Define Urban, Please

Recently, Emily Pendergrass tweeted a request:

‘Urban’ has been on my mind for a while—most recently on my trip to Peru where I took this picture. And sure, I have opinions based on my work and research in large cities and small—even areas that actually look quite a bit like this Peruvian Zona Urbana—but I want to keep my mind open and engaged in this issue. I don’t like to take things for granted. I‘d love to hear your definitions. I promise to comment with my working definitions, but you first. And yes, I promise to pass them on to @Dr_Pendergrass.

  • What is ‘urban’ in the educational context?

  • How do you see ‘urban’ playing out in the lives of learners?

  • What are the boundaries of ‘zona urbana’?


8 thoughts on “Define Urban, Please”

  1. Urban education, for me, is educating students who live in metro areas. However, this could include varying levels of SES. Yet, it seems that oftentimes, “urban” seems to be code for low SES or students of color or students in unsafe neighborhoods or students who are not easy to teach or something else entirely depending on which scholar is being read.

    1. Like you, Emily, I see the term used in a range of ways. The first definitions in your list I see in sociological studies of schooling. But I don’t see the term used in research/work focused on teaching/learning/classroom unless it’s being used to refer to “students who are not easy to teach.” I find the use of the term in this way particularly troubling: Using the term this way adds another layer of benign code to cover for some serious underlying racism.

  2. I defer to Pedro Noguera ( on all things ‘urban.’

    I think he’d join you in critiquing the co-opted use of the locale term as code for unnamed particular populations and economic realities. Metro centers are much more diverse than is blanketed by the term ‘urban.’ At the same time, the urban condition in which many public schools are situated has troubling effects on the education of youth in them:

    I use the term in my own work, but I want to make sure that by using it I don’t collapse/blanket/simplify the societal factors. Rather, I want to point to the interrelated that nature of poverty, economically depressed centers, limited resources, etc. in the learning trajectories of youth.

  3. I think we have to accept that ‘urban’ really does have different meanings in different contexts, even within academia, even within ‘urban studies’ and ‘urban education’! For me, I most often use urban as a vague descriptor to distinguish a particular concept (e.g. “urban parks”, “urban design”). And I’ve used terms like “urban development politics” to refer to the processes of local growth and commercial or civic projects in relatively small towns that one wouldn’t inherently think of as “urban.”

    The other main usage of the term, at least in the literatures I’m engaged in (urban studies, urban sociology and human geography, demography and migration, urban planning and design), is much more precisely definitional and classifying: things like “urban areas” or “urbanized areas,” defined based on certain densities of population and/or built-up landscapes, especially around core cities. For instance, the US Census Bureau defines urban areas as concentrations of “core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile and surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile”; when these have >50k total population they’re ‘urbanized areas’, when <50k they're 'urbanized clusters'. In other words the vast majority of cities, suburbs, and surrounding exurbs in the U.S. are in urbanized areas. (This, and your picture above, reminds me of a similar sign located at the outer extent of a blatantly "suburban" stretch of sprawl south of Sacramento: )

    Indeed similarly, if now less precisely again, we do categorize particular communities or built settlements as characteristically "urban" or "suburban" (or "rural"). This would refer to things like residential, job/work, and commercial densities, commuting patterns, and cultural scenes. It might also include material/aesthetic features like architecture and streetscaping (or, more problematically, stereotypically symbolic things like signs of homogeneity or diversity, wealth or neglect, order or crime/violence, etc. etc.)

    And urban also might refer culturally to where certain phenomena originate – "urban subcultures" for instance. Though there are often better and more specific terms for these, 'urban subcultures' is a sensible starting point and indeed an established subject of research (though again, what counts or what doesn't is always up for debate). A better example, though I don't love the term personally, is when one might also reasonably discuss graffiti as "urban art" even when it frequently appears on such iconic rural symbols as water towers, barns, and lonely freight trains.

    (At this point though, as with the stereotypes mentioned above, it begins to sound a bit like the category "urban music" used in some record stores as a catchall for contemporary music produced by African Americans, which isn't much better than the racist misappropriation of 'urban' as code for "poor/difficult/disadvantaged/minority" that you mention in education research. Although we do seem to accept "country music" despite the fact that most of it is produced in major cities… but I digress.)

    More on your original point, while I'm not an education scholar, I think when I read the term 'urban education' I I tend to read it in the 'first way' you and Emily agreed on above – which I think is an understanding that is similar to but more precise than the purely modifying form I first mentioned here, and has something to do with a clear distinction of large metropolitan areas and their unique sets of challenges versus small town, suburban, or rural school districts (some of which may indeed include diversity and things like migratory populations or multi-generational institutional disadvantage, but also probably uniquely "urban" funding, organizational, administrative, mobility, and labor issues). Certainly I would agree that the use of 'urban' as cover for "students that are not easy to teach" is racist and, more to the point, meaningless.

    It does make me wonder though whether things like urban art or urban subcultures aren't much better – are these terms just as problematic or are they more defensible for at least accurately connecting to the socio-spatial starting points of the things in question?

    1. Emily – For the most part I think I’d say yes and yes… Regarding the first, sure I actually do think self-labeling should matter to some degree in terms of cultural identity, which to some extent is what we’re talking about in any of these culture branding instances. For a rapper or a street artist or other urban (oops) trendsetter to say of their or their peers’ own cultural creations “This is *urban* music, this is *urban* art, or this is *urban* style” is quite valid (if no less open to and in need of critical scholarly engagement). And with regard to real numbers for student demographics, performance, and outcomes ed research, I couldn’t agree more. But then is there no valuable meaning to saying “I study urban education”? (Perhaps the answer again is ‘yes’, or maybe ‘it’s complicated…’)

  4. On the #teachread link above, you can see about a project going on in one of my classes. For that project, I just posted about the (assumed) diversity differences in the East and the West, in the ‘city’ and the ‘suburban’. It was inspired by a few tweets by Sherman Alexie, the author whose book I read as part of the #teachread project. In any case, it tangentially relates to this conversation in terms of making me wonder:

    If ‘urban education’ is about equity across diverse social groups, which social groups are still not accounted for by the focus on ‘urban’?

    Here’s a link to that post:

  5. I just saw this tweet:

    @markwarschauer NYTimes: In New York, Mexicans Lag in Education

    In reference to my last comment: When ‘urban education’ is made in broad strokes, we lose close analysis as to what it means ‘to be Mexican’ in NYC (or Philly or Chicago) versus ‘being Mexican’ in a town in Arizona (or Mississippi or Idaho). So many crucial layers are lost.

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