Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Who's the Patron Diety of Urbanism?

Ab urbe condita "from the founding of the city [of Rome]."  Our word urban comes from Latin, of course! Is it a dead word, like the language?

Jarrett Walker's been in Salem recently. Cherriots engaged him to do a system analysis, and over at LoveSalem there's a photo and report on an initial discussion with the Cherriots board - plus great quips on the Kroc Center.

N3B also cited one of J. Walker's posts about counting traffic. (It's great to see criticism of LOS analysis gain traction!)

But for the moment, I'm most interested in J. Walker's response to the Atlantic's "Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink."

The number one word to trash is "urbanism" and J. Walker offers a "vigorous defense"!  He offers a defense of the word as meaning something not easily expressed otherwise - and of course defends the values it expresses.

As J. Walker points out, the operative poles aren't so much rural and urban as suburban and urban - the opposition between the streetcar-era gridded, walkable neighborhoods and the post-war suburbs with heirarchical and disconnected street networks that require a car. The word "urban area" collapses this distinction.

He says,
Does a dull bureaucratic term like urban area really constitute [a] threat to the thriving walkable inner cities? Yes, for this reason: It prevents people who care about dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities from saying what they mean. It prevents me, in many reports, from saying urban and forces me to find ways to say "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities" over and over....That's why I like urbanist. It's not just saying what it means, it's helping to fight for the word urban, without which people who care about walkable cities simply can't talk about them, and be understood.
With the word sortof under attack, urbanism perhaps needs a spiritual protector, and I think I know just the one!

Floor mosaic from late Roman bath near Antioch
Dumbarton Oaks
Apolausis might be said to be the patron deity of Urbanism!  Though she's from the eastern empire and Greek, she often appeared in late Roman bathhouses - not the sites of orgies or debauchery, but places for supremely urban and civilized socializing.  In his book The Body and Society, Peter Brown calls apolausis "the shared enjoyment of the good things in life that only a great city ruled by generous families could savor...[it was] more than self-indulgence, it was a precious collective ritual, a celebration of the will to survive" and in Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity he calls it "'good cheer' and 'delight,' sharply distinguished from the deprived conditions of the surrounding countryside."

What do you think?  Maybe too pagan, too rich?  What about saints?  A casual google didn't turn up any saints known for a frank enjoyment of the city.  Maybe that's kinda antithetical to the whole office of the saint - especially considering the vogue for St. Francis and simplicity just now.  Rabbis?

I still like Apolausis, because even if luxury isn't necessarily the goal, interest and pleasure is, both in the process, the walk, and in the destination, the end. It's also a social rather than solitary value.  I mean, isn't that being able to walk or bike from your home to meet friends for drinks or dinner?

Remember Jeff Speck on the "interesting walk"?

Got a better candidate?

1 comment:

Laurie Dougherty said...

My umpteen years of Catholic schooling are long ago and far away, so no urban saints to offer. But I have lived in a couple of the world's great cities and visited several others and have always appreciated and thrived in the collective quality of urban living, shared experiences and shared resources - festivals, parks, streetscapes, museums, public transportation. The "urban and civilized socializing" enables people, like water, to find their own level of interests, activities and relationships. It also requires respect for the privacy of those who live at close quarters or share public accommodations, openness to diversity, and courtesy in casual encounters. Urban living is also more land use and energy efficient, but that's for another day.