what the hell is an urbanist?

I declare that I research and practice urban policy, urban planning, and urban science. In other words, I am an urban policy analyst, an urban planner, and an urban scientist. This is rather clear: I look at the policy making of city governments, I facilitate communities in designing their surrounding built environment, and I study the way cities operate using the scientific method.  Each one of these has specialties. Planners can often be divided between physicalists who look at the the built environment and its spatiality and those more involved in community involvement, facilitating participatory urban governance. Policy analysts and makers can look at separate issues like health, crime, or commerce. Urban scientists can look at how transportation systems work, using agent based modelling and the latest computation techniques. 


But another term that is often used, and that I used as well, is the “urbanist” and its coexisting “urbanism”. Google says that an urbanist is “an advocate of or expert in city planning”. merriam-webster says an urbanist is “a specialist in city planning”. But there are a lot of people who are calling themselves urbanists who are not urban planners or scholars of urban planning. So what is this new definition of an urbanist? Arian Horbovetz at Strong Towns (a site I highly recommend) gives, what I believe, is the best definition.


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”.


This person wants to understand cities, wants to protect them. They love cities and all they can offer.  It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from Toni Morrison.


How soon country people forget. When they fall in love with a city it is forever, and it is like forever. As though there never was a time when they didn’t love it. The minute they arrive at the train station or get off the ferry and glimpse the wide streets and the wasteful lamps lighting them, they know they are born for it. There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves.


It reminds me of when my father let me take the train by myself to NYC. When I was young I attended the Juilliard School, so I had to take the train into the city from suburban NJ. It felt like freedom, the entire city for me, all the possibilities. 


If there are urbanists, there must be urbanism. Wikipedia says urbanism “is the study of how inhabitants of urban areas interact with the built environment”. This fits in that urbanists want to understand how cities work. But Google defines urbanism as “the way of life characteristic of cities and towns”. It is this definition that I think fits best with our definition of an urbanist. An urbanist loves urbanism – the urban way of life.