What is Urban?

Because I’m a sort of masochist of various reading, I started another book, on top of the Jacobs series, called The First Word, by Christine Kenneally.  It tells the story of how we became interested in the evolution of language, then became uninterested, and then interested again, and where that has led us.  As I read, I am starting to draw parallels to the other greatest of human accomplishments: building cities.  The author points out that language is, for all intents and purposes, the original internet.  If we can produce and understand it, we are jacked-in to the rest of humanity.  Indeed, without language, we are not human at all.

I am beginning to think of cities in the same way.  Without our need to associate and trade with other humans – which is what cities help us accomplish so terrifically – we are hardly human.  Perhaps the urge to be isolated from neighbors and escape the influence of other people is actually inhuman… and dehumanizing.  If we look at the mindset of criminals when committing crimes, they are doing exactly that: dehumanizing others in an attempt to justify their inhuman actions in their own minds.  It is not our urge to be with others that causes us to do harm to others.

As advanced and influential as city planners and theorists have become in recent decades, I have yet to hear of a good definition of what is urban.  It is often defined by the eye test.  Like pornography, you know it when you see it.  Some go a little further and define it by the different characteristics of the design, such as a tight grid of streets and the location of buildings on their plots of land, not to mention density.  But I think urban can better be defined by the relationship of humans with each other in a particular space; in other words, density, but with a purpose.  A “city” can have all the physical and demographic characteristics of an urban area, but if the people are not interacting and learning from each other (which is the root of the creativity bonus I talked about in a previous post), then it’s not urban.  It is more likely suburban, which is much more isolating.  This is likely the problem with the older public housing slums.  They are pockets of isolating suburbia in the midst of urban areas.  The reason why there is so much crime and vice and so little social and economic life is because the people are not interacting in an urban way.  As Jacobs helped us figure out, the way to fix those areas are to make them more urban, not less so.

As an aside, I think it is entirely appropriate that I want to write about cities.  I am coming to the idea that the mental and social faculties that allow us to communicate are probably the same faculties that encourage us to be urban.