Don’t Be THAT Urbanist

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Sometimes I look around the room of self-proclaimed “urbanists” (which in fairness is also me) and say to myself “oh man, it’s gonna be a long night.” There are personality traits that are common and almost stereotypically comical which are all-pervasive in any group that advocates for change. The Urbanist world is certainly not immune to the head-shaking nuance of this universal social happening.

My hope, as you read below, is that you have a chuckle or two, or maybe even an “oh God that’s so-and-so!” The truth is, even the greatest urbanists have some blend of the following traits… it’s what makes us influential and relevant. But when we swing too far into one category or another, we become a one dimensional stereotype that often hurts our cause more than it helps. I myself am a blend of many of the characterizations below. So take this with a grain of salt, sit back and laugh at the often comical world of our Urbanist culture.

The Aggressive Urbanist

This is the person, usually of the male persuasion, who almost seems like he’s an Urbanist because he likes the fight. When he’s riding his bike, he will cut off or inconvenience as many drivers as possible, not because he’s exercising his right to bike in-lane, but because he genuinely lives for the confrontation that inevitably ensues. Why? Because he can’t wait to tell you about it the next day.

He’ll chain himself to a single building, physically or metaphorically, so that it doesn’t get torn down while 100 other buildings lie uncontested. He will develop smear campaigns against anyone who doesn’t see his point of view. He pictures himself as that guy standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square… some sort of vigilante for freedom against the oppression of “the man.”

The Paranoid Urbanist

This Urbanist has a lot of crossover elements with the Aggressive Urbanist. She takes pride in the fact that the powers that be absolutely hate her, and she loves to tell you all about why. She’s convinced that the parking ticket she just received was because she called out the Mayor on Twitter for supporting a big-money developer over her neighborhood charm. She projects herself as a warrior against corruption, but 80 percent of the corruption she speaks of probably exists only in her own mind.

The “Wide-Eyed” Urbanist

This Urbanist is one most have us have been/are at times still. It’s the one that thinks that every new development is “awesome,” and “great for our city” when in fact they have no idea that it’s displacing large numbers of residents, or is receiving an incredible amount of public subsidies while not generating much economic or social capital. It’s the one dimensional, typically white-person-in-the-suburbs view of what cities are supposed to be… places that exist for my weekend entertainment.

They claim to be all about their city, dipping their feet into the “Urbanist” term, but lack the real working knowledge of complexity that comes with urban life and its history.

The “We Need Jobs” Urbanist

For whatever reason, there is always one Urbanist at every neighborhood meeting/city council meeting/Facebook group that believes that the only goal of cities is to supply endless employment, and with that, every problem will be solved. A group of very educated people can talk about the nuance of key urban issues like systemic racism, urban poverty, economic sustainability, why transportation creates equity… but this person will stand up every time and say “we need to do whatever we can to attract and create more jobs.”

It is, as is typical, the oversimplification of the urban construct. The notion that if everyone is working, everything will be OK. And to some extent, they’re right… but there’s a lot more to the success of cities than the number of people who work there, or the number of companies that find a home in their midst.

Furthermore, this Urbanist tends to have a more traditional view of what actually creates jobs today. Transit-oriented development, the economic impact of creating high-functioning public space, and factors such as walkability can have a huge impact on job creation, but these concepts are often nebulous mysteries to the WNJ Urbanist.

The Poetic Urbanist

This person, first and foremost, loves to hear themselves talk. They will take up endless amounts of your time romanticizing some sort of Venetian past that loosely existed some 60-100 years ago. Waxing lyrical, with a vocal pattern that mimics a Ken Burns documentary narration, they hide their real knowledge of what works and doesn’t work in our cities today with articulate depictions of a city that may or may not have actually existed.

For whatever reason, this is also often the Urbanist that believes poverty, crime, economic instability, and every other urban issue can be 100% solved by “supporting the arts.” I love the arts, I think they are a key and elemental piece in the urban fabric. They have the ability to connect people to their city and create a tourist draw… but arts alone cannot fix our cities.

The Economic Urbanist

This is the Urbanist that truly believes our cities are completely broken and economic investment is the only way to generate a positive future. ANY AND ALL finical doings in a city, especially the big, new and shiny ones, are the answer, and the rest will take care of itself.

These are people that have no clue what displacement is, or anything about how cities have generally shit on people of color in the name of “progress.” Or maybe they do know and just don’t care… “it’s not my job to look out for those people, it’s my job to help jumpstart the economy,” this person might say.

The “In The Clouds” Urbanist

“I think a network of street cars would really benefit our city.” “We should put all of our parking underground.” “Gondolas…” Enough said. The fact is, any one of these additions would probably add meaningful value to any city. The problem is, you have to pay for them. And none of these are cheap to build, or to maintain. The reason we don’t have them is not because people don’t like them or don’t want them, it’s because most cities can’t afford them, at least not now.

If you’re a sports fan, the “In The Clouds” Urbanist is comparable to the fan who thinks his team should trade a struggling, overpaid veteran for top prospects… which is of course laughable, because there’s no team that would trade young talent for an old, unproductive player. It’s the inability to see the big picture beyond what it is that you want to see and do in your city that makes this Urbanist infuriating.

Finding Balance

Once again, the best urbanists have elements of the above. The smart ones understand the big picture balance between real economic success without displacing or dismissing citizens. They know the importance of blending excitement and romanticism for our cities with knowledge of potential consequences of certain kinds of “growth,” as well as unseen ripples that can do more harm than good. The one dimensional descriptions above aren’t meant to disparage the cause of the Urbanist, rather they are a reminder of what it looks like when we become one-dimensional in our mission. Seeing the big picture, the complex whole, the never ending parade of positives and negatives that come with every direction and decision is what makes a true Urbanist. Only when we find a way to embrace a complete blend of all the above and more, are we going to change minds and rewrite the wrongs of our urban stories.

Being a one dimensional Urbanist is easy. Being a blend of all the above is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard… that’s why it’s right.