What is Urban

There are lots different ways of explaining the meaning of "urban".  Here are some of the possibilities:

Landscape: Urban areas are densely-settled places, built-up settlements with bricks-and-mortar continuity.

Population and Density: Urban areas are clustered, dense, settlements with populations above a certain size (no-body knows exactly how big).

Functional: Urban areas are places characterised by urban ways of living, urban ways of relating to other people, of urban economic activities, of urban forms of identity and social organization.  It is called "functional" because we are talking about how things work or function.  The urban area (under this meaning) works differently from a rural area.

Often undergraduates try to start essays by defining things.  And yes, we do see a lot of people consulting Webster's dictionary at this point.  Actually, it is more important to get at meanings, not definitions.  With meanings we are less concerned with the edges of what the term denotes, and more concerned with centres.  We can be a little vague with meanings.

Most researchers seem to favour a functional meaning for the term "urban", but we often use the other two for convenience.  Actually, if you take the functional meaning seriously then places which function in an urban way must really be urban, even if they look rural.  There is a body of thought out there which argues that cyberspace ties everyone into the same functional urban experience.  We are living in a global city.  The economy of rural areas depends, increasingly on cities (for markets, for tools, machinery, fertilisers etc.,).  Even the wilderness is "urban" because its function is to be there to get featured in Cable-TV shows about the wilderness.

In this course, as a subsidiary theme, we are going to get you to think about Globalization.  What is really interesting is that globalization and urbanization are, in some respects, the same thing.

What is urban studies? Well, in urban studies we study the urban experience.  We should study it in all aspects, in practice though, the field is dominated by social scientists, and they only see the city in social science terms.

You get something of an idea of how broad (and how narrow) the field is by looking at the variety of chapter headings in Fainstein & Campbell.


A quirky look at urban studies in Rotterdam: click here 
How the bureaucrats at the US census define urban: click here (sensible but boring).
Urban places in France: Click here Enjoy with a good cheese.

Student Feedback

Some of you have been e-mailing your suggestions and comments.  Here they are, not necessarily correct or officially endorsed, but this is what you are sending us:

What is Urban? Urban areas are created when a large group of people gather to live in a certain area. Most of the time they are created for beneficial reasons. Example 
being a mining town. The workers come to the town to work the mines then other 
people come to provide services for these miners and their families thus 
creating their own jobs. Soon governments will be created brining in more jobs. 
Together these people create urban environments where people work in multiple 
types of jobs and services that help each other. [Sarah]

What is Urban? Regarding your question, I believe it refers to everything that has been altered by human hands, It goes beyond nature and dwells in the cities.
a pair of shoes can be urban and also the way a modern teenager dresses.
it is part of our human condition. But looking at it from another point of 
view, it can be natural because it is part of our HUMAN NATURE [Mauricio].

What is urban? Urban is hard to characterize. Urban as a theme encompasses many fields. There is the urban economy, the urban culture, the urban environment, the physical infrastructure. I believe urban is a term now being used to describe or modify or fields of study, and that urban is not one thing, but rather a set of interrelated concepts [Jody].

What is urban?: Some of my suggestions of 'what is urban?' are: -seems to be a place of convenience
-basic definition of urban seems to be "a settlement with more than 2500 people"
-in my opinion, it's a place of convenience or a metropolis, where you would live, do business. Everything is within easy access.
-a form of metropolization of an area or creating of a city.
-a good and informative resource for me was GEOGLNK:
-the meaning of urban has come a long way -- through the demand of science and technology, we have many forms of 'urban'; urban living, urban culture etc.
-there is a fine line on the boundaries of urbanism due to technology and internet access [Usheena].

The Question you proposed, What is Urban?, can not be simply answered. I believe that there are many answers. The one that I believe is the most correct, is that urban can be defined as its differences from rurality. I believe that urban area contain a highly dense population with a strong economic center, plus is has a diverse workforce. The opposite of a rural setting which depends on agriculture and recreation as its main source of economy and is well spaced out population over large plots of land. The only confusion between the two can come from the hinterland where it is hard to define whether it is urban or rural [Shaun].

"What is Urban?" Having read the course text particularly for the first unit, my impression of the 2 views of the city were contrasting. It was interesting to see the two opposing views of "what urban is". Kunstler projected in a bold manner, how "urbanism" is destructive, taking away from the notion of community. Kunstler believes that urbanisation is devouring and robbing small communities, of their natural landscape. The community becomes a series of sections, with allocated land uses (such as the suburbs, central business district, etc,). Urbanization as Kunstler sees it is destroying the natural landscape in which what he feels is necessary to in maintaining a good healthy quality if life. Therefore what Kunstler means Chapter 1 of his book, titled "Scary Places" is that the expansion of the city is like an unstoppable machine, turning communities situated amoungst natural landscapes, into a rather "fake" and "imagined" communities or "suburbia" as some would call it.

In contrast to Kunstler, Fainstein and Scott project a rather neutral and bleak explanation of the meaning of "urbanization". The authors celebrated the positive aspects of urbanization (i.e. how it contributes to the economy; how it is a catalyst for urban infrastructure and jobs, and how it creates regulation among the community). Although, the readings from this text did not really show bias, it does represent a relatively neutral view based on theory and facts, contrary to Kunstler.

In my opinion, I believe that urbanization consists of both physical elements and social elements. Urbanism to me is a concentration of people, living within a dense setting creating a demand for dense infrastructure (examples, apartment buildings, skyscrapers, condo complexes). However, along with the physicalities of what "is urban", it is within and around these physical infrastructures that lie the most important part of what is "urban". It is the type of unique "urban" lifestyles found within the urban community that is not experienced anywhere else, for example the countryside. It is the people, the anonymity, and the differences between people that not necessarily define, but distinguish what urban is. Without "urban lifestyles" (per say), then the urban infrastructure is of no particular importance, and the city dies. (Look at Buffalo, and Detroit). It is the amenities, and services offered in the city that attracts population, creating demand for various infrastructure uses. That to me is "what is urban" [Melissa]

What is urban? The boundaries between urban, suburban and rural areas have become blurred in the electronic era. In order to be involved in urban activities, it is not necessary for one to be physically present in "the city", which is often considered to be the urban area. In a traditional sense, a place where commercial buildings, which are the architectural monuments that supports the major commercial activities of a region, for example downtown Toronto, is considered to be urban space. However, since it is not necessary for a stock trader to perform his duty at an office in downtown Toronto, the city no longer defines the urban area. Therefore, in my opinion, the urban area is not necessarily a physical space but it is a network where people interact with each other to perform some kinds of services and when one decides to be involved in any kind of urban activity one enters the urban space [Jin-Yi]

You posed the question "what is urban? and what is urban studies?" on the unit one web site. I'd like to give you my perception of the word "urban" without having had any previous education in urban studies - just from having had 
the urban experience. I also wrote this response before reading through the course notes. 
    I have always equated urban with city. An urban area, in my mind, is a heavily populated environment that acts as a social, political, cultural and economic hub. With this said, I perceive urban studies as the analysis of society, politics, culture and economy within and how they work together in a heavily populated, urban space.
    I'm looking forward to expanding on (or maybe altering entirely) this definition in your course! [Lindsey]