What is “urban”?

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How do we know when we are in an urban environment? How do we describe it? Where do we experience “urban”?

If you Google “What is urban?” you get:
What is urban music?
What is urban development?
What is urban planning?
Urban poverty
Urban climate
Urban ecology . . .
I posted the question on the Urban St. Louis Forum recently and here’s a sampling of the responses:

  • When you can actually walk to public transportation within two or three minutes.
  • My defining characteristic for “urban” would be “walkable”.
  • Densely populated.
  • I’d venture to say that nailing down a definition of the term “urban” is, on some level, meaningless.
  • You know “urban” when you see it; you know it when (and only when) you’ve experience it.
  • To me urban simply means within city limits.

All of those work and combined they offer a good framework for defining “urban.” The term can be relative, posing “urban” versus suburban or “urban” versus rural. My hometown of 6,000 residents can be seen as urban relative to the surrounding farmland. It can also pertain to particular elements, a “urban” building can exist in a suburban location. It’s clear we’re in an urban environment when we’re downtown and the sidewalks and streets are crowded and noisy, however, I like a definition that focuses on built density and signs of human activity, whether that activity is present at the moment or not. A couple examples:


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