The term urban, common since 19c, has undergone something of a renewal in recent decades. Now the most common adjective for designating an entity ‘relating to a city’, the word has acquired specific, sometimes contradictory, denotations. In locutions such as urban planning, it is synonymous with neutral terms denoting ‘life in a city’ such as civic or municipal. In other phrases, such as urban poverty or urban decay, it has come to be synonymous with a kind of blight associated with the ‘inner city’. In some US usages, the term has both latent and explicit racial overtones that associate it primarily with African-American but also with Hispanic and Caribbean communities. This implied connection with race politics is apparent in the way that an opposition between urban/suburban has largely come to replace the more established opposition between urban/rural in US usage. This change seems to have happened in part because the first contrasting pair may be used as shorthand for other binary oppositions including non-white/white or poor/middle class. Urban is also in contrast with adjectives such as metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which have more positive connotations.
Urban came into English in 17c from Latin urbanus, meaning ‘of or pertaining to a city or city life’, which derived, in turn, from Latin urbs (genitive urbis) ‘city’. Urban itself appears only sporadically until the first half of 19c, when it becomes common. The sudden ubiquity was influenced by changing demographics. The spread of the railroad, for example, encouraged growth in industrial and manufacturing jobs, while newly mechanized farming techniques diminished the need for rural labor. These twin developments gave rise to more densely populated cities, with a far more complicated internal social make-up in their populations.
The adjective urban is unusual in that it has no corresponding noun, unlike semantically related city/civic, metropolis/metropolitan or municipality/municipal. This fact may explain why the term soaks up other rhetorical colorings so readily. For example, in 19c urban began to connote movements of popular political unrest: “His urban, or sub-urban brother, the man of the multitude, the unit of the mob” (1837 C. LOFFT Self-formation I. 40); and “Government has … found a counterpoise to the vehemence of urban democracy” (1849 ALISON Hist. Eur. I. ii. 225). It is now striking that the related adjective urbane was used synonymously with urban until 19c, when its meaning began to be restricted to ‘having the manners, refinement, or polish regarded as characteristic of a town’. Urbane could then be used either approvingly (as in “His manners were gentle, affable, and urbane” ) or disapprovingly (“In Eustace Chapuys, master of requests, he had a man of law, … urbane, alert, unscrupulous” ).
The rise of urban in popular speech was reflected in its increasing centrality to institutional and governmental initiatives introduced in 19c. In the UK, the Urban District Council replaced the older “sanitary district” in the 1890s in order to respond to an increasing need for services in more heavily populated county centers. These districts were in turn largely abandoned in the 1970s in another wave of municipal re-organization. In the US, an “Urban Renewal Fund” was first created in the 1950s to aid in the redevelopment of cities; and, in 1965, the Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created. These UK and US institutions reflect a strengthening assumption that the city is the appropriate locus for discussion of social and economic challenges that face society as a whole. The centrality of the countryside, as both the center of food production and the imaginative heart of the nation, was being displaced. In the US, urban development began to be increasingly associated with an agenda of racial reparation, since HUD had responsibility for outlawing housing discrimination, one of the major provisions of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. This association between development and reparation is underscored by organizations such as the National Urban League (founded in 1910), whose mission is to “provide economic empowerment, educational opportunities and the guarantee of civil rights for African Americans”.
The profession of urban planning came into being in the 1950s, initially to combat urban decay associated with city centers across North America and Europe. Urban renewal (recorded in US English from 1955) was initially euphemistic for ‘slum clearance’. In the US, this movement became associated with ‘white flight’ from the cities, and the concomitant establishment of suburban communities and ‘edge cities’ (or spaces that concentrate business, shopping, and entertainment outside a traditional urban area in what had recently been a semi-rural area). As urban planning has gained a foothold in university departments of human geography, as well as in the social sciences more widely, urban renewal has come to denote a more positive process.
The so-called New Urbanism movement associated with Jane Jacobs and other urban planners in the US and Canada has contributed to a revival of the fortunes of urban, by associating city centers with positive ideas of diversity, equality, and the importance of communal public space. This movement is designed to combat urban sprawl with its associated problems of separation, segregation, and inequality—problems underscored by a reliance on cars and a landscape marked by non-human sized features (such as expressways and super-highways). In the UK, debate about urban planning in recent years has been fuelled by controversial public pronouncements from Prince Charles, a vocal critic of post-war urban planning. Debates have focused in particular on how to revitalize former city centers while preserving traditional architectural styles, a debate put to the test for example in Poundbury, the model “urban village” (underwritten by Prince Charles) designed to mix residential and commercial properties on a human scale.
Over the course of the last two decades, the opposition urban-suburban (or the urban-suburban-rural triad) has largely come to replace the older paradigmatic contrast of city-country, the pair that Raymond Williams explored so suggestively in The Country and the City (1973). Even following the industrialization of Britain, Williams argued, the ideological lure of the countryside remained strong, continuing to influence a self-representation of England to its own inhabitants out of all proportion to its dwindling reality. If the countryside appeared to offer an idyllic Eden, the city was troped as a modernist hub of alienation and loneliness. Williams argued that geographical space impacts not only our social structures but also on our interpretations of it. Cultural representations of urban space signify social conflicts as well as social difference. Williams’ insights can, in turn, illuminate this reconfiguration of opposite terms: what for Williams was largely about class and the effects of capitalism has now morphed into a debate about race and the possibility of an integrated society. Unlike Williams’ pairing, where country functioned as an oftentimes idealized term, the urban-suburban-rural designation does not a priori value one of its elements over the others; one could argue that all three already feel fallen.
More recently, urban has been used in business to refer to black or Hispanic culture, often obviating any need to mention race overtly. In moving beyond the nerd-chic of sustainable urban planning, the term has come to designate a world populated by youthful consumers of media, services, and goods. Playlists of urban contemporary radio stations play almost exclusively hip-hop and rap music. In this usage, common in both US and UK, black culture is valued and, consequently, commodified (“Top DJs provide a tour through the best in urban black music with ‘phat’ servings of soul, hip-hop and drum 'n' bass” (1996 Independent [Nexis] 26 Oct. 41); and “An all-night party that features the best in electronic and urban music, from drum 'n' bass and techno to hip-hop and house beats. (2003 Baltimore Sun [Nexis] 25 Sept. 30T]). Similarly, urban sportswear is a lucrative market that allows suburban youth to aspire to urban cool (“His invention has been to take urban sportswear, meaning the oversized hip-hop clothes born of the disenfranchised and disaffected poor black rappers, and turn them into aspirational clothing for his generation” (2003 Internat. Herald Tribune [Paris], Electronic ed. 11 Feb).
Contemporary usage of urban demonstrates how sometimes opposing meanings have gathered around the term over the course of 19c and 20c. The word has served as a neutral term for a municipal area; a pejorative term for a poor and/or non-white population center; a movement associated with sustainable development; and, finally, a youthful, cutting-edge consumer movement. These meanings do not necessarily succeed one another serially. Instead, several (sometimes contradictory) meanings exist in a single cultural moment in a knot of conceptual and political, as well as linguistic, tensions.