The Question of the Urban

Frustratingly, it can sometimes seem that, to paraphrase a famous decision of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, urbanity is like pornography: we can't define it, but we know it when we see it.

Urban environments are hot right now in America. From coast to coast, traditional urban cores are being filled—not only by young professionals, but also by all manners of families, individuals, and households. For the first time in over fifty years, as the 2010 census dramatically demonstrated, cities grew faster than their suburbs. Neighborhoods which for more than a generation could not buy the attention of developers are now sprouting newly constructed luxury condominiums, high-value office space, and uncountable numbers of boutique retailers and eateries. Famous so-called "starchitects," people with names like Gehry, Calatrava, and Piano, tour the world, selling and sharing their perceived abilities to transform moribund environments. Urban property values are skyrocketing, and concerns over gentrification—and its concomitant displacement of the less well-off—dominate the political discourse of many a large city. Indeed, in the leading cities of this urban renaissance—places like Boston, New York, and San Francisco—demand is driving prices so high there is real concern that soon, none but the very wealthy will be able to afford most of the urban environment.[1]

Ad for an urban inspired residential development in Stamford, CT Ad for an urban inspired development [3].

This shift is more than merely economic and demographic: it is social and cultural in equal measure. Urbane places like Brooklyn, NY and Portland, OR capture the imaginations of large swaths of the American public. Real estate developers and local-booster groups alike tout the urbanness of their projects and their neighborhoods, proudly proclaiming their walkability, their access to transit, and the quality of their street life. Many cities explicitly compete to attract the so-called creative class, trumpeting their diversity, their cosmopolitan nature, and their possession of the urban forms which support them. Emblematic of this cultural shift is the 2014 return of one of the old guards of mainstream American television, The Tonight Show to its original home in New York City. In order to attract more and younger viewers—-in order to stay culturally relevant—it is leaving one of the cradles of American suburbanism, Los Angeles, for one of the epicenters of the urban world[2].

And yet, barely more than twenty years ago, the suburban world was still king in America. Talk of an urban renaissance existed, but was often just as quickly dismissed as a mirage or a minor aberration, something easy to ignore as statistical noise. Fifty years of FHA-subsidized, single family housing, of the construction of sprawling subdivisions, of automotive lust and of binging on arterial roads and federally funded Interstates, on strip malls, and on isolated office parks, had reshaped the American landscape. The physical transformation was driven and reinforced by a set of narratives—sociocultural beliefs that celebrated picturesque, park-like homes and the perceived freedom of the automobile, whilst demonizing the dirty, crowded, old-fashioned city. In urban areas, crime, and more importantly, fear of crime, was rampant. Terms like inner-city and urban themselves were, at best, shorthand for city-dwelling people of color, and at worst, connoted images of blight, of crumbling, abandoned, and dangerous areas—of places containing many of the country’s problems with little, if any, potential. Among many observers the city itself was something passé: there was a strong hope that soon, even its accepted role as an economic agglomeration could be supplanted by telecommunications technology, finally freeing human kind from the no-longer-necessary evil of density. To be sure, a portion of planners and thinkers were nostalgic for and sympathetic to older ideals of urbanity, but the path of American history—and the strength of entrenched cultural beliefs—seemed overwhelming. Some continued to plug away at rebuilding and repairing the cores of existing cities, while others found solace looking for the reemergence of urban trends in suburban phenomena such as cities. Few could know that things would change as quickly as they have[4].

This small article cannot hope to explore all the manifold reasons and ways this transformation was brought about—that is a far larger project, one this site will engage with over time. What is important to take from this shift now is that, today, for a significant percentage of the country's population, there is a strong desire for a specific type of place—for a specific type of life that America had long neglected and had, for the most part, abandoned. There is a desire for urbanity. Yet this leaves us in a perplexing situation, one which puts the horse before the cart. There is clearly an appreciation and a demand for a specific type of place, a category of environment that, for most of us, is surprisingly easy to picture. But when we dig at this seemingly intuitive understanding, it quickly becomes clear that it can be vague, piecemeal, fragmented, and even contradictory—almost as if it arose from some shared cultural id. One person's paradise can be, to another, sterile and lifeless. One individual's beloved new home and new haunts are emblematic of another's destructive gentrification. Making matters worse, a quick glance at the history of American urban planning dramatically demonstrates how a poorly thought out understanding—one in which the fundamentals are unclear and values are unexamined—far too often has disastrous consequences. If we want to build, preserve, enhance, promote, and protect urban environments, then we must first attempt to define, however tentatively, what urbanity actually is.

What, then, is meant by the word urban?

Urbanity is a poorly theorized concept, both nebulous and often taken for granted. To be sure, the word is sometimes used simply to refer to people and things related to cities, but it also has a second, more colloquial, yet also more precise meaning. This understanding is a specific subset of the imagery that comes to mind when we envision a city—an understanding of both catagories of physical spaces as well as a mode of life. To be urban is something quite separate from being a city alone.

Take Houston, for example. If urbanity were simply a checklist of the items that make up a major city—population, economic might, cultural amenities, sports teams, universities, and the like—Houston would certainly make the grade. But if we took a slice out of greater Houston and showed it to random Americans without context, huge tracts of it would appear to many to be anything but urban—as nothing but subdivisions, strip malls, office parks, and acre after acre of asphalt roadways and parking lots. In short, it would appear suburban, a distinction that, thanks to well over a century of conflicting cultural ideals, is strong in most Americans' minds. This doesn't necessarily affect a place's status as a city, a fact which in part explains why defining what a city is can be so difficult. In terms of being an economic engine, a cultural presence, and an environment for social interaction, Houston functions, and any definition of city which excluded it would be far too "No True Scotsman"-like to be acceptable. Fundamentally, however, the ways in which it does function are very different than those of its denser brethren[5].

Aerial view of the endless suburbs of Houston.
A complicated highway interchange just northwest of downtown Houston
A view of the featureless, car-oriented streetscape of Houston
A view of downtown Hoosnick Falls, NY
A view of downtown Larchmont, NY
A view of downtown Pelham, NY
Top: Greater Houston (left to right: Endless suburbs, Highway interchange just northwest of downtown, Featureless, car-oriented streetscape)
Bottom: Archetypical American small towns (left to right: Hoosick Falls, NY; Larchmont, NY; Pelham, NY) [6]

Now in turn, consider the center of an archetypical American small town. While it might house only a few thousand residents, the texture of the street, its density of stores, of buildings, and of walkers would appear to the same observers to be quite urban. Though such places may not be cities in the exact same sense as Houston, they are denser than their surroundings and, more importantly, have a specific look and a higher density of activities and of uses. Frustratingly, it can sometimes seem that, to paraphrase a famous decision of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, urbanity is like pornography: we can't define it, but we know it when we see it[7].

This suggests that urbanity is not an either-or phenomenon, but one of gradations, a matter of degree and of scale. In other words, the more urbanistic elements a place has, the more urban we understand that place to be, and the easier it is therein to slip into the urban mode of life. In that case, what elements are urban, and why? Answering this question is more difficult than it might first appear. In the relatively young histories of urban studies and urban planning, most thinking has been concerned not merely with urban form, but explicitly with good urban form. Separating what is sufficient to call something urban, therefore, from more detailed conceptions of what high quality urban environments should be, is a difficult task.

Making matters worse, many of those who study cities have been happy to define urbanity solely in terms of physical typology—that is, of the shape of buildings, of spaces, and how that space is organized to be used. But all too often, solely physical urban interventions and creations have led to environments that either fail—they are not used by people to any large degree—or that carry an air of artifice, of sterility which seems to preclude many of the social, cultural, and economic activities, both good and bad, that we expect under the auspices of a city. Simply put, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate physical structures and their uses from the questions of ownership, culture, and political meaning which underlie and define them[8].

Jane Jacobs Jane Jacobs [9]

There is one clear place to start this project. As we saw at the beginning, the American relationship with urbanity has traditionally been a hostile one, conceiving of the urban in almost solely negative terms. Generations of writers, engineers, and planners dreamed of the day when technology, design, and economic progress would free us from the dual sins of density and intermingling uses. Given such a long-lived cultural gestalt, it is nearly impossible to overstate the impact of the work of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs' work, in particular her 1961 magnum opus The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a true paradigm shift in Thomas Kuhn's sense—a transformation of understanding which radically alters our knowledge and perception, completely changing not merely facts, but how we understand them, fundamentally transforming the questions we ask and the assumptions we make. To understand American urbanity, we must understand her work, and the work of those who have followed in her footsteps. This needn't necessarily be hagiographic—Jacobs' work is rooted in a time and a place, and her life and her writings sometimes point in different, contradictory, directions—but our present ways of understanding cities, the questions we ask and the ideas we work with, are in large part defined by her[10].

What follows is a tentative and evolving definition of urbanity. It is not meant to be didactic or comprehensive; rather, it lays the groundwork for more complicated, and hopefully more complete, understandings. It builds upon the work of Jacobs and those who followed, including William Whyte, Kevin Lynch, Christopher Alexander, Sam Bass Warner, Robert Fishman, Allan Jacobs, James Kunstler, Jahn Gehl, and a host of others. Each of these thinkers has played important roles in helping us to identify and comprehend urbanity. Each has, in their own way, sought to understand the impacts of the physical environment on the human condition—on our persons, our activities, and our beliefs—and how these understandings in turn shape the physical world. This interrelation of cause, effect, and affect is one of the key understandings in the study of any environment—and stands at the core of urbanity. If we seek, as the famed urbanist Kevin Lynch implored us, to choose the kinds of cities in which we want to live, we must try to understand—as best as is possible—how these environments work and how they can be brought about[11].


Whilst Gehl is most certainly not American, his work is vital and influential in regards to defining and qualifying urban environments.

To that end, urbanity has at least four quintessential categories of characteristics which define it:

First is function: how space is used. As Jacobs teaches us, the most functional urban environments are those that reach a certain intensity of use, and which have a liberal intermingling of uses, in particular blending commercial, social, and residential use. This dynamic mixing is, at least in large part, the core engine of the urban experience, and it is the factor that many of the other characteristics which follow serve to support. Urban environments should have a variety of people, both of differing groups and who are doing different things, on the street at as many different times as is possible. Walking should be the primary mode of travel. They should facilitate safety via eyes on the street, and at the same time should encourage the social encounters, the bonds of trust, rules of separation, and the dynamic, unplanned interactions which define urban life. Urban spaces blend functions in ways which not only make each function stronger in and of itself, but which also aid each other to create emergent systems, ones which can produce effects seemingly larger than the sum of their parts. This mixing of uses should support and enrich both the human experience and human institutions[12].

Second is perhaps the most readily identifiable characteristic of urbanity: its physicality. The physical urban environment needs to be built to support the functions described above. This implies a number of things: a relative density of buildings and/or dwelling units, storefronts (at least in many regions), interesting streetscapes, and public space where it can and will be well used[13].

But physical space does more than support function—it supports its residents. The most important physical characteristic of urbanity is the human scale. Urban environments, by definition and by their very nature, are built for human beings, and should be sized and shaped appropriately for their physical size, their travel speed, and their physical and psychological needs. Our embodied experience in the cityscape is a key component of the urban mode of existence; and while other modes, such as that of driving an automobile, can coexist, they must be kept secondary to the primary goal of creating a human environment. Things which hurt our experience of physical space—for example barren landscapes, blank walls, or dehumanizing scale—in turn inhibit urban existence[14].

Shot of Portland, OR streetscape
A view of a parking lot, with an old lady carrying bags across.
Left: The human scaled streets of Portland, OR. Right: Barren landscapes like parking lots making walking feel far more difficult, as well as far less pleasant. [15]

Aesthetics, too, are an important aspect of urban physicality, but also a contentious and potentially dangerous one. Aesthetic choices are inherently and intensely personal and political. Overly regulating them may disproportionately inhibit the freedom and political attachment that is vital not only for urbanity, but for all well-functioning cities. At the same time, the street is not merely a collection of pieces of private property—it is our most fundamental public space. What's more, certain architectural and spatial rules and patterns are widely understood by the American public, and have a track record of success in urban places. While it may not be necessary or desirable to privilege one style choice over another, urban aesthetics must support the human scale and human needs. The more they do so, and the more pleasant they are to their denizens, the more they encourage urban uses[16].

These first two categories viscerally define the environmental quality of a space, and form the fundamental basis for an urban environment. Without at least some degree of these types of functionalities and physicalities, a region or space is simply not urban. The second two categories, however, relate to parts of the urban experience other than mere physical presence. They can initially seem more esoteric, as if they apply more to the quality of a place's urbanity rather than its absolute presence. But this is not wholly true: without these characteristics, an environment, regardless of its appearance, can no longer fully operate as an urban space. Without them, a place may fail to support other types of human needs, may fail to allow or nurture adequate freedom, and ultimately may inhibit or prevent one of urbanity's core capabilities—its ability to nurture emergent, enmeshed systems. At its very worst, an environment with no consideration of these characteristics is a stale facsimile of an urban space—an imitation that misses the original's core ideals. But given their more esoteric, harder to quantify nature, they are also far more subtle—and contentious—than the above points[17].

Urban environments should both provide support for a wide range of people—people with different tastes and of different means—and should work as a catalyst for the intermixing that constitutes large parts of the social, cultural, and economic engines of a city. To do this effectively, the third characteristic of urbanity is its economic dimension. Urban environments should work to weave economic freedom and economic opportunity into the fabric of a place, without compromising its other systems and characteristics. Economic activity, in whatever form or guise it takes, is nothing if not an important subset of the human experience, and thus an important part of the urban mode of life. Urban economic systems need to support variety, opportunity, and the intermingling of people, goods, and ideas—indeed, they are some of the major social and economic benefits that urbanity can provide. The best ways to go about achieving these goals, however, are open—and contentious—questions.[18].

Here Jane Jacobs once again led the way in both her text and subtext, elucidating how urban environments affect, and in turn are affected by, economic structures. Generally speaking, urban places should be made up of smaller lots with differently priced properties. These support urban physicality: smaller buildings often are closer to the human scale, smaller lots make walking easier and more pleasant, and variety provides opportunity for the human psychological and navigational need for visual diversity. They also support variety in function and in habitance. This is why buildings of different ages—something very hard to simulate in areas of all-new construction—are so appealing: they provide a variety of styles, configurations, and prices, which in turn allows for different types of uses to exist near each other, and for different segments of the population both to find homes and to interact[19].

Other economic questions are more complicated. Take the idea of property ownership. Some observers and thinkers prize personal ownership. For them, it is a matter of equity—an almost Jeffersonian way of ensuring a deep, direct connection to the environment by way of possessing a direct stake in it. Others disagree vehemently, pointing to, for example, what are in their view successful cities based around renting. They argue that in its deepest, political sense, ownership is far more than a matter of who holds the deed, as well as point out the exclusionary effects an insistence on ownership can have on those who cannot, or do not wish to, afford it[20].

Land regulation is a similar issue. Imbuing too much freedom to land owners can have incredibly deleterious effects. Ownership may end up monopolized by a small class or group, leading to an environmental monoculture representing only their interests. Unchecked market forces may readily turn into economic spirals towards ever higher wealth or ever deeper poverty. Truly incompatible uses (though fewer and father between then normally believed) may be placed next to each other with no available recourse. Worst of all, we may lose adequate control over our environment's most plentiful, and most important, public space—the streetscape itself. Conversely, too much regulation comes with problems all its own: it can stifle change and innovation, limit opportunity to either start new firms or to create entirely new types of firms, and may potentially intrude too deeply upon our common political rights in ways that are overbroad, unjustified, or deleterious[21].

In short, as with aesthetics, in urbanity the ability to achieve specific outcomes is more important than the precise system that does so, with the caveat that certain patterns and certain systems have far stronger track records than others. Urban environments need to provide a fertile habitat for human action and interaction, including economic activity. They should encourage new types of economic organization. Many different classes and groups of individuals should have the opportunity to start or run firms, or to otherwise participate in the economic system, should they so desire—with a concomitant access to property, capital, and education. And above all, the economic system of an urban environment should allow for new interactions to occur, and in turn allow for new and different combinations of forms, both economic and social, to arise.[22].

Fourth and finally, urbanity has a political dimension: urban spaces should allow for personal, political ownership. Even more than economics, personal politics are hard to quantify—at their core, they are a qualitative experience. Fundamentally, urban environments must allow a true sense of political ownership over space and place, along with the senses of comfort and security that come with it. They should—as much as is possible—provide denizens with the freedom to experiment in their selves and their activities within the comfort and safety of feeling at home. Urban space should allow for individuals to be seen when they want to be seen, such as when they are protesting, and to be protected when they do not, such as when blending into the crowd. They should provide support for basic human psychological and physical needs to allow for deeper expressions of humanity—fear of crime or for one's physical or psychological well-being are particularly chilling. Urban spaces cannot be rigidly controlled, nor have all aspects of control centralized in the hands of a few, preventing denizens from having, recognizing, using, and/or appreciating their own personal stakes. Rigidly defined and overly supervised environments rapidly risk becoming sterile, detached, and impersonal places, where little to no personal or political flourishing can occur[23].

Personal politics are deeply nuanced, complex, and delicate to navigate, and the politics of the everyday are doubly so. Political ownership is a nebulous concept, the experience of which will vary greatly between individuals and groups. That said, there are general ways that urban characteristics can support it. In the broadest strokes, political ownership arises from things like repeated interactions between people, places, and things, from familiarity, from safety, from comfort, and from a sense of liberty of action. Urban physicality should create comfortable, appropriately scaled, and attractive environments—spaces people identify with and want to be a part of. It can promote interactions, a knowledge of space, and safety via encouraging connections between buildings—residential as well as commercial—and the street. Overlapping functions and mixed uses can provide opportunities for experiences, both new and routine. They can encourage travel around a neighborhood or a city, and with it, create opportunities for varied, sometimes repeating interactions that lead to a personal connection to a region, contact between otherwise separate groups, interpersonal connections, familiarity, acquaintances, and even, potentially, friendship—all factors which aid in creating and refining a deep understanding of place. The economic system too can both work to promote ownership—legal or personal—as well as work to widen the possibility space of an environment. It can create an environment which allows residents to start businesses, clubs, or any other type of institution if they so desire—institutions which can support and in turn be supported by the community. It can work to allow individuals who want to join a community to move in[24].

Expanding these principles upwards, denizens should have some sort of input to the purpose and form of a place, preferably having democratic input into how it is built and run. This requires striking a balance that allows individuals to exercise their own independence, as well as allowing for large-scale, collective plans of action to come to fruition[25].

Ultimately, environments which fail to provide consideration for personal politics will lose the spark and the vitality that drives the urban experience. People care far less about spaces—and use them in far less interesting ways—when they feel they don't have, nor could they ever have, a stake in them. They simply avoid spaces in which they feel uncomfortable or threatened. Without some sense of political ownership, a purportedly urban place is merely a collection of structures that simply cannot provide much of what we expect from urbanity.

These four qualities—function, physicality, economics, and politics—serve as a beginning for understanding what urbanity is, how it functions, and why it can be a powerful force. In practice, they should work together to create an emergent, dynamic system—not only one in which each facet supports and strengthens the others, but also one in which new, unpredictable, and innately human activities and interactions can come about. But make no mistake, urbanity is a complex phenomenon, and much work still remains to be done to identify exactly what it is, what it means, and how it operates. This definition, like our understanding of the urban, is tentative and evolving. There are surely more qualities or qualifications which could be added, many items which may be controversial and which are certainly contestable, and above all, many refinements which remain to be made. But while it is true that urbanity is primarily about the physical environment, the deeper we dig, the more we discover that the physical, the social, the economic, and the political are all closely and directly related components of the human experience—to the point that the closer we examine them, the more the lines between them begin to blur.

Still, even from this tentative list, we can see that not all places which have urban characteristics are cities, nor do all cities have urban characteristics. An American shopping mall, for instance, has a strong degree of urbanness to it: its interior is explicitly and exquisitely human scaled, encouraging walking with a variety of things to do and look at. It contains a modicum of mixed use, often including eating, socializing, and recreational spaces in addition to the standard retail. Moreover, it is often full of people, creating opportunities for all sorts of interactions. These characteristics were no accident. Victor Gruen, perhaps the most influential creator of the modern mall concept, was explicitly attempting to capture the nature of European city centers in a form accessible to a car-centered culture[26].

Looking down the corridor of an American shopping mall
Lookind down a very similar scene, now a shopping street in Vienna, Austria
Left: An American shopping mall. Right: A shopping street in Vienna, Austria. [27]

At the same moment, as Gruen himself argued later in his life, a mall fails at being an urban space. While it has somewhat varied functions, it is dominated by commerce and a specific type of consumptive retail. Housing has no place, nor, for the most part, does any non-commercial community-related activity—they simply do not fit the purposes of most owners. There is almost no economic opportunity outside of consuming: most management companies simply aren't interested in potential businesses not tied to large, existing corporations. And most importantly, a mall is the antithesis of a free environment. It is rigidly controlled and has been planned to achieve very specific goals. It is hard to develop any sort of true sense of political ownership in a place where one can be asked to leave at any time, and in a place where one's actions are so specifically guided towards a single target—spending money. Even in California, the one state where the law has explicitly found that malls are a public space for political purposes, deep connection and potential ownership rarely, if ever, surface. Perhaps the only notable exceptions are certain suburban groups, such as teens or elderly walkers, for whom there are simply no palatable or accessible alternatives to this pseudo-urban space.

In contrast, a suburban city like the aforementioned Houston exists on the other end of the spectrum. It has some urban-like characteristics, including a handful of fragmented urban centers and certain nodes—shopping centers, coffee shops, libraries, parks, and the like—which can encourage some of the interactions and overlapping activities associated with urbanity. Ultimately, however, Houston fails to be an urban place: the bulk of its environment is not human scaled, it is shaped for automobiles. Neither its usage patterns nor its physicality support an intensity of use. Houston is still clearly a city, and supports human social, political, and economic needs in its own ways. But the environment and methods in which they are achieved occur in very different ways—and to very different degrees—then they do in urban places.

There are many possible criticisms of this definition, of course. Fundamentally, there is a danger inherit in any attempt to create a definition: it can imply the closing off of other options and other viewpoints. Even though this is a tentative definition, one specific critique needs to be addressed. That is that this line of thinking is almost teleological in nature: that just as a seed necessarily contains the future essence of the tree it can produce, humans carry within them the makings of their own habitats, urban environments. Taken to its logical extreme, it could seem that there exists a Platonic Ideal of how a city should be—potentially a very dangerous conception. There is some truth to this critique. This definition is an attempt at synthesizing and elucidating what is and has been a long-running ontological category in American history, theory, and observation. Many of the works upon which this definition builds are themselves rooted in quasi-scientific certitude, compelling logical deductions from unproven axioms, and/or the authoritativeness of self-perceived common sense. These views can be tempered and defended by taking a structuralist view—that like Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, which posits innately human language patterns, specific human factors such as body shape, senses, mobility, and psychological needs could point to the existence of a universal urbanity. While such an idea may be tempting, the spectrums of human experiences, cultural differences, and individual preferences are incredibly broad. Even if we believe a universal urbanism exists, we would be a very long way from identifying it[28].

Therefore, as mentioned at the beginning, this tentative definition of urbanity explicitly does not proclaim its universality. Rather, like the approach of the architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues in A Pattern Language, it represents neither absolute truth nor a mere list of preferences. Instead, it is a set of patterns—of concepts, theories, designs, and experiences—born out of the history of American urbanity, which have, to date, proven successful in encouraging certain modes of human existence, and through them, certain types of cities. This provisional outline is an open-ended definition for those who seek to create urban spaces, particularly in the American context, as well as a reminder to those who deviate from them that, while it is acceptable to do so, extra caution and care must be taken, for such is an experiment whose outcome is unknown[29].

This theory of urbanity is but one lens, albeit a potentially powerful one, through which to understand what a city is, how it works, and how it can be improved. For so much of the last century of American history, urbanity was simply not an option. Now, dramatically, and thanks to the efforts of many, not only are urban environments an option, they are a highly sought after one. This doesn't mean they are the only possibility, nor that they will please everyone—those who seek to convert every suburban environment into an urban one are, in my view, bound to be disappointed. Urban environments have many benefits which make them attractive, be it ecologically, socially, economically, or if done well, even humanistically. But at the end of the day, urbanity is a choice, one which thankfully is now not only possible, but often preferred.

Urbanity may not be an either-or phenomenon, but if the urban is indeed a spectrum, it is not a linear one. Urbanity is a complex web of interworking parts and systems. Urban or non-urban choices alike can build upon each other so quickly as to force one or the other out. For much of American history, this has meant building suburbs, highways, and shopping malls, often ripping right through the fabric of existing urban cities to do so. History may have turned, but we must remember that history is not a supernatural force, it is something made in the present. We still have many choices left to make. And, as everything from ongoing highway bills to continued suburban expansion to the cancellation of mass transit projects show, the voices of those who don't appreciate urbanity still carry significant weight.

Kevin Lynch called for us to look deeply inward and ask ourselves what kind of city we want to live in. Jane Jacobs implored us to look beyond our own biases and to examine the power of a set of systems that modernity had almost passed by. Our own history provides us with many examples—both positive and negative, both physical and theoretical—as to how certain types of cities work. But to utilize the lessons of the past, we need theories which can make them practical in the present. This conception of urbanity is a start, a way to both ask the question and to provide a first draft of an answer as to what urbanity in America means, and how we might utilize it in the future. The rest—to continue to define urbanity, refine our conceptions, and to continue to protect, build, and enhance urban places—is up to all of us as we continue to build the future of the American city.

End Notes
  1. Large portions of this article are reworked from the introduction to my thesis: Blair Lorenzo, The Washington Metro and the Fall and Rise of American Urbanity (Master's Thesis, 2014). Alan Ehrenhalt, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (2012, New York: Vintage Books, 2013). Paul L. Knox, Cities and Design (London: Routledge, 2011).
  2. Ehrenhalt 2012. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class-Revisited (Basic Books, 2nd edition: 2012). Bill Carter, “‘Tonight’ Show Returns to New York After Nearly 42 Years,” The New York Times (Feb. 16 2014, Accessed May 10th, 2014:
  3. Taken on a Metro-North train in July of 2015. All photos unless otherwise sourced are taken by the author.
  4. Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987). Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (New York: Touchstone, 1993). William H. Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center (New York: Doubleday, 1988). Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontiers (New York: Doubleday, 1991).
  5. Fishman 1987. Robert E. Lang, Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003). For more on the "No true Scottsman fallacy, see its Wikipedia article (
  6. Images, top to bottom, left to right: Nelson Minar, "Houston Suburbs" (December 19, 2010, accessed September 2015: Dhanix on Wikimedia Commons, "45 into I-10 2" (November 24, 2006, accessed September 2015: WhisperToMe on Wikipedia, "Memorial City Mall" (June 13, 2011, accessed September 2015: Daniel Case, "Downtown Hoosick Falls, NY," Wikipedia (August 26, 2008, accessed September 2015:,_NY.jpg). Larchmont Avenue looking at Palmer Avenue, Larchmon, NY, September 2015 by author. Lookingdown 5th Avenue from 2nd Street, Pelham, NY, September 2015 by author.
  7. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).
  8. Jan Gehl, Cities for People (Washington: Island Press, 2010). Kunstler 1993. William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (New York: Project for Public Spaces, 1980).
  9. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection courtesy of Wikipedia, "Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts." (1961, accessed September 2015:
  10. Jackson 1985. Fishman 1987. Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-morrow (Classic Books International, 2010). Robert Beevers, The Garden City Utopia: A Critical Biography of Ebenezer Howard (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961). Jacobs, The Economy of Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1969). Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press: 2012). Max Page and Timothy Mennel, eds., Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (Chicago: American Planning Association Planners Press, 2011). Anthony Flint, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City (New York: Random House, 2009).
  11. Jacobs 1961. Jacobs 1969. Whyte 1980. Whyte 1988. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960). Kevin Lynch, Good City Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981). Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, & Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. (Oxford University Press, 1977). Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978). Fishman 1987. Allan B. Jacobs, Great Streets (1993, MIT Press: 1995). Kunstler 1993. Gehl 2010.
  12. Jacobs 1961. Gehl 2010.
  13. Jacobs 1961.
  14. ibid. Gehl 2010. Whyte 1980.
  15. Left: Downtown Portland OR, Summer 2014, by author. Right: Parking lot of Vienna, VA Metro Station, Spring 2014, by author.
  16. Kunstler 1993. Gehl 2010. Alexander 1977. Richard Sennet, "The Public Domain" (1974) in N. Glazer and M. Lilla, eds., The Public Face of Architecture: Civic Culture and Public Spaces (1987).
  17. Rosalyn Deutsche, “The Question of Public Space,” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, MIT Press: 1998). Nancy Faser, "Rethinking the Public Sphere" (1990), in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT Press: 1992).
  18. Jacobs 1968.
  19. ibid. Jacobs 1961. Lynch 1960. Gehl 2010.
  20. Alex F. Schwartz, Housing Policy in the United States (New York: Routledge, second edition, 2010). Rachel Bratt, Chester Hartman, Michael E. Stone, eds., A Right to Housing (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
  21. Jacobs 1961. John P. Blair and Michael C. Carroll, Local Economic Development: Analysis, Practices, and Globalization (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009, 2nd Ed.) Michael Allan Wolf, The Zoning of America: Euclid v. Ambler (University Press of Kansas, 2008). Jacobs 1968.
  22. Blair and Carroll 2009. Jacobs 1968.
  23. Henri Lefebve, "The Right to the City" (1968), in E. Kofman and E. Lebas, eds., Writings on Cities: Henri Lefebvre 1901-1991 (1996). Hannah Arendt, "The Public Realm: The Common" (1958), in N. Glazer and M. Lilla, eds., The Public Face of Architecture: Civic Culture and Public Spaces (1987). Deutsche 1998. Fraser 1990.
  24. Jacobs 1961. Gehl 2010. Jacobs 1968. Kunstler 1993. Blair and Carroll 2009.
  25. Lynch 1981.
  26. M. Jeffery Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2004).
  27. Left: ArchBob on Pixabay, View of shopping mall (November 10, 2013, distributed for free use, accessed September 2015: Right: Andrew Nash, "Mariahilfestrasse Pedestrian Street Vienna" (December 2014, retouched slightly by the author, accessed September 2015:
  28. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (The Hague: Moulton, 1957). Gehl 2010.
  29. Alexander 1977.