If you read a lot of articles about cities and urbanism, you're probably familiar with the words "half of the world's population now lives in cities." For a number of years, these words have been frequently used in the opening sentences of articles, hoping to convince readers in just a few seconds of the importance of the subject at hand. In fact, according to the World Health Organization these words are no longer even true: in 2014 the urban portion of the world's population has already reached 54%. In other words, every nine months the world adds enough new urbanites to fill a city the size of Tokyo, with an increase of nearly 300 million new urban dwellers since we reached the tipping-point in 2008.
The rise of cities has been so dramatic that UN Habitat has declared today, October 31st 2014, as the first annual World Cities Day.
Of course, all of this means that there has never been a better time to be an urbanist than right now. Or does it?
A few months ago a blog post by Jack Penford Baker, an architect from Manchester working at MVRDV, caught my eye, along with an ensuing discussion on twitter that caused me to question previously held assumptions about urbanism. In his blog, Penford Baker actually discusses the death of urbanism in the 21st century, taking Britain's recent obsession with the 116 year-old concept of Garden Cities as a case study. He argues that "urbanism, in its nature, roots its ideologies within the present and future of cities, with reference to the past. It is not the practice of past theories conveyed in the present."
Rather than being an active and forward-looking practice which aims to understand and solve the challenges of city living, he believes that "urbanism has become just another label to a company’s ethos: 'Architect, Interior Designer, Urbanist, Masterplanner...'"
The situation of the UK is certainly a special case, with its pseudo-urbanistic Garden City fascination stemming from what I perceive to be a deeply-rooted anti-urban bias. However, the trend of using urbanism as a largely meaningless label is a problem that certainly occurs worldwide.
In the ensuing discussion of the post, one particular tweet by Jane Clossick caught my eye:
@jackpb @eamonncanniffe What is urbanism anyway? The study of the social is sociology, not socialism. So where's urbanology?— Jane Clossick (@Jane_Clossick) June 8, 2014
To which I responded:
@Jane_Clossick @eamonncanniffe @jackpb The answer's contained in the question. Urbanism's rarely neutral,its agenda is in favor of the urban— Rory Stott (@StottR) June 9, 2014
However, after not very long it became clear that neither Clossick, Penford Baker nor me could agree on how urbanism should be practised, or even what it is in the first place:
@jackpb @StottR @eamonncanniffe this conversation highlights the key problem with urbanism: what the hell is it?— Jane Clossick (@Jane_Clossick) June 9, 2014
The cause of our disagreements centered, I would argue, on our respective fields: to Penford Baker, an architect, urbanism is to be used as a creative tool, a way of altering cities and creating new ones to conform to our current understanding of the urban; for Clossick, a PhD student at the London Metropolitan University, urbanism is something to be studied and understood; and as a journalist who writes about cities, I consider urbanism an ideological position, standing in opposition to the 'ruralists' who believe that cities are little more than a threat to be curtailed and avoided.
Of course, all three approaches are highly interrelated. Functionally, the three are connected as follows: those designing urban spaces and those researching them have a cyclical relationship, with new designs based on the latest research, and new research drawn from the latest designs. Alongside this, urban ideologists celebrate the work of both, hoping to convince those in a position to further the work of both that the urban future is something worth investing in.
I propose three separate words for these three interlinked practices: for the study of the urban, urbanology; for the creation of the urban, urban design; the ideological position can remain urbanism - although the precise terms are up for discussion, the important thing is that these three practices maintain some separation.
This is not merely a pedantic pursuit of semantics. Although it is certainly possible to be an urbanologist, urban designer and urbanist at the same time, in a system where "urbanism" can be all things to all people, it is also possible for people to use the label without encountering much scrutiny. If you claim to be, say, a geologist despite only having a vague interest in rocks, you can expect to be found out fairly swiftly. On the first ever World Cities Day, isn't it time we instilled urban practices with the same precision?