it isn't much different racially in white % from the stats, suggests more segregation in places different races visit.

This gives me an idea of what I expect of an urban place: when I visit a city, I expect to walk around and/or take public transit and the people I see would somewhat reflect who lives in the city. Street life, events in public spaces give some idea of the culture of a place. The businesses and ads reflect the commercial activity. A more suburban area has culture and activity but it's harder to witness and get a sense of who lives there: they're enclosed in private cars, people from different backgrounds and destinations (work, entertainment, shopping) are less likely to mix and see each other randomly. There might be events going on, but it's harder to see them.

As a kid growing up in the suburbs of NYC: burbs = sleepy, can't feel what's going on. City = could watch real life go on (exaggeration but that's how it felt).
In short, an urban place or experience is a spot where daily life feels more public.
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Old 04-24-2013, 07:06 PM
 
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According to the US Census, a community of at least 2500 is considered to be "urban". So, this Upstate NY village here is technically urban: Google Maps Street View

Here is more information and look at where it mentions urban clusters: Urban and Rural Classification - Geography - U.S. Census Bureau
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Old 04-24-2013, 07:25 PM
 
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Originally Posted by nei View Post
Requoting an old post. Doesn't really address your OP, though it was an interesting read.

In short, an urban place or experience is a spot where daily life feels more public.
I'm definitely interested in alternative definitions/explorations of the term "urban."

Also, I think street life is a great indicator of intensity of use. A vibrant street with lots of activity, where life is more public, will also create more interactions between people and likely generate more economic activity and quality of life.

I think it's interesting to note that there are many US "suburbs" that have since become much more vibrant and public as immigrants move in and bring a more public culture to an area that was previously "sleepier."

http://www.pcl.org/projects/2008symp...ngs/Rojas1.pdf
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Old 04-24-2013, 07:27 PM
 
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Originally Posted by ckhthankgod View Post
According to the US Census, a community of at least 2500 is considered to be "urban". So, this Upstate NY village here is technically urban: Google Maps Street View

Here is more information and look at where it mentions urban clusters: Urban and Rural Classification - Geography - U.S. Census Bureau
Yep, clearly the "urban" that is talked about daily on this forum is something else entirely than the technical definition.
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Old 04-24-2013, 07:43 PM
 
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Originally Posted by dweebo2220 View Post
Yep, clearly the "urban" that is talked about daily on this forum is something else entirely than the technical definition.
I think so and generally, people seem to think of it in terms of size. I think scale, infrastructure and building density is the key, regardless of size. Like the village I posted, in spite of only having 2800 people, it seems to have the set up that meets the "urban" requirement.
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Old 04-24-2013, 08:07 PM
 
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^^^ It gets difficult when you start trying to compare in terms of degree... ie which is more urban, x or y?

We might all agree that that small town's main street is urban in terms of structural density, pedestrian/street orientation, etc.

But is it more urban than, say, San Luis Obispo's main street?:

https://maps.google.com/maps?q=san+l...2,68.7,,0,-5.4
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