Does Urban Studies Exist on the Web?

While developing my forthcoming website I thought that it would be useful to set up some Urbanist Links to assist students who were interested in locating theoretical resources as well as other resources. I was reminded of Cecil Greek’s criminal justice links (sadly, it appears that the site no longer exists) and how nice it was that he took the time to develop a “mega-links” site that was well-organized for scholars and practitioners. I thought that perhaps developing a lesser endeavor would be a nice complement to my website; that is, I thought that I would point people to some of the “common” urbanist webpages.

Surprisingly, I found none.

What I found was shocking to me: there aren’t a lot of websites devoted strictly to Urban Studies. You can locate Urban Studies programs without much effort, but the lack of urbanist links to theory is disappointing to say the least. I don’t really have an answer to why this is, but I  am willing speculate a bit. I believe the problem lies in the question: What is Urban Studies?

The Question

As I wrote my personal statement on my application to the Urban Studies Ph.D. program at UW-Milwaukee, I had a daunting dilemma. The personal statement required that I address my reason for desiring to become an urbanist. So, of course, my first question was: what is an urbanist?
The question became more complex because I definitely was not sure what Urban Studies was at the time. Somehow I had to decide what both of these terms were and I only had a few days to develop a personal statement to meet the admission deadline (I applied, literally, at the last possible minute). To attempt to understand the question, I looked carefully at the course descriptions attributed to the program. All I knew at this point was that I was intrigued with understanding the complexities of cities.

Oddly, I couldn’t really answer the question. I believe that the personal statement attempted to capture what I had learned from my criminal justice and sociology programs – I’ve since lost that statement due to a computer crash a few years ago – so, in reality, I skirted the answer. I believe that the statement simply attributed my conception of urbanism being intertwined with criminology and sociology. After all, social disorganization theory was developed in an urban setting and I relied heavily on that understanding.

I’m fairly certain that I still lacked any understanding of what  urban studies was for about a year from writing that statement. The issue was, at that point, I had no background in Urban Studies. Yet, as I meandered through the program, I began to embrace what I believed to be the “pillars” of urban studies: time, space and place. This was easy for me because I was intrigued by Lefebvre’s conception of social space as well as David Harvey’s concepts of time compression among other interesting ideas.

The more I read about the intersection of these “pillars” the more I became intrigued with the background that I had (it’s easy, for example, to consider time, space and place when you consider the criminological theory Routine Activity Theory) and tried in my mind to compartmentalize reading along those self-defined pillars. Sometimes readings did not conform neatly into either of those three pillars, but in general, I could find a way to make them fit.

So, years later, there I was, discussing urban issues, scrutinizing research studies with new eyes, when I was suddenly given a kick swift in the gut. In 2010, William Bowen, Ronnie Dunn and David Kasden published an article titled “What is Urban Studies? Context, Internal Structure, and Content” in the Journal of Urban Affairs. The Urban Studies Programs director at UW-Milwaukee, Amanda Seligman, suggested that students should read it and I believe she held a workshop (which I could not attend) on the article with students and faculty. As I read the article, the authors’ finding did not really surprise me, but what did surprise me was that I had not EVER been able to articulate some of their findings.

First, I was greatly intrigued by what they claim were two propositions which promulgated the field: 1) urban areas are phenomenon worthy of investigation in their own right; and 2) the development of knowledge specifically about urban areas can help in the solution to urban problems (p. 199). The driving question, though, was whether Urban Studies was fully conceptualized. What stood out next fully formed my idea of Urban Studies and that concerned identifying seven subfields: 1) Urban Sociology; 2) Urban Geography; 3) Urban Economics; 4) Housing and Neighborhood Development; 5) Environmental Studies; 6) Urban Governance; and 7) Urban Planning, Design and Architecture.

Next, the article situates the formation of urban studies after the findings of the Kerner Commission. What struck me were really two things about this discussion. First, Urban Studies was neophyte compared to so many other social science fields. Second, I can talk for days about the history of sociology, but I was virtually mute about the history of Urban Studies (I generally changed the discussion back to sociology if a history of urban studies were to arise in conversation). The significance of this, for me, wasn’t really that I was clueless regarding the history of urban studies, but rather, I failed to recognize the need for a field at that time. That is, the other disciplines which study problems tend to be quite constrained in developing their research questions, so taking on issues regarding findings of the Kerner Commission would be extremely limiting; a newer field which could broaden questions was actually needed. And, hence, Urban Studies (usually referred to as Urban Affairs in its genesis) was born.

It was disconcerting to me that I had somehow failed to understand this. I believe that I was exposed to how urban studies was formed, but I had somehow failed to crystalize this in head. And, after doing a little digging, I think I am not alone among urbanists who may not really understand their field’s genealogy.

Urban Studies’ Elusiveness on the Web

If you go to Wikipedia and search for Urban Studies, this is what you will be directed to:

Snapshot taken on 1 December 2011

In other words, there is no page dedicated to Urban Studies!

Additionally, I made numerous searches on Google looking to locate a few Urban Studies link pages. I could find none. I looked for a page which could define Urban Studies. I could find programs and upon those pages I could find variations of definitions on Urban Studies. But there were no easily accessible Urbanist pages on the web. I found that quite disheartening, especially in light of the fact of the relative ease I have in locating link pages for criminal justice as well as sociology.

As I am wont to do these days, I am intrigued by signs and codes. Applying a pseudo-semiotic analysis on the lack of link pages – while an intriguing endeavor – simply would bely the reality that urbanists are not a significant presence on the web. Or perhaps they have very few central locations to share their findings; they lack an online community.

So, it occurred to me to attempt to locate online communities. After all, at this point, I thought maybe urbanists had simply placed their theory and their research on fora rather than on webpages. Using Urban Studies Forum was a bad idea…UW-Milwaukee conducts a student lead Urban Studies Forum annually and the Google search culled a lot of hits on that.

I found a promising site called http://www.urbanist.org, but unfortunately it was designed as a project which was rejected. From the website: “Urbanist.org is a project I proposed to the Urban Planning Program at Columbia University. The idea was to create a multidisciplinary web review on “the city” with contributions from students, professors, and practitioners. The staff would have been mainly constituted by students working for academic credits and by a couple of permanent editors.” The author was unable to obtain funding and so the mockup page remains parked on the URL.

Globalurbanist.org, on the other hand, is an interesting site. From the website: “The Global Urbanist was created in 2009 by alumni of urban policy and international development programmes at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and maintains relationships with several faculty members of the school.” Unfortunately, the site does not have theory on it, but it does in fact explore issues of cities.

So what does this mean, this curious omission of web sites dedicated to urbanist ideas? I truly believe that the lack of a distinct presence suggests that many people still do not know what Urban Studies is, even four decades after its founding.

The Future

I’d like to think that this lack of a presence is only temporary, but most likely it may continue for some time.
As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, Cecil Greek once had the standard for students of Criminal Justice and Criminology. In fact, between 1998 and 2001 I was involved in developing a links site for the criminal justice studies (now justice studies) at Methodist College (now Methodist University). We developed a site that could be used by students in addition to the one developed by Cecil Greek. I returned to the links site to see if it had changed, and I see that it has had some growth.

It was an effort that was definitely fruitful, because I still used that site for several years after I graduated. It made locating resources much easier, but it also had links in the subfields of criminology which made locating useful sites very easy. Yet, part of the success of Cecil Greek’s page and the Methodist College page was that there were numerous sites devoted to theoretical and practical development in criminology and criminal justice; there just don’t seem to be the same types of pages that are easily accessible in urban studies.

The web is a remarkable place to get a name out, and presenting urban theory might be an advantage for those who are unaware of urban studies. I’d like to think that there are urbanists who may ameliorate this issue in the near future, but I also know that taking on such endeavor requires teamwork and a community who are unafraid to present their interests to the public on the internet.

Until urbanists can firmly grasp the answer to the question “what is urban studies?” I doubt their presence on the web will become prominent. Fortunately, scholars are coming to grips with this question, as Bowen, Dunn and Kasdan have in 2010.

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About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

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