This Is Urban

October 28, 2021

When you hear the term urban, do you grow terrified? Do you think of Gotham City? Do you picture yourself in a Charles Bronson movie? Is the urban in your head full of roaming hordes of ne’er-do-wells with machetes? 

Yeah, well- I’m pretty sure that was the plan. Some nefarious actors have had a hand in shaping that image for you and for all of us Americans. In painting urban places as the setting for my sons’ next Call of Duty game, it becomes easier to sell suburbia. Look, this notion of scary urban had to come from somewhere and as we all know, there are plenty of people out there with agendas and not all of them good. I am well aware of the racal component of this issue as well, but I am ill equipped to address that here.  

I am not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch. I’ve never hung out with Squatch, I’ve never been abducted and prodded by the little green guys, but I do believe there are plenty of politically and profit motivated people willing to push the notion that urban is dangerous for their own benefit. The whole reason urban has been painted as scary is to sell us more shit we don’t need. 

Economically self-reliant towns keep money in the hands of locals, but they do a terrible job of enriching shareholders. Walkable places don’t need as many cars, bike friendly cities use less gasoline, towns with public transportation don’t hire as may asphalt contractors. A community full of locally owned business doesn’t depend on Home Deport and Chik-Fil-A. Corporate developers aren’t trying to build cute blocks. There is just not enough money in it. 

What is best for cities and what is best for Wall Street are not aligned. They are diametrically opposed, but too many cities don’t see this. Our places would be far better off making decisions that made residents happier and more connected. Decisions that kept money in the pockets of locals and starved Wall Street. City leaders have been convinced that bolstering the US economy as a whole will lift up the local economy, but inequality and corporate greed have ensured that is not the case. We need healthy local economies and Wall Street can pound sand. 

By making urban seem scary, suburbia keeps selling, even though it’s a terrible product. Terrible for the cities that build it and for the people that use it. Yet, so many keep selling it and so many keep buying it. Suburbia is a tape worm surrounding cities, draining them of their life blood while wrecking the rural landscape and fucking over farmers. 

How scary is urban anyway? Do you feel safe on Main Street? Are you in danger on your block? How much will you get murdered on the way to City Hall? Are you thinking right now… “But my town isn’t urban.” 

As the famous Spanish swashbuckler, by way of Florin, Inigo Montoya so succinctly put it “You keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Urban does not, in fact, mean scary murder place. It only means in, relating to, or characteristic of a town or city. Literally, urban only means a place that is characteristic of town. Not big city, not major metropolis, but town. So urban means all of your town that isn’t rural, or suburban. Your Main Street is urban, your block is urban. A town of 12 people is still urban. 

The problem with bastardizing the word urban for political and profit purposes goes deep. I was in a conversation with my brother-in-law last week and his city is about to green-light residential use on the first floor in their smaller downtown. I, of course, sent him a beautifully composed piece on the subject and then explained why this is detrimental in urban places, because healthy towns depend on foot traffic for commerce, a sense of community and vibrancy, but he replied that this place he was talking about was not urban. Yes, this place most certainly is urban as it absolutely pertains to town, but when the understanding of a word changes, there are unintended implications. My brother-in-law’s downtown is small, but it still is urban.  

Even the smallest of towns must still function as a town, to work. It must have a central market place, which means it must have commerce on the first floor that serves the surrounding neighborhoods. Take this away and a town deteriorates. There is never an instance of killing the central market place that hasn’t led to the deterioration of the surrounding community. That would be like a guy with heart disease that keeps getting healthier. 

A couple of years ago, while presenting in Iowa, I was party to a debate at a Main Street conference about grant funding going to urban vs rural counties. There was frustration about rural counties getting more resources than urban counties and what defined one versus the other. But the issues weren’t urban or rural, the issue was the towns needed help. A county can’t be urban or rural, though it may contain both types of land use. Urban and rural are landscapes and should be treated as such. A town can’t be rural. It might be small, but it isn’t rural. This misappropriation of a word is putting places at odds and creating problems. 

Words matter. Wars have been fought over them. It is important that we get our words right. We have allowed profiteers and politicians to redefine the word urban and it is costing us dearly. The bad definition is being used to set policy. It’s being used to sell us suburban decline. It is being used to scare people away from the types of places we need people to live. The types of places that people are better off living. 

We need healthy urban places. We need healthy rural places. We don’t need the bullshit in between them. We need ten thousand strong local economies to have a healthy US economy and to have healthy local economies, we need healthy urban places, of all sizes.

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