Urbanists, Amateur and Otherwise

Like any part of culture, a vibrant and inventive city requires professionals, connoisseurs and amateurs: people who care passionately about their city.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published December 13, 2006

(This article will also be published in the next issue of Urbanicity Magazine)

I wrote a brief review of architect Bruce Kuwabara's proposals for Gore Park in Raise the Hammer and the last issue of Urbanicity. An astute reader noticed that I had described myself as an amateur urbanist, a term she had never encountered before.

Urbanicity's editor asked me to define the term. Although it seemed perfectly natural to me (especially for an article in a magazine called Urbanicity), I wasn't able to find it defined in any dictionary.

I may even have invented it. If that is indeed the case, I owe my readers a definition.

Professional Urbanists

A professional urbanist is someone who plans the built environment of cities, ideally to enhance the social and economic life of the city. The first urbanist was perhaps the Greek Hippodamus (c 408 BC), who planned the Athenian harbour town of Peiraeus.

Before that time, cities grew organically and haphazardly. Since then there have been many attempts to plan, or at least guide, the growth and development of cities.

Some, like Baron Haussmann's massive reconstruction of Paris in the mid 19th century, have been successful. Others have been disastrous.

It seems that urbanist is often used in opposition to the term urban planner. Urban planning recalls the city officials of the 1950s and 60s who promoted massive urban renewal projects centred on freeways and megaprojects like Hamilton's Jackson Square.

These projects required the demolition of entire neighbourhoods and promoted single use zoning. The urbanist is more interested in the fine-grain structure of cities, and respects the history and multiple uses of an urban space, especially city streets.

Connoisseur Urbanists

Jane Jacobs was an urbanist. However, although she was not a professional, she was no amateur. Jane Jacobs was a connoisseur urbanist. This a term I'm sure I've invented, since it is unknown to Google! I'd better define it too (I'll return to the amateur urbanist in a moment).

A connoisseur urbanist is someone who knows a great deal about urbanism, but does not actually do urban design (or at least is not paid to do it).

She is often a public critic of the urban environment, a bit like a theatre or film critic. The connoisseur urbanist reviews the work of the professional urbanist the way a literary critic reviews the work of novelists.

Jane Jacobs is very much a connoisseur urbanist. Bruce Kuwabara was acting as a connoisseur urbanist when he presented his observations about downtown Hamilton on CBC radio. Christopher Hume, the Toronto Star columnist, is the consummate connoisseur urbanist and I recommend his articles to all amateur urbanists.

Amateur Urbanists Defined

But what exactly is an amateur urbanist?

By amateur I mean that I am passionately interested and concerned about the urban environment but I don't claim any special knowledge or training in urban design. I am simply an interested and curious observer of urban life and design, particularly in Hamilton because that is where I live.

Like any part of culture, a vibrant and inventive city requires professionals, connoisseurs and amateurs: people who care passionately about their city. I hope that the readers of Urbanicity recognize that they are in fact amateur urbanists. They just don't know it!

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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