‘Urbanism’ is a useful term because it encompasses both the study and planning of cities as well as the condition of living in cities.
In this way the term ‘urbanism’ embeds the connection between the ‘planner’ or ‘designer’ and the city and people that are being planned for; it recalls the often quoted line from Coriolanus: ‘what is the city but the people?’.
If it is accepted that the human condition is inextricably and necessarily social, then the primary location of that sociability is the city.
It is possible to distinguish suburbanity – the desire to retreat, deny or be at a remove from the city, from urbanity. This is not to disparage or discount suburbia, but to recognise that the suburban condition arose initially as a way of avoiding the problems and undesirable conditions in the inner-city by those that could afford it.
Many of those conditions; pollution, noxious industry, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions have been overcome by regulation, technological advances and infrastructure, in developed countries at least.
From this perspective, the original motivation for suburbia no longer exists, but the suburban ‘model’ continues to act as a powerful force, simply because we have established a whole integrated legal, financial, industrial and production systems to facilitate its continuing production. These systems have an extraordinary momentum (people, trades, businesses and also psychological attachment of individuals) to continue the same pattern.
In fact it goes further; not only is there the pressure to continue the pattern which is expressed as physical expansion, but because the suburban model and typologies such as shopping malls, drive in fast-food and ‘big box retail’ are the ‘norm’, we have been ruining many of our existing centres by trying to insert these inappropriate suburban models into them.
There has been extensive research that time and again shows the advantages to society as a whole to have compact cities in terms of economic efficiency, productivity, and if done well, lower environmental impact and social justice in terms of access to goods and services for the less privileged. But again, we come up against the dominance of the suburban model, where we expect to have, allow and even demand suburban patterns of car ownership, open space, privacy, noise and solar access in even the densest, most accessible parts of the city.
It is not a matter of proposing ‘slums of the future’ but rather to recognise that there already exists a ‘mosaic’ of living patterns and urban conditions and that this diversity is desirable, should be recognised and should be developed further, rather than seeing the ‘urban’ condition as being somehow inferior to the ‘sub-urban’ condition.
From this perspective, ‘urbanism’ can be seen as developing an understanding and appreciation of the different patterns of living that are possible in different locations in the city. This is what is meant by a ‘place-based’ approach. Each place has its own character, potential, advantages and disadvantages, and each needs to develop a built form, public domain and open space network that encourages more sustainable patterns of living particular to those places.
The suburban model has also been an effective model for the avoidance of social ‘conflict’ as well. The spatial segregation of different social classes and physical separation of different activities may avoid ‘conflict’ but may also be accompanied by alienation, transference and dependence on regulation and institutions, rather than an ability and need to mediate and develop a sense of ‘civility’, tolerance and diversity that can come from the intensity of living in more ‘urban’ conditions.
Associate Professor Rod Simpson. The University of Sydney.