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'Unique and amazing... Highly recommended.'

Review in the Canadian Journal of Urban Research (15.2, Winter 2006) by Priscilla C Yu, Head of the Planning and Landscape Architecture Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) 

The Dictionary of Urbanism
By Robert Cowan. Streetwise Press, 2005. 500pp. £29.95

This unique and amazing dictionary embraces urban terms, historical and contemporary personalities, geographical accounts, and more. Writing in a scholarly style sprinkled with British wit and humor, Robert Cowan explains in great detail words and phrases that a county or city official, planner, built environment professional or community participant might use.

Drawing upon everything from historical records to popular culture, the dictionary’s more than 6,500 entries interweave high and low-brow culture, professional jargon and street slang. The scope is also international: the dictionary differentiates between American and British expressions while also including some French and German terms.

The alphabetical listing of terms is extremely functional, with cross-references to other definitions – the terminology used by planners and urbanists being open to a wide range of interpretations. Definitions are enhanced by comprehensive commentaries as well as cleverly integrated sketches by Lucinda Rogers.

Terms and biographical entries encompass both urbanists and well-known personalities who have indirectly contributed to the world of urbanism, such as Bernard Shaw, Jane Addams, and many others. For example, under the term unreal city – a phrase from The Waste Land, a poem which presents the contemporary city as a disintegrating and dislocating experience – there is a sketch of the poet TS Eliot.

Geographical descriptions are also entered. As an Illinoian, I was more than pleased to see Peoria described as ‘the mid-west city, halfway between Chicago and St Louis... regarded as the traditional epitome of Middle America.’

However, since this is intended to be an international work, it would have been desirable to see the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America represented either geographically or biographically to the same degree as are those of North America and Europe. Furthermore, there is a lacuna of some of the major international organs relating to urbanism – the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements being a noteworthy example. However, Cowan offers a website (www.urbanwords.info) where there is an opportunity to suggest amendments/revisions to the next edition of the dictionary.

This is a comprehensive reference work that any library – be it public, government, school or academic – should possess. It is innovative, informative, and reflects the ever-changing language and landscape of the planning and design – and culture – of cities. Highly recommended.

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'A pleasure from beginning to end... I found it perfect for my needs, giving information that I could have spent months tracking down by other routes.'


Review in Urban Design
International (April 2006, Volume 11, Number 1, Pages 63-64) by Alan Powers (School of Architecture and Construction, University of Greenwich; his most recent book is Modern: The Modern Movement in Britain Merrell, 2005)

The Dictionary of Urbanism
By Robert Cowan. Streetwise Press, 2005. 500pp. £29.95

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?
 
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'I have only had this book a couple of weeks, but already I wonder how we ever did without it.'


Review in the Architects' Journal, 28 April 2005 by Joe Holyoak
The Dictionary of Urbanism
By Robert Cowan. Streetwise Press, 2005. 500pp. £29.95

This book is infuriating. You go to look up, say, Raymond Unwin, but on the way you are distracted by Urban Decay (‘a range of cosmetics launched in 2001, apparently aimed at the young and streetwise’). Then your eye lights on urban buzz, which has a reference to Gazzard’s Law of Urban Vitality. What’s that!? You turn back, and find it states that ‘it takes 100 Australians to create the same urban activity as 10 Italians’. Next to this is gay index, with a reference to Richard Florida. That irrationally prompts you to look up Seaside. And so randomly on, until you have forgotten all about Unwin and realise that another 20 minutes of your life has passed.

But you now know a lot you didn’t know before. The dictionary tells us that the term urbanism was first used by Idelfonso Cerda, the planner of the expansion of Barcelona, in 1867. But until the last ten years, urbanism (‘the study or appreciation of the processes of change in towns and cities; making towns and cities work; town (UK) or city (US) planning’) was the concern of a small number of specialists. Since John Gummer, Urban Task Force and CABE, it has now moved to a more central position in the country’s life, enlisting the contributions of a number of different professions. But regularly we baffle each other with the different expressions that we use, and the different meanings that we attach to the same expressions.

Rob Cowan is an experienced urbanist who has a foot in several camps: he is director of the Urban Design Group, an academic, an urban design consultant, and has contributed to several key publications on the subject in the last few years. One of the strengths of his book is that it collects words used by different groups - urban designers (visual appropriateness, permeable), architects (fenestration, orthogonal projection), highway engineers (modal split, road pricing), property developers (non-recourse finance, ground rent), town planners (structure plan, plot ratio), urban historians (Cutteslowe wall, Wenceslaus Hollar) - as well as from popular culture: squeegee merchant, giro drop and break dancing.

Cowan seems particularly keen on popular music associated with urban culture, with entries on The Clash, Dancing in the Streets, and hip hop among others. The promiscuous mingling in the book of higher and lower culture, of professional jargon and street slang, is rather like real life. His entry on built environment professionals’ dress sense, with anecdotes about Koolhaas, Libeskind and Mart Stam’s trousers, is hilarious. He is an opinionated lexicographer in the Samuel Johnson tradition, and writes with a dry humour. “Icon.....sometimes seems to be used to describe any building not specifically designed to be self-effacing”. Alison and Peter Smithson’s use of ‘streets in the sky’ at Robin Hood Gardens is ‘an arrangement traditionally used in prison’.

Terms used in US urbanism are often significantly different from ours, and are sometimes imported uncritically and misused: new urbanism is an important current example. Cowan includes lots of US expressions and distinguishes them from ours, and also words from French and German urbanism that we might sometimes hear. The book has elegant line drawings by Lucinda Rogers, who has the ability to make even the most mundane street scene look fascinating. Her drawings match the entries’ mixture of the learned and the demotic. She also draws portraits of many of the people featured in the dictionary, which I feel do not contribute so much.

Yes, the dictionary contains mistakes and omissions, but I shall not take up space listing them here. Instead, I shall send them to www.citydefined.com, where my suggestions can be added to the website which accompanies the book, and maybe to the next printed edition of the book itself. I have only had this book a couple of weeks, but already I wonder how we ever did without it.

Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, and reader at Birmingham School of Architecture

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'My unalloyed pleasure at this book derives from Cowan’s incredibly broad-church approach to urbanism, and his clear and concise definitions. Any dictionary that contains on the same page a reference to R&B legends Martha and the Vandellas, Marxism and master plan deserves one’s custom.'

Review in Context, the journal of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, November 2005 by Hank Dittmar, chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and chair of the Congress for the New Urbanism

Robert Cowan’s The Dictionary of Urbanism is not a book you can read in one sitting. Like Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater Zyberk’s The New Civic Art (which as a visual compendium of urbanism is an excellent companion to this volume), The Dictionary of Urbanism is best approached like a snack food. But like a snack food, one finds oneself returning to it again and again, almost as a guilty pleasure.

Partly this is due to Rob Cowan’s sly sense of humour, recognisable even to this supposedly irony-challenged American. His jokes pervade the entire book, complementing the complete and serious definitions in a delicious manner. Partly the guilty pleasure comes from Lucinda Rogers’s line drawings of urban scenes and noted urbanists. They enliven the volume and add another layer of commentary.

But mostly my unalloyed pleasure at this book derives from Cowan’s incredibly broad-church approach to urbanism, and his clear and concise definitions. Any dictionary that contains on the same page a reference to R&B legends Martha and the Vandellas, Marxism and master plan deserves one’s custom.

When one digs into the actual definitions, one is rarely disappointed. Sure, I was a little miffed when Cowan’s definition of ‘new urbanism’ devoted as much attention to the criticisms of libertarian academics as it did to a discussion of the tenets of the movement, but I was also pleased that he took the trouble to include the entirety of the Charter of the New Urbanism. For a recent immigrant to this country, his definitions relating to the planning process and the Sustainable Communities Plan are quite useful, although one wonders how often they will require updating – but Cowan promises to do that through a website (www.urbanwords.info).

Cowan acknowledges that it is difficult to pin precise definitions on many of the terms used by planners and architects when speaking of the city. Not only do people have different meanings for the same term, I am convinced that people deliberately use words in new ways in order to appropriate useful words (and the values associated with them) for new purposes. In other words, I am convinced that when Richard Rogers and I talk about density, we are not talking about the same thing.

This volume deals with that dilemma in the way that dictionaries often do: by providing alternate definitions. This is a neat solution for the lexicographer, but a lousy solution for the profession, which badly needs to start by agreeing on the meaning of words for various bits of the city, as a first step for beginning again the effort to plan the town and country in a coherent way. Of course this is a problem for a consensus process, and it can not be solved by a single author.

Only one other quibble arises with respect to The Dictionary of Urbanism: the fact that many of the design terms could be better described with a drawing or a photograph. In such a richly illustrated book, it should have been possible to define a few key terms with a line drawing or a chart. Including images of this kind would have reduced the ambiguity that is always introduced when one talks about a visual and physical subject in purely written ways.

My colleague Ben Bolgar is fond of showing a slide of the tower of Babel when he speaks about the need to supply participants in the process of designing their communities with a grammar and a vocabulary of design. The Dictionary of Urbanism goes a long way toward meeting that need. In the too many months since I agreed to write this review, this book has been – and continues to be – a useful reference.

__________


'Lucinda Rogers' scratchy pen and brush line illustrations lift the book comfortably to design object status, fittingly for a book which is as much a statement of intent as a reference work. As suited to the urbanist architect's office as it is to the academic library – or smartarse urbanite's coffee table. Recommended.'

Review on the website Dogmatica (http://dogmatika.com/dm/books_more.php?id=752_0_3_0_M), November 2005

The Dictionary of Urbanism: A staggering work of heartbreaking genius – almost.

Dr. Johnson's Dictionary famously described oats as: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." Ever since then only a dullard or a politician could see a dictionary as an apolitical text. This is the case across the board, but it is doubly true of specialist dictionaries that strive to do more than list the lexicon of basic literacy.

Dictionaries also need not be dry tomes, only of interest to philologists or Rohypnol-guzzling American children entered into over-competitive spelling-bees by grasping baby-boomer parents who have switched from cocaine to Regaine.

The Dictionary of Urbanism by Robert Cowan is described by its publisher as: "a comprehensive and often irreverent reference for everyone whose business or passion is cities." Fowler's Modern English Usage probably sets the standard for sarcasm in set texts, if not for pith. Its entry on split infinitives should be frequently and loudly proclaimed to all who think that the appearance such trifles signals the decline of the English language. No letters about that one, please.

Readers here in Ireland need not be reminded that language is a war zone – and a minefield. Moving swiftly beyond the strictly vernacular questions surrounding the legitimacy of the Ulster Scots project (the difference between a dialect and a language is that dialects tend to lack armies and paramilitaries notwithstanding, "Ulster" does not have an army) and whether one should build "an 'ouse" or "a house" (perhaps a chi-ouse, fans of ancient Greek?), it is clear that architecture and its related professions are resplendent with terminology both technical and political.

Consider the following terms: modernism, sustainable, nimby, and planner. In the right company, each of these word is likely to take on several subtle layers of coded meaning, as likely to obfuscate as to illuminate. In such a profession, The Dictionary of Urbanism is as much a work of technocratic cryptanalysis as it is a simple book of words.

Cowan is clearly aware of this and his intentions are spelt out in several of the longer entries – which can run to several pages – where he unpacks the true meaning of planning terms which have been blandly appropriated by politicians, pressure groups and other plunderers of language – and design.

"[...] Sustainability is not an absolute: it is only possible to say that one development seems more likely to be sustainable than another. Nor is it an exact science. We can predict with complete accuracy neither the impact of a development, nor the ability of future generations to remediate it. [...]" Cowan, p.384

It is in entries such as the above that Cowan's book proves itself as more than a orthographic catalogue for architects.

This reviewer suspects – and, lacking any substantive evidence, I shall leave it as mere conjecture – that Cowan may harbour some metro-Marxist tendencies. Whatever his formal ideological background, his belief in the benefits brought by good development is clear in his writing – enough to be witty and challenging, but not so much as to turn the book into a tedious tract.

What is most fascinating about Cowan's seemingly modernist outlook is that is has been abandoned by most "progressives", particularly outside architecture, who now seem to favour an anti-development, latter-day Digger outlook. Unlike today's latter-day, post-modern eco-worriers that, ironically, see progress as a problem, Cowan is unapologetic when it comes to building better cities, something which is obvious in the text of the dictionary.

Despite its seriousness when dealing with concrete matters, the text itself is not so dense as to defy light reading. This is a reflection of two facts. Firstly, Cowan's sense of humour is writ large on many the pages, at least those not concerned with issues so important, or so po-faced, as to defy humour. Legal and technical entries are treated with appropriate studiousness.

Secondly, dictionaries are by their very nature hyper-textual. As a form of book read in a non-linear and "linked" fashion, they can be considered the direct antecedent of the web site, much more so than other pre-web internet forms. Readers more dedicated than this reviewer may be able to discern a fully coherent meta-narrative within the text by applying the use of William Burroughs celebrated cut-up techniques.

That the dictionary contains an entry on Drayneflete, no matter how concise, should give some indication of its scope. Should the reader's intention be to use it as a reference to work to help win arguments about architecture and planning with discontents of progress such as the Prince of Wales, one alternative method would be simply to use its 468-page hardback form to club said opponents to death instead.

Lucinda Rogers' scratchy pen and brush line illustrations lift the book comfortably to design object status, fittingly for a book which is as much a statement of intent as a reference work. As suited to the urbanist architect's office as it is to the academic library – or smartarse urbanite's coffee table. Recommended.

JW


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'That entries for subjects as diverse as the Artizans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act 1875, asbestos and the film Escape from New York can coexist in one volume is a reminder of the richness of the field, which alone would make this book worth celebrating.'

The further it ventures beyond the realm of the specialist (and it increasingly does so), the bigger the potential for the initiate to bamboozle the layman (what non-planner knows what ‘assimilative capacity’ means?) Conversely, definitions can lose their meaning through the apparent liberation of wider use. It’s hard to think of another subject that so many people discuss with so little regard for the precision of the terminology.

So, along comes Cowan’s book, a light-hearted, often irreverent lexicon of more than 6,500 urbanisms. It will, at the very least, help planners, architects, urbanists and keen urbanites talk in the same language. And dipping in to it at random provides many surprising and enjoyable snippets. That entries for subjects as diverse as the Artizans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act 1875, asbestos and the film Escape from New York can coexist in one volume is a reminder of the richness of the field, which alone would make this book worth celebrating.

Saul Metzstein


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'One can tell how much the dictionary is being used by the frequency with which certain quotes turn up in essays.'


From RUDI (Resource for Urban Design Information), January 2006, by

The dictionary is already popular with students, providing concise and useful definitions about concepts such as 'community', 'identity', or 'place'. It gives quoted examples and one can tell how much the dictionary is being used by the frequency with which certain quotes turn up in essays. References are also given and these are often chased up in the library by readers. In a design field, beginning with a dictionary of this kind is often as good as you are going to get from students.

Roger Simmonds

Roger Simmonds, senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University

Review in Civic Focus, the magazine of the Civic Trust, by Saul Metzstein

Everyone and their proverbial dog has a view on the city they live in, the street that walk down and the quality of the buildings they inhabit, ie, on urbanism. It’s a joyous testament to urbanism’s significance and all-pervasiveness. Yet of all widely discussed topics it is often the most mired in ambiguous and (often deliberately) obscure language.

 



'I have only had this book a couple of weeks, but already I wonder how we ever did without it.'


Review in the Architects' Journal, 28 April 2005 by Joe Holyoak

The Dictionary of Urbanism
By Robert Cowan. Streetwise Press, 2005. 500pp. £29.95

 

 

 

 

 

A good city is like a good party. People donít want to leave early.
Jan Gehl

   
illustration from the Dictionary of Urbanism