Urbanwords: the website of The Dictionary of Urbanism




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A lexicon with attitude. It deserves a place on every urbanist’s desktop
Professor Michael Hebbert, University of Manchester


Remarkably, there has never been a dictionary of urban terms before. Robert Cowan’s new dictionary, a lexicographical first, is a fine achievement. He has collected an astonishing variety of names, terms and buzz words in entries that range from deeply informative essays on words like ‘community’ and ‘sustainable’ to light-hearted ones on the dress codes of construction industry professionals. With his sharp eye for the absurdity of some urban terminology this is more than just a dictionary, but a wry commentary on the whole practice of urbanism
Professor Adrian Forty, author of Words and Buildings: a vocabulary of modern architecture


'The Dictionary of Urbanism: informed, inspiring and entertaining'
Dan Cruickshank

What is the difference between disurbanisation and desuburbanisation? Who lives in Cactusville or suffers from link wilt? What is wrong with dingbats? Where are Dulburb, Dullborough, Dullsville and Dulston? When does suburbia become slurbia? What is a sustainable community?

The Dictionary of Urbanism is a comprehensive and often irreverent reference for everyone whose business or passion is cities. It defines and explains almost every word or phrase that a councillor, developer, built environment professional, community activist or urban explorer is likely to hear or read.

The 500-page dictionary has been hailed as the standard reference on urban design, planning, regeneration and the culture of cities. Written by Robert Cowan and illustrated by Lucinda Rogers, it is published in hardback by the Streetwise Press, price £29.95. Click here to buy it.

To receive a couple of urban words every day, follow Rob Cowan on Twitter (@cowanrob)


Contribute to the dictionary
Readers of this website and of the printed dictionary are invited to contribute to the evolving dictionary. Please post your suggested amendments and additions on Twitter (@cowanrob) or here, supported by references wherever appropriate. Don't worry about the exact wording: we will turn your notes into an entry. If you want to know the meaning of a term not included in the printed dictionary (see the list of entries), please ask. All adopted changes to the dictionary will be added to the supplement, which will be incorporated into the printed dictionary’s next edition.

New entries
Tracking the ever-changing language of urbanism is a never-ending job. New entries written by Rob Cowan are published quarterly in the journal Urban Design and Planning. A few have been posted on this website, whose new and revised terms include:

Athens of Germany

Athens of Ireland

Athens of the New World

Athens of the West


beeriest town in England, the


brick venereal

Brixton briefcase


city landscape
cocktail-party syndrome

coffin end
collective space

Coventry kid

Dublin, kick up a
five-hundred pound gorilla
fresh conservatism
Glesga kiss
green dividend
Heidelberg Project
naked street
negative space
non-territorial city
open-end urbanism
urban grit
walking city

The author
Rob Cowan is a director of UDS (www.urbandesignskills.com). He is editor of Context, the journal of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. His other publications include The Connected City, The Cities Design Forgot, Urban Design Guidance and (with the photographer Alan Delaney) London After Dark. He was the joint author of Re:urbanism and the CLG/CABE design guidance By Design, and the author of the Scottish equivalent (Designing Places), the housing design guide for Scotland (Housing Quality), and the Scottish guidance on masterplanning. He devised the community audit method Placecheck (www.placecheck.info) and the urban design skills appraisal method Capacitycheck (www.capacitycheck.co.uk). His weekly cartoon appeared in Planning for 20 years. His celebrated Plandemonium videos are at www.plandemonium.org.uk

The illustrator

Lucinda Rogers has been drawing the urban environment for over 15 years and regularly exhibits her drawings of New York and London. Her interest in urban policy and politics began through an involvement with the Spitalfields Market Under Threat campaign, and her work now documents areas of East London affected by change and redevelopment. As an illustrator she has worked widely for the press, including The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and New Yorker. She illustrated the long-running Weasel column in The Independent.


'That this book is such a pleasure from beginning to end is owed to the author's knowledge and wit... I found it perfect for my needs, giving information that I could have spent months tracking down by other routes.'
Alan Powers

Review in Urban Design International (April 2006, Volume 11, Number 1, Pages 63-64) by Alan Powers:

With this book, Robert Cowan takes his place as the Schott (of Schott's Miscellany fame) for urbanists. The pleasure of Schott's book, repeated in reduced form in its many subsequent look-alikes, was in the digestible nature of its offerings, taken in small morsels, each of which had a distinct flavour. Any good alphabetical compilation should be able to produce this effect, but one might not have considered urbanism as a suitable theme. That this book is such a pleasure from beginning to end is owed to the author's knowledge and wit, and the assiduous keeping of cuttings files which have been harvested for soundbites.

Entertainment and opinionated instruction are linked together. Opening a page at random, one can find entries for Enoch 'the first city, according to the Bible', for Enquiry by Design, Enterprise Zone, Entralla 'a fictional central European city that is the setting for Edward Carey's 2003 novel Alva and Irva: the twins who saved a city.' The entry for Enterprise Zone gives a short history and definition, and discusses whether the famous New Society 'Non-plan' issue in 1969 was actually influential in creating the concept, as some have assumed. Halfway down the second column, the entry on 'Environment' begins, offering three definitions of its current usage, as a dictionary should. A typically forthright comment over the page runs thus, 'The title Department of the Environment was convenient, though vague. Renaming it the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in 1997 made nonsense of it.'

Other pages typically include biographies of leading figures in urban theory and activity, adding to the family feeling that planning seems to project. To complement 'Enoch' one of Lucinda Rogers' numerous pithy line drawings on the facing page shows the entrance to the St Enoch's underground station in Glasgow. These drawings include many portraits redrawn from photographs and some of buildings, pleasing enough in themselves, but my only reservation about the book concerns the alternatives that have been omitted, such as any form of plan, or any rendering of historical graphic material. The result is that in a book so heavily devoted to ideas, the illustrations miss the chance of explaining them visually as well as verbally, and readers will have to look elsewhere for this level of information.

In an introductory essay, the author examines the relationship between terminology and activity in the broad subject of urbanism. 'We communicate about the built environment with an astonishing wealth of words and concepts from dry legalistic formulae to street slang,' Cowan writes, finding terms from statute, design aesthetics, politics, popular culture, science, slang and even theology and warfare. Many of these expressions are irreplaceable, but as neologisms, only a selection of them is likely to appear in mainstream dictionaries. Even if they did, they would lack the level of detail and interconnection that is available here.

This introduction opens up a topic that deserves further study in its own right. Is the composite nature of the planning process, involving many specialists, responsible for the diversity of group lexis that it encompasses? Might we trace the love of phrasemaking back to Patrick Geddes, with his paleotechnic and neotechnic? Cowan picks the phrase 'horses for courses' as an example of a term used frequently by planners and engineers, but hardly ever, he claims, by architects. 'Is this because the concept of means being appropriate to ends is particularly important in planning?' he asks, 'or because planning attracts people with a particular propensity for thinking in such terms? Or has the particular phrase become part of planners' dialect by chance, giving them a warm sense of belonging when they use it, whereas for architects it has not?'

At a time when newspeak and weasel words flow unchallenged from every centre of government and administration, a critical understanding of the subtle relationships between words and deeds could not be more important. Do other disciplines develop vocabularies of equivalent diversity? Perhaps not, since they are neither blessed nor cursed with the almost infinite extension of planning across the map of knowledge.

I wondered what was the intended audience for the book. As someone half-educated in this field, and looking over the fence from an adjoining one of architectural history, I found it perfect for my needs, giving information that I could have spent months tracking down by other routes. The quality of the writing led me on by the serendipitous route of the alphabet and by the internal cross-references.

For beginners it might be overwhelming, for experts perhaps over-familiar, although even the greatest polymath is unlikely to have covered all this ground, and no knowledge should be outside the boundaries of this subject. Students ought to have it by their bedsides in order to discover why planning contains the whole of human life and experience. It would be particularly useful for architects finding their way in the world of urbanism, which they increasingly wish to invade. Indeed, many of the definitions are of essentially architectural words and terms. I cannot think of any equivalent book in architecture that does a job similar to this.

The scope is international, although largely Anglo-American. Some of the entries will seem ephemeral in the near future, however enjoyable they may be today (for example, Straw, Jack (b.1946) Politician. See SQUEEGEE MERCHANT.) Buy this book now and enjoy its topicality. Later, it will provoke nostalgia as well as being an invaluable historical record and a model for updating. Could Robert Cowan be commissioned to write a 'newspeak of the month' feature in one of the planning journals as a way of ensuring that his work carries on?
Alan Powers

For more reviews see the REVIEWS page of this website.



An invaluable guide to every aspect of the urban scene, popular as well as professional, iconoclastic as well as legalistic Professor Sir Peter Hall, author of Cities in Civilisation

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illustration from the Dictionary of Urbanism

urbanism 1 The study or appreciation of the processes of change in towns and cities; making towns and cities work; town (UK) or city (US) planning. 2 The process of becoming urban. 3 The product of town planning or development. 4 Patterns of social life characteristic of urban areas. 5 Architecture in an urban context. 6 A building’s characteristic of having internal spaces that create something of the sense of being in a street, square or other external urban space. See The Dictionary of Urbanism for a fuller entry.