Suburbs In Disguise

The word “urban” can be either a pejorative or a compliment, depending on who is using it. In newspapers and magazines, being called urban is usually an insult-code for poor, crime-ridden, and deteriorated. In burgeoning suburbs, it’s common to hear talk about areas that are getting “more urban”-and this doesn’t mean the proliferation of quaint cafes or homes close to the street. Rather, the term is used to describe places where minorities are moving in, affluence is declining, or where crime is on the rise.To others, urban simply means “city-like,” that is, the place where things are happening. In an article I wrote for the newsletter “Edge City” (published by Joel Garreau, author of the 1991 book of the same name) on the suburbanization of Europe, the editor insisted I use the word urban to describe the shopping malls and cul-de-sac subdivisions surrounding Copenhagen. As he explained, one of the central tenets of the “edge city” philosophy is that places like Tysons Corner, outside Washington, D.C., are the new commercial, residential, and retail centers of the country. Therefore, they were urban. Garreau’s team was trying to grab the word and make off with it.To designers, architects, and fans of New Urbanism, “urban” means a way of building towns-or more accurately, subdivisions-that are still centered around walkable streets, which were the norm until the automobile pushed them into outmodedness. These are places where you can walk to a store or a restaurant, or between homes, without being dependent on the car-places that are at least somewhat reminiscent of nineteenth-century cities or suburbs.Maybe it’s the lack of an agreed-upon definition for “urban” that explains the slipperiness of New Urbanism. The word means whatever people want it to mean. A.M