What The Hell Is An Urbanist?

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It’s interesting how the same topics in various trends become talking points simultaneously. Recently I’ve been inundated with requests to try to define the term “Urbanist.”  “What the Hell is an Urbanist,” someone recently asked.

By nature, the term has a broad definition based on one’s intrinsic motivation for incorporating this often self-proclaimed titled into their twitter profiles. Some call themselves Urbanists because they love the urban environment, a sort of response to someone living in a rural area calling themselves “Country.” And that’s fine, we all have different ways of showing our love for city life.

Others see the title of “Urbanist” as more of an active role, one in which we have a responsibility to better understand the workings of our urban centers and the unique components that make them complex and powerful systems. This is more where I stand on this definition. For me, being an Urbanist is not just about love, it’s about actively pursuing more complete understandings of the city issues before us from a myriad of different disciplines.

So often, people in our cities want to simplify the incredibly complicated dynamics associated with poverty, growth, development and other metrics.  “This project will create jobs.” “This initiative will increase vibrancy.” “This building will re-invigorate this struggling neighborhood.”  It is the role of the Urbanist to think critically about whether these simplistic claims are accurate, or if their impact has a deeper and unforseen consequence that people aren’t willing to see.  It is the realization that one thing can affect a number of other variables in ways that are nebulous to the population as a whole.

How would an economist see this issue? How about a civil engineer or a city planner? A transportation specialist or a developer? A politician? How about a social scientist, who can possibly predict the big picture effect of change in our cities? It takes a perspective that includes at least some knowledge and understanding based on all of the above disciplines to understand how every city issue or project has multiple levels of impact, many that are unseen, on a broad range of other areas and people than just the expected or intended target.

Experts have told me in the past that the latter definition borders more on the role of a city planner, but my distinction there is a matter of education or concentration.  While a city planner is by definition an Urbanist, the typical Urbanist does not have the formal training or education to be a city planner.

So let’s do this.  Let’s say there is a realm somewhere in between a city planner, someone who is educated in the intricacies of city dynamics, and someone who loves city life and wants to ride their bike and enjoy the newest cocktail bar (which by the way I love to do as well).  Let’s call this person an Urbanist, with the responsibility of taking that next step to understand the unique complexities of city life and activity beyond just what we see with our eyes.  It is not a formalized title, but it is one which is attainable by anyone who cares to look deeper into the inner workings of city dynamics.  It is the citizen who cares for their city like they would a friend, with a heartfelt desire to appreciate and understand.  It is compassion through a greater desire for knowledge and a critical way of thinking based in a respect for the enormous complexity that surrounds the inner workings of our urban life.