Ekistic lexicon: call for proposals
September 12th, 2018
In a recent conversation, Sebastián pointed out that there is a dearth of words to talk about cities. I gestured to a building while walking around the Fillmore and said "That's some nice urbanism!", and he grumbled that that's equivalent to pointing to a shop and saying "That's some nice economics!".
His point was that the word "urbanism" is overloaded, and he's right. We use it to describe everything in the lexical space: concrete physical objects, the built environment as a whole, the politics around the built environment, and the meta category of all of these things, too. There are many elements, characteristics, and behaviors that recur across urban landscapes, but our vocabulary for discussing these patterns is sparse. I have strong imagery in my head but lack the language to express them.
Words are important. It's hard to care about or act upon something without the label to describe it, and the more fitting the label, the more aware of it you'll become. Words give you a handle to hold onto an idea. Terms elevate concepts, both within your own mental hierarchy as well as through enabling you to communicate those concepts.
Some folks are doing a great job defining precise, evocative urbanist vocabulary. Since reading Nathan Lewis' Narrow Streets for People series, I've squealed in delight every time I notice a Narrow Street. (Just ask any of my travel companions if you don’t believe me.) Andrew Price has also offered a lot of useful labels. One of my favorites is Fine- vs Coarse-Grained Urbanism, though it falls into the trap Sebas mentioned, overloading the term "urbanism". (This one isn't such a bad culprit, since the operative words are the adjectives fine- and coarse-grained rather than the noun they're modifying.) I'd like to expand on these, to enrich our language for talking about urbanism.
Characteristics of a good label:
- Evocative: It should conjure imagery fitting for whatever you're describing
- Short: The more concise the better!
- Accessible: it should not require a lot of insider context in order to understand what it means
- Available: not overloaded with lots of other meanings
Here are the labels I collected so far, ranging in quality and filed under "ekistic lexicon". I'm all ears if any confuse you or you have suggestions/improvements!
- Names for street types (borrowed from Nathan Lewis' blog)
- Grand Boulevards
- Fine- vs Coarse-Grained Urbanism (there's that pesky, overloaded "urbanism" again)
- Urban Chasm
- When a large, long feature severs two areas in a city (usually a wide road or highway, but sometimes an empty greenspace or a block of big, unwelcoming buildings)
- Example: the El Camino-Caltrain corridor that slices between northeast and southwest Mountain View
- Highways and large boulevards often have this effect of creating barriers between neighborhoods
- “Urban barrier" was also a contender, but I like the imagery of “chasm" better
- Public Forum
- A place where people naturally go to see other people and occasionally interact with strangers
- Example: Plaza Armenia in the Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina
- String of Shops (not as evocative as I'd like)
- Natural Stage
- A place musicians/dancers naturally choose to perform
- Example: Beneath the bridge across from the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park
- Built Environment (overly general and sounds pretty stuffy...)
- Tucked Entrances
- Like the little doors in Amsterdam
- Not the best
- Doorstep Living Room (awkward naming...)
- Street Nook
- A cozy, tucked away space where it would be relaxing to read a book
- Another contender: Pocket (but kind of awkward for some reason...)
- Spanish has a good word for this: “Rincón"
- Lisbon has a lot of these
- Hostile Architecture
- Towers in a Park
- Urban Eden
- Greenspace (not a great label, because urbanists think of this is a Bad Thing but it sounds nice to newcomers)
- Streetscape (as compared to Cityscape, which is usually of a skyline)
- Side note: something I've noticed is that image search results of a city's name are almost always skylines or aerial shots, rarely anything from a pedestrian's view
- Gruen Transfer, when a street or mall is designed in such a way that encourages shoppers to cross-pollinate shops, maximizing unplanned sales.
- Wide, intimidating streets and coarse-grained buildings diminish this effect, while narrow, welcoming streets and finer-grained buildings tend to increase it.
- Street Canopy
- Maybe we can just stick with the simpler label Street Trees
And here are some patterns I've noticed or concepts I've articulated but haven't been able to come up with fitting labels. Request for help on these:
- Category of categories of concrete things of interest. As in, what is the name of the category that includes Nooks, Towers in a Park, Narrow Streets for People, and so on? A few ideas that I'm not satisfied with:
- Feature? Overloaded word
- Attraction? Implication is that the types of things in the set are flashy when they often may not be
- Element? Need something less neutral sounding
- Motif? Implies too much form and not enough function though
- Lively zones with lots of pedestrians, shops, and activities. The kinds of places that would be colored orange on a Google Map
- Welcoming seating in public places (e.g. benches)
- Fifth Avenue-esque streets
- Similar tenants as high-end malls, but on a regular street. Usually they've been around for a while, and they have luxurious boutique anchor tenants
- Important that they're easy to cross, for cross-pollination of shoppers to enable a Gruen Transfer
- Those long, narrow shopping streets that are fairly generic
- Somewhat like the Fifth Avenue-esque streets mentioned above, but lower-end and more generic
- Places that look interesting on maps but are actually terrible in real life (i.e. roundabouts, massive non-Central Park parks, big bridges, etc... why are we drawn to them?)
- Those places that are quite nice but you never have any reason to walk. Parkways are common places for this to happen
- A better word for Single Family Home — maybe I'm getting greedy, but SFH is overly technical and not very evocative
And of course there are so many more things I didn't think to list here or didn't notice in the first place (perhaps because there isn't a word for it!). I'll continue to add to this list as folks send in suggestions + as I come up with new labels.
Keep in touch!