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Say What? Urbanism and seeing the forest for the trees

Martin Savage

How do you define urbanism to a complete stranger?  London studio’s Martin Savage wonders if we should even try to brand landscape architecture, town planning and urban design together when the disciplines embody such an array of skills and talents and for such different environments.

I was on a flight recently and began chatting with the gentleman in the seat next to me. Soon the inevitable question arose and one which I could or should have dealt with easily: “So what do you do for a living?” Instead of a simple, truthful and quick, “I'm a landscape architect” and possibly feeling over confident, and powered by complimentary nuts, I thought I would test the water by proudly replying, “I work in Urbanism.” “Oh right, what’s that?” was my neighbour’s interested response. It was a long flight and, with boxsets I wanted to watch, I was now challenged with giving a succinct, accurate and more importantly, informative answer.


Bach Dang Harbour in Vietnam

It then felt that I had a plethora of phrases, descriptions and interpretations at my disposal – too many in fact with multiple professions to include, so many projects to reference, some (though not enough) professionals to revere… Or should I say that urbanism is the study of the way people interact with each other and how places are planned and constructed? Or perhaps even present urbanism as more philosophical, sociological, political, and cultural?

Definitions continued to spin in my mind. To some, urbanism conjures up the study of cities and images of city life, the sprawling metropolis and all things smoggy and developed. However this would not be reflective of our range of expertise employed on projects in many locations, often in non city environments. So should we even try to brand landscape architecture, town planning and urban design together? Disciplines that embody an array of skills and talents are difficult to badge under one description, simply known as Urbanism (mental note to self to challenge sector leaders with when back in the studio).


Bach Dang Harbour in Vietnam

I glanced back at my flight companion in seat 22A who had by now started fiddling with his headphones. Too late by now to mention we actually design places to make people's lives better and more enjoyable.