Urban, Part One: Urban Humanism

I am a city dweller. I am a proud resident of the City of St. Louis, and a defender of the promise and potential of American cities. There’s a complex story being told in magazines and blogs about the future of the City in this century. The story involves demographics, loosely defined generations, the aftermath of the Great Recession and much more besides. This is a story I hope to contribute to one piece at a time. So, in Part One, I’ll begin with a healthy dose of optimism—perhaps a touch of naivety—and apparently not-quite-coining a phrase that appears most popularly associated with an Italian artist. Without spelling it out until this article, I’ve lately been calling myself an Urban Humanist (mostly in my head to avoid difficult questions and funny looks). Here’s my first attempt at defining what Urban Humanism means to me. Okay, to avoid too much pretension, we’ll skip the capital letters.

Let’s start simple. “Urban” refers to cities, obviously. Here we run up against a difficult question already. What is a city? When I think and speak of cities I refer primarily to urban cores, although in the vernacular it could refer to the core plus inner- and maybe even outer-ring suburbs. City limits sometimes extend too far, and other times not far enough. The urban core is an interconnected commercial and residential mix, with a significant increase in population density over outlying suburbs. To me, the central identifier of a city is that it pushes a large mass of diverse people into a small space. Naturally, this defies strict definitions, but fortunately it’s a concept most people can intuit.

“Humanism” is a broad term that can refer to many different approaches to life, and has complex philosophical definitions. I am borrowing what I consider the ‘spirit’ of humanism, which, as Wikipedia so eloquently puts it, “emphasizes the value and agency of human beings.” ‘Agency’ is such a beautiful word. It conjures up free will, moral action and motivation, all wonderfully human qualities.

There is often an explicitly secular component to humanism that rejects religious doctrine and the supernatural. I mostly want to borrow from this secularism the general belief that, as humans, we have to rely on ourselves to fix the problems we make and improve our own condition. To me, humanism extols the virtue of community and individuality. It celebrates the human spirit, ingenuity and drive, while promoting honest and emotional connections between peers.

My urban humanism is focused on the ability of cities to bring diverse groups of people together in order to create a sense of purpose, community and individual opportunity. Urban humanism to me is the product of, among other things, the superlinear scaling of cities. That is, the sum of an urban core is greater than its parts. Literally. The innovation, ideas, productivity (and crime) all scale faster than population itself would predict. Double the population of an urban core, and GDP will more than double.

The proposed cause of urban superlinearity is the ability to form more social ties with a diverse group of people. The Brownian motion of urban life bumps you into individuals you would never have met otherwise. You can exchange ideas, business plans, information or just pleasantries with a wide range of people. And this is the fuel that drives innovation. These interactions—fleeting and long-lasting—are the raw material of humanity. Of progress.

Urban humanism is the doctrine that these interactions promote the value and agency of human beings. Urban humanism posits that urban living will improve our ability to solve problems facing city-dwellers and farmers alike. Denser populations lead to an exchange of ideas that will move humanity forward faster than isolated, sprawled-out communities will. Simultaneously, urban humanism defends the benefits of diverse experiences for personal fulfillment.

As of 2010, a majority of the world’s population lives incities. For the first time ever, humanity is, on average, urban. And this trend will continue. Barring catastrophe, human beings have now progressed beyond a largely rural existence. That means that our future is inextricably tied to how our cities evolve, how we shape them, and how we respond to urban life. I find that prospect absolutely thrilling! I will continue to explore the realities, opportunities and challenges of city living among other topics on this blog and I hope you join me for that trip.