Our story – an observation, a question, and a response

Welcome to Urbānitūs, a project to connect people, ideas and action with the fast-transforming urban landscape of Austin, Texas, and other emerging knowledge cities in the region, the nation, and the world.

If you’re new to our digital home, we encourage you to look around at some of our work. A year into this, there are now more than 100 long-form essays, analyses, reviews, poems, and roundtable discussions. Ours is a nascent project and there’s still some scaffolding up and not all the paint is dry. So, a brief introduction is in order as Urbānitūs approaches today’s fragmented and often-insular media ecosystem with a few novel propositions.

Who we are

This ongoing media initiative grew out of a series of conversations among a group of technologists, academicians, and journalists through the spring and summer of 2019. The essence of that informal convening, often held in a pub in central Austin, Texas, began with a focus on the uniqueness of our own outlier city. As that focus expanded to the elements animating civic cultures in similar creative cities, the dialogue came down to an observation and a question.

The observation

Hardly original and the subject of global debate and scholarship, our views cohered around the inescapable premise that the future of humanity and the long-term sustainability of the planet are inextricably linked to the fate of our cities. That we live in a moment of profound global interdependence is clear most immediately from the pandemic that surrounds us. And, as if to validate the argument we were making before we’d ever heard of COVID-19, this is just one of the transcendent challenges that increasingly dysfunctional national governments are hard-pressed to confront. Cities, however, are suited to meet the future head on. Particularly as they work through regional, national and global coalitions to shoulder new responsibilities and roles, from climate change to water scarcity to viral contagion.

This observation is hardly radical. Cities are the crucible of civilization and democracy. Cities are the laboratories of innovation, the engines of technology, the drivers of wealth creation and the centers of power. Cities are the centers of learning and creativity, attracting and stimulating those who nurture and give form to ideas.

That said, cities also host the grim realities of crime, inequity, bigotry, environmental destruction, pollution and disease. Cities are the physical face of the accelerating global challenges of climate change, water scarcity, inadequate shelter, migration and the displacements wrought by a metamorphosing economy.

To be clear, this is not to suggest we don’t need effective national governance. We do. But in an era of asphyxiating political polarization, cities are the practical sources of policy oxygen, the places where inaction is not an option and where leaders routinely nudge dogma aside to get things done. In a moment when political conversation so often devolves to the radical extremes, cities are where the polarities can often reverse, replacing the one dimensional left/center/right spectrum that was invented to categorize the political views of the French Revolution in the 18th Century. In the 21st, we can do better.

The question

So where to start? After all, we are at the epicenter of the most rapidly urbanizing region of North America, in a city that is America’s most educated, fastest growing, and – however paradoxically – among the most riven by these emerging disparities. Beyond its famed City Limits, Austin is also the axis of the emerging conurbation that will become America’s largest within a decade. This megaregion bounded by Dallas-Fort Worth in the north, Houston on the south and San Antonio on its western edge will soon host a population larger than that of greater New York City.

The response

Austin commonly thinks of itself as hip, weird, cool, and creative. Sure enough. It’s also the humming global laboratory of demographic change, the digitalization of life, and growing divides in wealth, education, health, shelter, and more. And so we began this endeavor, still very much a work-in-progress, to examine this vortex of change from the local up to the global. Broadly, Austin and its environs are our immediate laboratory, but our gaze includes all cities shouldering their new roles as agents of global change. Urbānitūs is a forum for those who wish to engage, shape, and create a sustainable urban future for the city. And for that matter, for cities.

There’s a lot of work to do. We’re listening. We hope you’ll join us.

David Judson
Editor and Co-Founder