The term urban, common since C19, has undergone something of a renewal in the last several decades. Presently the most common adjective for designating an entity “relating to a city,” the word has accrued 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 the blight associated with the “inner city.” In certain 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. Such racial politics are apparent in the way that the oppositional terms urban/suburban have largely come to replace the opposition between urban/rural in US usage, in part because the first contrasting pair is often used as shorthand for other binary oppositions including non-white/ white or poor/middle class. Urban can also be contrasted with adjectives such as metropolitan or cosmopolitan that have more positive connotations.
Urban came into English in C17 from Latin urbānus, meaning “of or pertaining to a city or city life,” which derived, in turn, from Latin urbs, “city.” The term appears only sporadically until the first half of C19, when it becomes common. This ubiquity was influenced by changing demographics. The spread of the railroad 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. The adjective urban is unusual in that it has no corresponding noun, unlike the 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 C19 urban came to connote movements of popular political unrest: “[H]is urban, or suburban brother, the man of the multitude, the unit of the mob” (1837); and “[G]overnment has . . . found a counterpoise to the vehemence of urban democracy” (1849). The related adjective urbane was used synonymously with urban until C19, when its meaning became restricted to “having the manners, refinement, or polish regarded as characteristic of a town.” The term could be used either approvingly (as in “His manners were gentle, affable, and urbane,” 1832) or disapprovingly (“In Eustace Chapuys, master of requests, he had a man of law, . . . urbane, alert, unscrupulous,” 1873).
The rise of urban in popular speech was reflected in its increasing centrality to institutional and governmental initiatives beginning in C19. 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 reorganization. In the US, the “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 witnessed the 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 became 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 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 to combat the 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 was associated with “white flight” from the cities, and the concomitant establishment of suburban communities and “edge cities” (a space that concentrates business, shopping, and entertainment outside a traditional urban area in what had recently been a semi-rural area). As urban planning 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 superhighways). In the UK, debate about urban planning in recent years has been fueled by the highly public pronouncements of Prince Charles, a vocal critic of postwar urban planning. Debates have focused on how to revitalize former city centers while preserving traditional architectural styles, a debate put to the test in Poundbury, the model “urban village” (underwritten by 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 after 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 argues that geographical space impacts not only our social structures but our interpretations of it, and that cultural representations of urban space signify social conflicts as well as social difference. His insights can, in turn, help us to understand this reconfiguration of opposite terms: what for Williams was largely about class and the effects of capitalism has now morphed into a discussion about race and the possibility of an integrated society. Unlike Williams’s 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 the 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” (Independent, October 26, 1996, 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” (Baltimore Sun, September 25, 2003, 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” (International Herald Tribune [Paris], February 11, 2003).
These usages demonstrate how sometimes opposing meanings have accreted around the term urban over the course of C19 and C20. 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 can exist in a single cultural moment simultaneously.