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What's an Urbanist (part 1)? And what's it got to do with Columbia (part 2)?

In my reflection piece marking the one year anniversary of The Merriweather Post, I described this blog as a hyper-local neighborhood news blog with an urbanist slant. But, what's an urbanist and what's it got to do with Columbia?

Part 1: What's an Urbanist?

An urbanist not a term this former city-dweller invented, but rather a decades old concept that has characterized a movement towards creating more vibrant, diverse, equitable, sustainable, and interesting places to live in cities and towns across America.

Let me first begin with an introduction to what introduced me to urbanism well over a decade ago - Greater Greater Washington, the primer urbanist blog in the DC region. GGWash is a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization that discusses, organizes, and advocates for an inclusive, diverse, growing region where all people can choose to live in a walkable urban community. GGWash's blog provides a super-wonky exploration of the transportation, housing, and public policy issues facing the DMV. Similar organizations exist all throughout the country.

In an article last December, GGWash Founder David Alpert cited a definition of "urbanism" as the study of how inhabitants of urban areas, such as cities and towns, interact with the built environment. Alpert went on to explain the more advocacy-oriented term, "urbanist", using the following description borrowed from former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn:

Urbanists want more people (of all types) to have equal access to housing variety (apartments, townhomes, backyard cottages, houses, duplexes, etc.), more ways to get around (transit, walking, bicycling, ride-share, vanpool, etc.), more to see and do (parks, cafes, bars, museums, shops, etc.), and to have more grassroots influence on city government.

Urbanists is a fairly broad term. Not only will the concept apply differently in small cities like Columbia than it does in the heart of a large metropolitan, but there are also many different schools of thought regarding what urbanism entails and why it's important. Let me break down several subgenres of the various urbanist movements:

YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard): The YIMBY movement is a decentralized grassroot effort that supports housing as a direct response to the housing affordability crisis that compounds income inequalities. YIMBYs cast themselves in direct opposition to neighbors (NIMBYs) who fight development projects on the grounds that they are "out of character with the neighborhood" or that more new housing "will overwhelm overcrowded schools" (Note that I 100% agree that there is a school capacity issue in HoCo, but I don't believe stopping smart development is the answer, as addressed here). Instead, YIMBYs want more housing and support policies that ensure that everybody - regardless of age, race, ethnicity, income-level, or ability - can have a home in our community. Measures, such repealing exclusionary zoning, up-zoning, and affordable housing requirements, allow more people to benefit from the opportunities presented by living in prosperous areas like ours. YIMBY's view housing as a social justice issue as explained by YIMBY Action, a network of YIMBY activists:

Our support for more housing is impossible to separate from our desire to alleviate poverty, grow the economy, end homelessness, eliminate racial segregation, and stop climate change. The damage caused by our current housing shortage spreads inexorably into every aspect of our lives; it is an almost universal problem in American communities. Ending the housing shortage is necessary to address the racial wealth gap, stopping climate change, and many other problems society faces.

Smart Growth: Smart growth is an environmental-focused approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and transportation options as in-fill projects within existing neighborhoods. Smart growth looks at development from a sustainability perspective and favors compact, walkable development in city centers (think: Downtown Columbia & Village Centers) that minimize reliance on automobiles and allow many aspects of a daily routine to be completed using alternative modes of transit to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Smart growth advocates oppose sprawl and car-dependent residential developments, particularly when it occurs by razing woodlands or agriculture sites far from city centers. Smart Growth, under the official organization Smart Growth America, actually originated in Maryland in 1998 under former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and his Secretary of Planning, Harriet Tregoning. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a smart growth initiative to help expand economic opportunity while protecting human health and the environment in rural communities, small towns, and cities.

New Urbanism: This is a top down approach to urbanism focused on planning and design and, which I believe, is the most closely aligned with the master-planned development dictating the build-out of Downtown Columbia by a single developer. The Congress for New Urbanism, which started in 1993, defines its movement as "a planning and development approach based on the principles of walkability, connectivity, mixed land uses and diversity, mixed housing types, quality architecture and urban design, traditional neighborhood structure, increased density, multiple transportation choices, sustainability, and quality of life." New Urbanism focuses on human-scaled urban design and the creation of communities with a strong sense of place reflective of the diverse values, culture, and heritage of the people who live there.

Market Urbanism: Contrary to New Urbanism, Market Urbanism is a bottom-up approach, favoring organic spontaneous development through a free-market libertarian view under the belief that the supply of housing should not be regulated by government. Market Urbanism favor deregulation of land-use requirements (including requirements on lot sizes, zoning rules, minimum parking, and affordable housing requirements) to enable the creation of vibrant, dynamic and economically robust communities. Market urbanism demonstrates that people all across the political spectrum may support urbanism ideas.


Generally, most people won't associate with any particular one of these genres nor even give any considerably thought to the differences (after all, there is much overlap), but it's important to note there are many different reasons people come to embrace urbanism. Housing affordability is a necessity for narrowing income inequalities and combating racial injustices. Density, public transit, and housing equity is a key part of climate action. Walking and biking promotes health, interactions with our environment and other people, and is just a more enjoyable means of getting around. And more neighbors = more fun means that our quality of life and community cohesive will increase with all the events, parks, culture, art, restaurants, nightlife and shops that bring neighbors together. Creating great, walkable, dense, and connected places strengthens our tax base, provides economic opportunities for residents, and is a recipe for greater local economic prosperity.

In a future article, I'll get into more detail on how I believe these concepts apply to Columbia and the Downtown Columbia vision, but I also want to stress that this broader focus on urbanism is not a redirection of this blog. It's more of an umbrella idea that provides context to this blog's primary covering the specific development projects, events, restaurants, retail and happenings in our burgeoning urban core.

1 Comment

We can be urban, environmentally active, socially progressive, and still be uniquely Columbia. That's why we're staying in Columbia as retirees, community activists, and folkS who love both tress and people. Great analysis!

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