A former student interviewed me on Urbanism and my career as a teacher and as a community activist. The interview was great fun and here are some excerpts from it.
In its simplest meaning, Urbanism is the term we use to to describe the way life is lived in cities and larger towns. When we apply it to professional practice, it's used to refer to the development and planning of cities. In recent years, the term has taken on cultural and ideological significance in the way it's used by people who celebrate and promote urban living and advocate for public policies that encourage urban living and benefit cities.
Not exactly, though they do overlap and those who associate themselves with the New Urbanist movement certainly see themselves as Urbanists. The New Urbanist movement promotes things like walkable neighborhoods, accessible public transit, human scale architecture, mixed-use development, and the cultivation of safe and attractive public spaces. It strongly opposes "auto-centric" city planning and development. As you'd expect, architects and planners are well represented in the New Urbanism movement.
I would say that there are ideological considerations more fundamental than the design choices that New Urbanists promote. The most fundamental question is how important we consider cities to be to the success of our society. If we judge that having vital, healthy, prosperous, and beautiful cities is critical to the success of our society then we have to make sure that we have policies at the national, state, and regional levels that encourage that. Unfortunately, in the U.S. we don't have policies of that kind and, in fact, there are political factions that demonize and marginalize cities.
Well, dealing with that question would require a whole course at the University of Cincinnati! Let's just say that there are two main policy categories that work to make cities what they need to be. One is what we call "Cities of Choice" strategies that shape cities so that they are the places where people well enough off to have choice about where they get to live want to live. Obviously, these strategies have a lot to do with creating and maintaining in cities the kinds of cultural and physical amenities that creative and talented young people like you find attractive.
The other is what we call "Cities of Justice" strategies. These encompass the policies that assure that cities that become places where more affluent people want to live remain welcoming and safe places for those who have fewer choices about where they can live. After all, there were long decades during which affluent Americans fled cities and more economically marginalized Americans were left behind. That was an injustice to those people and to the cities themselves.
Now that many Americans are again embracing city living we have to be careful that resurgent cities like Cincinnati are welcoming and comfortable places for people of all economic classes.
As I've said many times, the city is the highest achievement of the human spirit. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the city is the womb from which emerged all the innovations that magnify and ennoble human life. Art, music, literature, philosophy, mathematics, science and technology, medicine, commerce, jurisprudence – all these things were born in cities or the city’s close cousin, the university. Of all human artifacts, the city is most worth preserving. The physical and cultural fabrics of historic cities are like tapestries that tell the stories of those who lived here before us – who they were, how they lived their lives, and what they understood “the good life” to be. Our task is to cherish our cities and make them wholesome, beautiful, and convivial places – places where we, too, can live creative, full, and satisfying lives together.
Yes, in a way, though naturally an ethics course like that deals with countless questions and issues that go beyond Urbanism. But you probably remember that the central question of ancient ethical philosophers was what is the highest and best form of human life, the kind of life in which we can become the fullest version of ourselves. The Greek philosophers we studied certainly believed that a full life of that kind was most likely to be available to us in cities. Of course the ancient city was very different from the modern American city but, even so, it seems that more and more Americans – especially young Americans – agree with the Greeks and are embracing city living. I guess we can say they're truly "New Urbanists." Let's hope that what we're seeing is the United States once again acknowledging how important its cities are to its future.
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