The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

An Urban Lexicon

Here are some common words you might come across in a conversation about cities, especially on this blog. I’ve included my own definitions or, in some cases, definitions offered by organizations that work in the field.

Accessibility— The quality that invites people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, races, abilities, religions, sexualities and incomes to enjoy the benefits of a place. This means good public transit options, walking paths, mixed housing, services and so on. For related posts, click here.

Asset-Based Community Development– This is a method that examines a neighborhood or city’s strong points and focuses on enhancing and capitalizing on them to improve the community. Asset-based community development is an alternative to other forms of development that focus solely on fixing a neighborhood’s “problems” rather than moving a neighborhood forward based on its strengths.

Citizen— The word does not just mean documented citizens, as labeled by the government. When I use the term “citizen,” I imply a broader definition of “citizenship”—a participant in community, decision-making, productivity, regardless of immigration status.

City— I used to think this was a tough one, but I’ve settled on a broad definition of city: an area where people live and work. While a town of 1,000 people probably isn’t a city, I don’t think we need to define cities by their size because the issues that cities face are not bounded by population. Pasco, WA might have a thing or two in common with Sacramento, CA, even if one is about eight times bigger than the other.

City Branding— See this post.

Density— This one often has negative connotations. It makes people think of monstrous condos. Perhaps a better term for density, taken from Strong Towns, is “productive land use.” That basically just means using space in a town or city to the fullest, instead of having miles of empty parking lots, office parks that are only used during the week, and unnecessarily wide roads.

Development— See this post.

Downtown— The central corridor of business within a city. It could include offices, shops, food, entertainment, apartments or (ideally) a mix, and it is usually the most dense area of a city.

Gentrification— This word does not just mean “white people moving into neighborhoods of color.” Gentrification is the act of pushing out any group of long-time residents by rapidly inflating their cost of living. It can happen as a concerted effort or a gradual process. For related posts, click here.

Green Space— Green space refers to gardens, parks, grass lots, woods, and any other form of natural landscape within a city. It usually fits under the broader label of “public space” (see below), unless it is a privately-owned garden. Generally though, when we talk about green assets of a city, we are talking about places that are open to everyone. For related posts, click here.

Guerrilla Urbanism— See this post. The guerrilla urbanism movement initiates renovation in public spaces to improve cities and invite public discussion about the ways our cities have been constructed, especially in the areas of transportation and walkability. Guerrilla urbanist tactics including painting bike lanes, building “parklets,” guerrilla gardening and more.

Housing First— Housing First is an approach that offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and then provides the supportive services and connections to the community-based supports people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness.” Definition taken from the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Neighborhood— A group of one or more streets that comprise a smaller unit within a city or town. For related posts, click here.

New Urbanism— Deferring to Wikipedia on this one: “New Urbanism is an urban design movement which promotes walkable neighborhoods containing a range of housing and job types. It arose in the United States in the early 1980s, and has gradually influenced many aspects of real estate developmenturban planning, and municipal land-use strategies.” A relevant post from this blog on New Urbanism can be found here.

NIMBYism— N.I.M.B.Y. stands for “Not In My BackYard” and NIMBYism is the attitude of citizens who raise objections to any sort of update or change in their neighborhood. They complain about the affordable housing that is proposed on their street. They attend community meetings and shoot down the new bar or restaurant that wants to move in.

Placemaking— I’ll defer to the Project for Public Spaces on this one. They state on their website: “Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place.”

Public Space — Public space is any open, accessible place within a city. Public space is not limited to government-run spaces like parks or waterfronts (and after all, even these places have rules that prevent people from entering them at certain hours of the day). Public space could also be museums, public plazas, markets, train stations or even sidewalks. I wrote about the political importance of public space here.

Public Transit/Transportation— Public transit is offered by a city in the form of buses and subways, as well as sometimes specialized transit for populations like the disabled or elderly. For related posts, click here.

Rapid Rehousing— Similar to “Housing First,” Rapid Rehousing is a term used to indicate programs or approaches that attempt to move homeless people swiftly from shelters or from the streets into permanent housing. Rapid Rehousing programs usually entail a financial subsidy (for a period of anywhere between 1 month to 24 months) and case management which assists the formerly homeless individual or family in maintaining their housing. Read related posts here.

Strong Towns– Strong Towns is a nonprofit organization based in Minnesota that includes a blog, a podcast and education opportunities. It is also a national movement. Finally, a “strong town” also directly means a productive, vibrant and economically sustainable town. Expanding upon this a bit, I define a strong town as, “A town/city which meets the needs of its residents, regardless of race, gender, class, ability, etc. through business, government, community and the built environment in a sustainable manner.” Read related posts here.

Supportive Housing— The term “supportive housing” indicates any form of housing that is accompanied by some form of outside support, whether it be addiction counseling or childcare.

The Third PlaceFrom Wikipedia: “In community building, the third place (or third space) is the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home (“first place”) and the workplace (“second place”). Examples of third places would be environments such as cafes, clubs or parks.”

Transitional Housing— Intended as an in-between place for people coming out of the shelter system and moving toward permanent housing. It usually includes rental subsidies, counseling, employment help and other services deemed necessary to get that person to a place where he or she can live independently in traditional housing. Transitional housing is a form of supportive housing.

Urban Development— A sub-category within “development,” urban development is the creation or renovation of buildings and outdoor spaces in an urban area. It is also an all-encompassing term for the improvement (usually) of urban environments.

Urban Planning— Urban planning is often the official title given to the departments within governments (and universities) that deal with the creation and upkeep of cities. Urban planners are the people assigned to design streets, approve new buildings, and address issues of structure and function for cities.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)— Created in 1965, HUD is the arm of the federal government that oversees housing and urban development in the U.S. HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.

Walkability— Wikipedia explains this term perfectly: “Walkability is a measure of how friendly an area is to walking.” Does it have sidewalks? Is walking a safe activity (i.e. unlikely to get you hit by a car)? Is it pleasant to walk there? For related posts, click here.

Is there another term you’re curious about? Leave a comment and I’ll do my best to address it.

6 thoughts on “An Urban Lexicon

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