Defining Urbanism

While I am a self-declared "urbanist", this does not mean I think everyone should live in a Manhattan or a Chicago (or even Des Moines). This post will discuss my approach to urbanism and why I actively promote urban policies and urban (re)development.

Normally to start a post like this, I would do a quick Google search for "urban" and check out what other people think an "urban" is. It's a standard timesaver used by the net generation - no need to reinvent the wheel (many blog posts are reactions or responses to something that already exists). As an aside, this approach isn't new. How many high school essays start out "Webster's Dictionary defines [my topic] as..."?

However, for the purposes of this exercise, I am forgoing that maneuver. I'm going to start from scratch and see where "urbanism" takes me.


I define urbanism as the active pursuit of a compact and connected physical environment that respects the public realm, promotes diversity of use, and supports a diverse population.

I'll examine each of these components individually.


Compactness (density) is inversely related to connectivity. That is, the less compact a neighborhood or city is, the more difficult it is to provide good connectivity. The more compact a neighborhood or city, the more likely it is that residents have a variety of means to transport themselves between activities in their daily lives.

An urbanist advocates for compact neighborhoods that can provide the necessities for daily life within a defined and manageable boundary.

This doesn't preclude single-family homes on individual lots - I see a lot of value in single-family housing and live in a single-family home myself. Well planned single-family housing can till providing enough density to support neighborhood commercial, employment, educational, and entertainment uses.

Conversely, multiple unit condo and apartment buildings can actually be planned in such a way as to render their relative density useless. It is critically important that density be well-considered so that the sacrifice of open space yields an environment that supports a higher density of use.


An urban environment must provide for a variety of transportation modes, including support for people who do not own cars. A connected environment has a gridded road system, nearby public transportation, bicycle lanes/paths, and pedestrian friendly sidewalks that connect the residential areas to commercial/retail options, entertainment venues, schools, and places of employment. In particularly dense and connected areas, such uses may coexist in the same or adjacent buildings.

Respecting the Public Realm

One of the biggest difference between urban and suburban typologies is the use and allocation of space.

  • Relationship between public and private. Suburban housing and retail tend to "turn their backs" to the public space, pulling people off the street and into non-public spaces. Suburban housing typologies, for example almost all place the garage door as the primary front facade feature. Urban typologies tend to place more emphasis on porches and pedestrian entry. Urban retail tends to place an emphasis on open pedestrian-scaled storefronts.
  • Amount of physical space ceded from public use to the private domain. Suburban developments tend to privatize "public amenities" like parks and streets. In suburban retail developments, private parking often consumes more space than the retail establishments themselves. The public domain often includes only the main arterial road, without a sidewalk.
  • Development scale. Urban (re)development is typically scaled at a much smaller level than suburban development. Large tracts of land are simply not as readily available for building, and are much more difficult to assemble in urban areas. Large developments tend to be more uniform (banal?) and self-referential. Urban streets tend to be more organic in character.

Diversity of Use

Many urban areas have chosen to adopt suburban style zoning ordinances that forcefully separate even compatible uses from each other. Over time, use-based zoning ordinances tend to promote suburban building forms and an over reliance on automobiles for daily living.

Urbanism is about promoting diversity of compatible uses (residential and neighborhood retail, for example) that support compact geographic communities. Reverting from use-based zoning to form-based zoning ordinances is one way of encouraging sustainable urban redevelopment patterns.

Population Diversity

Homogeneous populations, segregated into discreet income and ethnic enclaves tends to stifle vigorous democratic debate - it is much easier to discount the beliefs and experiences of someone with whom you don't have frequent contact. By encouraging a variety of housing, entertainment, and retail options in close proximity, urbanism tends to promote a more diverse population.

Even if (as it appears people tend to do) urban dwellers self-segregate, the compactness and connection of an urban environment will tend to bring diverse residents in contact with each other.

Bringing It All Together

"Urbanism" is the lens through which I examine all aspects of life. Clearly, some places will always be more urban than others, and every place must be taken in historical context. Downtown Des Moines will never be downtown Chicago.

But particularly as our society confronts diminishing fossil fuel supplies (and the associated rise in prices), it is critically important to reconsider how we allocate space and resources. I see an urban resurgence on the horizon, and to some degree we will have to rebuild our collective knowledge of how to live together in a more compact and diverse setting. This will hold particularly true for mid-sized midwestern cities like Des Moines, where space has never been an issue before.

Developers are now looking for ways of making suburban construction remain viable, including "eco communities" and "new urbanism". Ultimately, however, it simply must pass the smell test. New construction on the fringe of developed land can rarely be considered urban no matter how compact or urban in character. Particularly when it draws existing population from established urban areas - the overall impact must be considered.

Urbanism is more than a set of cut-and-paste characteristics, it is a guiding philosophy about how citizens work together to create and share physical space in an efficient and comprehensive way.


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