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Urban Communication

Summary and Keywords

Cities themselves function as media of communication. They are places where messages are created, carried, and exchanged by structures, infrastructures, and people. Urbanity is an age-old phenomenon undergoing radical transformation as developing means of communication redefine traditional notions of place and space. Urban communication meshes population density, technology and social interaction. Urban communication, like urban studies, is an interdisciplinary field that provides a fresh perspective from which to view the city and its transformation. The communication lens offers valuable perspectives and methodologies for the examination of urban and suburban life. It conceptualizes the city as a complex environment of interpersonal interaction, a landscape of spaces and places that shape human behavior, and an intricate technological environment.

The development of urban communication research and activities is traceable from the early works a diverse group of urbanists to more current research programs conducted by communication scholars. Urban communication foregrounds communication in the study of the urban landscape. The unique patterns and needs of urban dwellers and communities are examined in an age where cities are layered with media technologies. An increasing number of technologies enable information from the digital world to be layered onto the physical world through augmented realities, thereby altering the person–environment relationship by creating spaces in which users interact with their physical surroundings through digital media. The future of cities is increasingly influenced by media technology. Cities are global, connected, inclusive, livable, green, sustainable, mega, and smart. Cities have been identified as communicative cities. There are many ways of looking at communication and cities and the history and broad parameters of the growing area of urban communication.

Keywords: urban communication, urban studies, smart cities, community, cities, augmented reality, mediated urbanism, communication and critical studies

The study of urban communication begins with the concept that cities are inherently places and products of communication. They provide meeting spaces for interaction and/or observation. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser notes that cities are humankind’s greatest invention (Glaeser, 2011). The essence of the city is community, the relationship to communication underscored by the shared root of these words. Communication emerges from the Latin communis, meaning common or sharing, or communicare, which means to “make something common.” James W. Carey noted in describing his concept of the ritual view of communication that “communication is linked to terms such as ‘sharing,’ ‘participation,’ ‘association,’ ‘fellowship,’ and ‘the possession of a common faith.’ This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the term ‘commonness,’ ‘communion,’ ‘community,’ and ‘communication’ ” (2008, p. 15). Communities are created and maintained through communication. Paul Goldberger, the former architectural critic of the New York Times, has described the urban impulse as “an impulse toward community—an impulse toward being together, and toward accepting the idea that however different we may be, something unites us” (2001, p. 3).

The 21st century is the century of urbanization. In 1800, 3% of the world’s people lived in cities, but by 2008, for the first time in history, “the world's population was evenly split between urban and rural areas.” By 2014 54% lived in urban areas (United Nations, 2014). Cities range from small cities to megacities. Rural populations flood into cities of all sorts. It is estimated that the number of megacities (more than 10 million inhabitants) will double over the next 10 to 20 years (Webster & Burke, 2012). A United Nations (UN) report projects that by 2050 close to 70% of the world’s population will live in cities (United Nations, 2014). Cities are developed, industrial, imperial, emerging, global, mega, smart, livable, happy, inclusive, green, and sustainable. Cities are abandoned and gentrified. Cities sprawl. Cities range from slums and favelas to shining high-tech meccas created from the start to be built from and about information technologies. Communication technologies have become integral to a perspective of cities. There are new cities built to be smart from the outset (e.g., Songdo, Korea, and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi) and existing cities upgraded to feature information technology (e.g., Amsterdam and Manchester, United Kingdom). While the urban form is still evolving, its functions remain, in large part, communicative. Urban communication studies explore the metamorphosis of the contemporary city in its complex relationship with technology. Most recently, Aedas, an architecture and design practice, announced the creation of the Vanke Tianfu Cloud City to be constructed within the new development zone of Chengdu, China (Thorns, 2018).

The UN Habitat III meeting that took place in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, ended with in an outcome document entitled “The New Urban Agenda” adopted to “guide the efforts around urbanization of a wide range of actors—nation states, city and regional leaders, international development funders, United Nations programs and civil society—for the next 20 years” (New Urban Agenda Explainer, 2016). The non-binding agenda is designed to provide a foundation for long-ranging policies, programs, and approaches for governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society, academics, and UN agencies. Habitat I, held in Montreal in 1976, focused on human settlements with an eye on the rise of urbanization. Habitat II, held in Istanbul, followed 20 years later to address “adequate shelter for all” and “sustainable human settlements development in an urbanizing world.”

Habitat III’s ultimate goal is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Habitat III recognized how central technologies have become to the goals of the New Urban Agenda. The Internet, mobility, and “smart cities” were acknowledged and incorporated in the discourse of implementation of the agenda. There was direct acknowledgment that the “decentralization of finance, the possibility of technology-enabled shared mobility, quantitative and qualitative data analytics and renewable energy, all promise to help in achieving the goals of the New Urban Agenda” (New Urban Agenda Explainer, 2016). The New Urban Agenda, a 23-page document, promised that no one would be left behind through inclusive development, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. The document addressed rights of the city and unique needs of vulnerable urban populations including women, the LGBT community, the poor, disabled, and indigenous peoples. Urban land policies should guarantee housing—for people, for economic profit, and for social interaction and public spaces. Much of Habitat III focused on the role of new technologies and big data seen as a way to provide for enhanced urban planning. The urban future was framed as technology-based built on assumptions about communication and community. Urban communication articulates and advances these communication and community concerns.

The Development of Urban Communication Research

The recognition of urban communication as an area of study emerged from interdisciplinary sources in the early 1990s. What can now be considered urban communication has been the result of building on the cumulative work of urbanists from diverse fields.

One can trace early foundational concerns back to Georg Simmel’s work focusing on the importance of understanding the urban experience, which underscored human perception rather than just the process of urbanization (Simmel, 1976). From there, antecedents to urban communication can be traced to the Chicago School of Sociology and the classic work by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, The City (1925), which noted that ecological and economic urban developments manifest themselves in social organizations.

Others contributing to an understanding of postmodern urbanity included David Harvey. As a geographer, in influential works including The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), Harvey took a Marxist postion to argue that class struggles take place in cities as seen through developments in urban life. In the essay “The Right to The City,” he argued that in so far as urbanization relies on the mobilization of surplus products, “urbanization has always been . . . a class phenomenon” (Harvey, 2008).

Influential in understanding the transformational role of technologies is Castells’s trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The first volume, The Rise of the Network Society (1996), is particularly significant in laying the foundation for understanding global cities. For Castells, the “network society” refers to the interconnected nodes of organization arising from the information revolution and a restructuring of capitalism. Castell’s technological paradigm “theory” argued that some social structures would not have emerged absent technology.

In The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process (1989), Castells asserted continued spatial importance in that the space of flows is “the material organization of time-sharing social practices“ (p. 147). Castells introduced a spatial logic of the information age through the concept of “the space of flows” to explore the interaction between technology, society, and space (Castells, 1996, p. 377). This he related to the rise of global cities and megacities, which he identified as a “new urban forms” of the informational age (Castells, 1996, p. 398), to be understood as nodal points, and power centers of the new spatial form associated with the space of flows.

The inevitable connection between global cities and media technologies, with the Internet providing the fundamental infrastructure, is evidenced by theoriest Saskia Sassen’s work on global cities, which emphasized the flow of information and capital with her conceptualization featuring how complex, scattered globalized production networks crossing borders result in global cities that are quite distinct from prior great cities. In her seminal work, The Global City (1991), she explored how New York, London, and Tokyo became command centers due to economic and management needs. In works like Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World (1991), Sharon Zukin’s research on cities, particularly consumer culture, extended this relevant foundational work, moving away from the approach taken by the Chicago School and moving toward a more interdisciplinary approach concerned with understanding how capital influences urban spaces.

Urban studies had been the province of geographers, sociologists, planners, designers, environmental psychologists, and economists. Communication scholars had done relatively little in researching the urban landscape.

The earliest work in this realm included an effort to examine communication in public space. These studies explored the use of public space as sites of collective action, community life, and protest (Gumpert & Drucker, 1994; Gumpert & Drucker, 1999). Communication scholars explored community and ritual (Carey, 2008). James Carey emphasized the role of communication and public life: “the projection of community ideals and their embodiment in material form—dance, plays, architecture, news stories, strings of speech—creates . . . a symbolic order” (2008, p. 15). Gumpert and Drucker explored the communicative functions of public space beginning with “Public Space and Communication: The Zoning of Public Interaction,” first published in 1991 (Drucker & Gumpert, 2018).

The implicit recognition of the communicative functions of urban space, particularly public spaces, could be found in the work of urbanists such as William (Holly) Whyte’s seminal volume The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980) and later City: Rediscovering the Center (1988). Whyte valued pedestrian spaces, parks, plazas, sidewalks, and city spaces for human encounters. His emphasis was on cities as environments for inhabitants rather than as economic or architectural environments, thereby bringing attention to the social functions of urban space as evidenced by the Street Life Project, a long-term project documenting social activity in public spaces through interviews, filming, and mapping people’s use of urban public spaces (Whyte, 1980). The Project for Public Spaces (PPS), rooted in Whyte’s work, was founded in 1975 as a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization “dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.” In an early period, another intellectual urban pioneer, Jane Jacobs, who in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) contended that without streets and street life, projects are dangerous as well. Jacobs also took the position that a city involved people rather than architects and commercial interests. She understood the social communal and communicative nature of cities, famously noting,” Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” (Jacobs, 1961, p. 238). Jacobs confronted New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses’s plans for urban renewal in the city, arguing his plans would destroy and replace well-functioning neighborhoods.

To be sure, others were exploring the human and social functions of cities from diverse perspectives. Architecture professor Amos Rapoport’s work featured the effect of urban forms on human behavior. In his 1977 volume Human Aspects of Urban Form Towards a Man—Environment Approach to Urban Form and Design, he too explored urbanity in relation to people’s social needs. In 1982 Rapoport directly addressed a form of urban communication in The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach. Rapoport’s work serves as a bridge to the interdisciplinary and eclectic work of environment behavior research, an area of study that brings together environmental psychologists, architects, planners, designers, sociologists, geographers, landscape architects, and interior designers.

In the early 1990s communication scholars began engaging in this work as well. By 1992 a network within the International Association of People Environment Studies, an interdisciplinary organization, was formed. By 1995 a communication knowledge network was founded within the North America–based Environmental Design Research Association.

The growth of the study of urban communication picked up momentum in the early 1990s. In 1995 a special issue of Communication Research was published which sought to show how work done across the communication discipline fit under the rubric of urban. This was an early effort to tease out and foreground the unique significance of “urban” in communication studies. The issue, edited by Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker, included the work of Everett Rogers and James Dearing (1995), which examined San Franscio’s response to the AIDS epidemic, considering not only the communication campaigns associated with the epidemic but how the epidemic challenged socially constructed notions of community.

From the field of sociology, social construction of identity was explored by Mats Lieberg (1995) in “Teenagers and Public Space,” which provided an empirical study into Swedish teenagers’ use of public spaces to create meaning. He explored the importance of local variations in identity construction of teens as a way of understanding postmodern society.

Eric W. Allison and Mary Ann Allison (1995) contended that postmodern conditions resulted in a new form of space, a mental space called the space of flows or cyberspace that urban planning must consider. The authors argued for the need to bridge the disciplines of urban planning and communication studies.

Returning to themes of community, communication scholar Tim Simpson (1995) explored how people actively occupy, struggle over, and use historic urban spaces in relation to community. The regular editors of the journal, Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Charles Berger, hoped that the special issue would “promote attention to social issues in general and to urban problems in particular” (Ball-Rokeach & Berger, 1995, p. 621).

This was also one of the earliest published efforts to invite scholars from outside the discipline to speak to those within. Lawrence Vale, an urban planner from the Department of Urban Planning at MIT, examined public housing as a dynamic communication environment as distinguished from the negative media coverage and connotations associated with a troubled urban environment (Vale, 1995). It was Vale who facilitated the connection with the late William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture at MIT, who became a strong proponent of urban communication. (It is particularly fascinating that the Media Lab, home of Nicholas Negroponte, functioned within the School of Architecture,)

Urban-based research on cities in the communication discipline grew. The work of Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her Metamorphosis Project and its passionate associates at the Annenberg School of Communication (University of Southern California) used a communication infrastructure approach to highlight the power of neighborhood storytelling networks. It explored how residents, community organizers, and local media construct and revitalize their residential communities and address problems such as health or family issues through the use of storytelling. Similarly, the work of Jack McLeod, Lewis Friedland, Dhavah Shah, and their associates at the University of Wisconsin exemplifies important early work fully embracing the importance of urban topics, not merely dealing with them as backdrop.

The mid-1990s through early 2000s marked the beginning of an evolution in research into urban communities, engagement, and the relationship between place and physical, social, and civic well-being. Increasing social scientific research focused on urban issues and communication technology in particular, thereby strengthening the relationship between communication and urbanity. In 1996 Bill Mitchell published City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn followed by e-topia: Urban Life, Jim—But Not As We Know It (1999). In 2003 Mitchell came out with Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Also at the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte published Being Digital in 1995. Robert Sampson’s work on contemporary cities, crime, urban inequality, civic engagement, and the social structure of cities and his decade-long Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods exemplifies the type of work emerging in sociology at that time (Sampson, 2012). During this time Richard Florida’s work on urban renewal and the creative class began to garner attention with the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). This was a period of ferment, the precursor to the further development of urban communication within the field of communication.

During this time the interdisciplinary work being done also focused on urban studies. This led to the question of whether, in fact, urban communication was merely communication scholarship framed as urban studies. Those in urban studies examine the institutions and problems of city life. As the name suggests, urban studies encompasses “urban everything”: urban history, urban form, and urban governance.

Urban studies addresses not only cities as places but how people live in them. It recognizes the city as composed of people and their social, political, economic, and cultural interactions within a circumscribed built environment. Urban studies is often described as an interdisciplinary field applying diverse approaches and social scientific methodologies. Urban studies scholars engage in the study of urban life.

This approach is reflected in such organizations as the Urban Affairs Association (UAA), whose stated mission “fosters diverse activities to understand and shape a more just and equitable urban world” (Urban Affairs Association Mission Statement). The UAA mission and initiatives can be found at Urban Studies, as the name suggests, deals with the study of cities. Such work focuses on city governance, politics, public policy problems, and the improvement of urban life. Research areas have included topics ranging from urban sprawl to urban crime; urban poverty and homelessness to taxation and gentrification. Scholarly journals include the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Urban Studies, Urban Affairs Review, Journal of Urban Affairs, Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, and Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs. The bottom line is that in urban studies, the city is the object of study.

Areas of specialization have emerged including urban health, urban education, urban economics, urban history, urban geography, and urban forestry and greening, to name a few. Place-making and public spaces (PPS) have been subject of special inquiry as well. In each instance the featured subject is examined as it occurs in urban areas. So urban health focuses on the health and well-being of people in cities along with the unique urban health challenges, determinants, and health inequities. Urban education features concerns facing inner city schools, examining how urban environments shape the lives and educational challenges to students and educators. In each instance a particular subject is examined through an urban prism.

In “urban communication,” communication is the object of study, with urban being the environment in and through which that communication takes place. Urban communication is the study of communication in urban sites. It is the study of urban influences on communication.

A significant step in the development of urban communication as a distinct area of specialization was the founding of the Urban Communication Foundation in 2004. A small number of invited participants gathered for a two-day meeting at Emerson College in Boston with the support of a small grant from the National Communication Association. The event was organized by Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker with the assistance of Stuart Sigman. The keynote speaker was William Mitchell. Participants included Leo Jeffres, author of Urban Communication Systems (2002); Kevin Carragee, a communication scholar working on communication activism; Dale Herbeck, a noted scholar in freedom of expression; Matthew Matsagnis, representing the Metamorphosis Project; and Casey Lum, editor of Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication (2006). It was agreed to form a loose consortium bringing together communication scholars with an interest in cities and public spaces. The following year the Urban Communication Foundation was founded as a result of a subsequent meeting in Chicago and an endowment provided by Gene Burd, from the University of Texas, who had long been working in the area of urban communication with a special emphasis on urban journalism. The establishment of the Urban Communication Foundation sought to “promote research that enhances our understanding of communication patterns in the urban environment and encourages collaboration between communication scholars, urban planners and policy makers.”

The Scope of Urban Communication

The communication between an individual and the urban landscape is a multilayered phenomenon. An underlying premise is that cities themselves function as a medium of communication. Cities are places where messages are created, carried, and exchanged by structures, infrastructures, and people. Urban historian Lewis Mumford saw the city as a place of interaction and community, noting that “what transform[ed] the passive agricultural regimes of the village into the active institutions of the city” was the fact that cities provided “the area of local intercourse, that engenders the need for combination and co-operation, communication and communion” (1938, p. 6).

Urban communication involves the meshing, for better or worse, of technology and social interaction. The Urban Communication Foundation notes that urban communication, like urban studies, is an interdisciplinary field. It provides a fresh perspective from which to view the city and its transformation. Economists, geographers, sociologists, urban planners, environmental psychologists, artists, and others are scrutinizing urban messages, the technologies that create and disseminate them, their interrelationships, and their far-reaching effects on the lived experience within urban environments.

Urban communication research addresses a wide range of subjects employing diverse and often mixed methodologies. Research supported by the Urban Communication Foundation provides an indication of such a degree of diversity. White papers have been commissioned to address digitalization and the city, health and the city, and migration. The first such study was entitled “Designing Digital Networks for Urban Public Space” (Forlano & Mathew, 2012).

Grants given through the Urban Communication Foundation in conjunction with other organizations can be found on the Urban Communication Foundation. Grants give with the International Association of Media Communication Research have gone to projects such as “Soundscapes, Communities and Place Attachment in Urban Space,” a study on the soundmarks of divided Nicosia and their effects. (Yiannis Christidis) and “City of Sin” research on the spatiality of sexual marketing in Las Vegas (Olesya Venger). The Applied Urban Communication Research Grant through the Eastern Communication Association has produced research on:

  • Social Networks and Pedestrian Safety (Townsend, 2016)

  • Memorials as Ironic Sites: Urban Communication Ethics in Local, National, and International Communities (Mancino & Karolak, 2015)

  • The “Digital City”: A Critical Examination of the Discursive Practices of Urban Digitality (Scott, 2014)

  • Investigation of the Space and Community Impact of Four Major League Baseball (MLB) Ballparks Located in the Urban Downtown of their Respective Cities (Burr-Miller, 2013)

  • The Communicative Importance of Public Ritual: The New Orleans Jazz Funeral (Marshall, 2012)

  • The Rhetorical Importance of Public Space in Low-Income Urban Communities (Garrett, 2011)

  • Communicating “Urban” in an Environmental Magnet Elementary School (Freeman, 2008).

Through the International Communication Association’s James Carey Award, research has been supported on the interaction of citizenship, media, and migration (Bishop, 2016), urban homelessness (Salmon et al., 2015), the development of a new media news platform serving an ethnically diverse city (Chen et al., 2014), and urban politics and communication ecology (Shin, 2008). A program of grants and awards has supported a wide range of research and lifetime achievement awards.

Communication Research Approaches

Urban communication is not the sole provence of communication experts or scholars. Urban communication is about featuring communication in urban contexts. It includes but is not limited to participatory planning; urban planning, design, place-making, public policy, visual communication; branding; and rhetoric.

Visual communication studies explore urban murals, public art, and graffiti (Bruce, 2013; Burd, 2018; Gumpert & Drucker, 2012; LaWare & Gallager, 2007; Martin & Gallagher, 2013). Researchers have looked at communicative strategies for city branding (Gibson, 2007). A body of work has been produced by rhetoricians examining material structures in urban settings. Carole Blair’s work combines visual and material rhetorics, rhetoric and memory, and rhetorics of place. Another example of the rhetorical approach to urban spaces can be found in Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials (Dickinson, Blair, & Ott, 2010).

Communicating the City: Meanings, Practices, Interactions brings together the communicative issues associated with discourse, materiality, mobility, and technology in acts of communication across urban and urbanizing contexts (Aiello, Tarantino, & Oakley, 2017). This work serves as a bridge to a distinct and growing area of urban communication work that looks at communication technologies.

Media and the City or Mediated Urbanism

The urban experience is increasingly influenced by technology. A growing thread of work focuses on the transformative power of the media of communication on city life, economics, and infrastructure. A growing array of technologies enables information from the digital world to be layered onto the physical world, altering the person–environment relationship. From the work of William Mitchell onward, the need to account for the ever-changing media environment has been reflected in a robust thread of urban research.

The role of photography in Walter Benjamin’s work is an early example of the relationship between that medium and its use in recording and understanding the urban environment, urban development, urban life, and social change (Benjamin, 2008). A large body of work examines depictions of cities in film. Iconic images of cities cemented in collective memory have received scholarly attention. The film industry itself shaped some cities. Cities have long served as both backdrops to action and characters in films (Clarke, 1997).

The introduction of media technologies themselves, distinct from media content, shape and often define cities and the urban experience. The invention of the telephone shaped city centers and ultimately made suburban sprawl and edge city work centers possible (Gottmann, 1977). Subsequently, the adoption of the mobile phone changed the way the city is navigated and experienced (Katz & Aakhus, 2002): “These media filled spaces are experientially different physical environments” (Drucker & Gumpert, 2012, p. 93). Urban streets and spaces are filled with people outfitted with diverse mobile media devices ranging from the legacy media (e.g., (e.g., portable radios, books, and newspapers, magazines) to digital/connected media (e.g., smartphones, GPS, handheld games, ebooks, and laptops) (Drucker & Gumpert, 2012). A layer of media technology is added to the city spaces and places already augmented by diverse media technologies present in the environment (e.g., CCTV, big screen, building skins) (Aurigi & De Cindio, 2008).

The city experience is further augmented through real-time context information. Location-aware technologies, sensors on augmented reality (AR) capable phones, or augmented reality wearable devices are capable of providing additional content ranging from maps and transit service information to restaurant recommendations (Liao & Humphreys, 2014). Translation programs are available that decode signage in unfamiliar languages (Park, 2017). Cityscapes have long provided the settings used by the gaming industry, now enhanced by augmented reality games that overlay the physical world with game features. The power and popularity of AR games in city spaces was evidenced by Pokemon Go, an AR game for mobile phones that became a global phenomenon in 2016. Pokemon Go requires the player to be physically close to a Pokemon creature to be seen on the mobile screen so that it appears to be in the real world (Isbister, 2016).

Increasingly, authors have focused on the relationship between media and cities. Steve Graham and Simon Marvin, in their book Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Places, sought to “shift telecommunications from the margins to the center of urban studies and policy” by providing a review of literature of the relationship between telecommunications, city development, and management (1996, p. 75). This is precisely the type of approach that marks a shift from urban studies to an urban communication perspective. From the field of geography and urban planning, Graham and Marvin added to the examination of the forces reshaping the modern city through their work looking at the techonologies (telecommunication in particular). In Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructues, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, they introduce the term to consider consequences of privitazation of urban infrastructures, including streets, housing, public spaces, and communication technologies, which result in a splintering or segregation of the urban experience (Graham & Marvin, 2001).

Scott McQuire’s work in The Media City (2008) and Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (2016) conceptualizes media as technology that co-constitutes the experience of the city creating new frames for making sense of the city. The maturing of the literature on media and the city is further evidenced by media studies professor Myria Georgiou’s work in Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference (2013). Georgiou addresses global cities and cultural networks considering how global cities lead to the need to “think of how we live in close proximity to each other and how we communicate across difference” (2013, p. 2). To Georgiou, media and the city is broad enough to include diverse mediated and interpersonal practices associated with urban life, with cosmopolitanism being defined as “the process through which urban subjects are constantly exposed to difference through mediated and interpersonal communication” (2013, p. 3). She calls for the study of media and city synergies in global cities from an approach not only accounting for cultural industries of production but from a street-level perspective as well. Seija Ridell and Frauke Zeller (2013) extended this work on media and the city through their double special issue on “Mediated Urbanism” published in The International Communication Gazette.

Media and cities are also seen in terms of a variety of labels and branding. The terms “information city,” “digital city,” “cyber,” “media,” “tele,” “wired city,” “global,” and “smart city” have been of considerable interest. The hallmark of a smart city is the creative role of information technologies in creating more livable and sustainable urban centers. The smart city model of urban development is associated with a city that uses information and communication technologies to make the critical infrastructure components and services of a city—administration, education, health care, public safety, real estate, transportation, and utilities—more aware, interactive, and efficient (Mines, 2011). Smart cities feature networked urban infrastructures, real-time resource monitoring, and big data for urban governance.

Journalism and the City

One way of looking at the city in terms of communication has been through the journalists who tell the stories of cities and critics of city architecture. Acclaimed writers such as Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Ada Huxtable, and Grady Clay have written about cities. It should be noted that “urban journalism” was included in the consideration of Habitat III, seen as serving a key role in spreading the New Urban Agenda (Urban Journalism Academy, 2016). The Urban Communication Foundation has recognized an impressive group of such journalists with the Gene Burd Urban Communication Award, which seeks to “reward and thereby improve the practice and study of journalism in the urban environment by recognizing high quality urban media reporting, critical analysis, and research relevant to that content and its communication about city problems, programs, policies, and public priorities in urban life and culture” (Urban Communication Foundation). The distinguished journalists recognized for a career of work in urban journalism include John King (San Francisco Chronicle), Paul Goldberger (New Yorker), Blair Kamin (Chicago Tribune), Inga Saffron (Philadelphia Inquirer), Susan Szenasy (Metropolis), cartoonist Ben Katchor, Robert Campbell (Boston Globe) and Brian Lehrer (WNYC Public Radio).

The Communicative City

Key elements of urban communication can be found within the framework of the communicative city construct. The communicative city, developed under the auspices of the Urban Communication Foundation, was designed to measure and recognize urban municipalities that provide or facilitate the creation and maintenance of a healthy communicative environment. Utilizing the criteria established through a series of interdisciplinary meetings, the Urban Communication Foundation introduced the Communicative City Award, honoring cities with the vision and skill to enhance communication in the interest of creating a healthy and humane social environment. This initiative underscores the need for cities to place or foreground communication needs in the public agenda. An international jury composed of a combination of communication scholars and design and environment behavior scholars and practitioners evaluate a city’s initiatives with regard to criteria of communicative cities. These criteria are clustered into three major areas: places of interaction, infrastructure, and politics/civil society. Places of interaction are characterized by opportunities, programs, and places that stress proximity and immediacy of sociability and the opportunity to be involved with others. Such places provide sites and occasions for social interaction, places to watch others, places to be alone, places to communicate culture and heritage, spaces to play, places with numerous nodes of activity, accessible public spaces, and places that welcome outsiders and visitors. The emphasis is on the relationship that the individual has with others, either face to face or mediated. The communication infrastructure includes press freedoms, free speech rights, access to local media, access to ICTs and ICT training, good public information, network connectivity, good roads, a pedestrian-friendly environment, and a communication system in cases of physical disaster. Politics and civil society are associated with the relationship of citizens to government and power, including participation in planning and policymaking; opportunities for collaboration; and public participation, transparency in government, and online access to public services.

Disqualifications have been articulated as part of the criteria as well including corruption; censorship and repression of speech; rules and laws against gathering; privacy invasion through a digital panopticon; segregation based on age, financial, ethnic, racial, or religious grounds, etc. The criteria tend to (1) be normative in nature and (2) broadly apply to various dimensions of the urban environment, such as specific communities or areas, neighborhoods, and, at times, the city as a geographical entity (Gumpert & Drucker, 2008). These criteria were developed through three international workshops held in 2007 sponsored by the Urban Communication Foundation (Gumpert & Drucker, 2016). Ultimately, this initiative seeks to not only recognize and set a communication agenda for cities but directly benefit award-winning cities through communication research–based recommendations that address remaining challenges identified by municipal leaders.

The communicative cities construct has been the subject of scholarly conferences (Ohio State, Leeds, University of Melbourne, Fudan University, Shanghi). Several books have addressed the concept of the communicative city, including Communicative Cities in the 21st Century: Urban Communication Reader III (Matsaganis, Gallagher, & Drucker, 2013).

Cees Hamelink, one of the originators of the communicative city concept, has argued that the right to a communicative city is a human right (2008). Two volumes of the International Communication Gazette have been dedicated to communicative cities (2008 and 2012–13). Two cites have named communicative cities: Chicago (2012) and Amsterdam (2014).

As urban communication as a concept develops, questions of appropriate methodologies emerge. The International Journal of Communication addressed this development in a special issue entitled “ Urban Communication| Going About the City: Methods and Methodologies for Urban Communication Research Conclusions” (2016), edited by Giorgia Aiello (University of Leeds) and Simone Tosoni (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan).


Urban communication, like urban studies, is interdisciplinary and collaborative. The foregrounding of communication in the study of urban landscapes is not new. What is new is the need to consider the unique patterns and needs of urban dwellers and communities with the speed and scale of growth and the interconnectedness of cities.

Urban communication is rooted in the notion that urbanity is interwoven with communication, develops by communication, and exists for communication. Cities grow from the need and desire to be with others for sociability, commerce, and security. Cities are built on a social and technological infrastructure. They are arrangements of streets, parks, and buildings, wired and wireless connections, of human beings seeking the magic of others, and the chance to be alone with others. Urban communication is an age-old phenomenon undergoing radical transformation as developing means of communication redefine traditional notions of places and space.

Cities have become larger and more complex. There are many ways of looking at communication and cities, and it is challenging to articulate what is included and excluded from urban communication. Ultimately, urban communication melds urban scholarship and communication scholarship, urban contexts and communication environments. The communication perspective provides a parallax or different way of observing and analyzing the urban environment.

Further Readings

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    Burd, G., Drucker, S. J., & Gumpert, G. (Eds.). (2007). The Urban communication reader. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Find this resource:

      Drucker, S., & Gumpert, G. (1991). Public space and communication: The zoning of public interaction. Communication Theory, 1(4), 296–310.Find this resource:

        Drucker, S., & Gumpert, G. (2016). The communicative city redux. International Journal of Communication, 10, 1366–1387.Find this resource:

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              Georgiou, M. (2013). Media and the city: Cosmopolitanism and difference. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Find this resource:

                Gordon, E., & de Souza e Silva, A. (2011). Net locality: Why location matters in a networked world. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                Gumpert, G., & Drucker, S. (2012). Skins, tattoos and architectural facades: Or what you see is what you get-for the moment. In M. D. Matsaganis, V. J. Gallagher, & S. J. Drucker (Eds.), Communicative cities in the 21st century: The urban communication reader III. (199-214). New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                        Harvey, D. (2008, September-October). The right to the city. New Left Review II, 53, 23–40.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Isbister, K. (2016, July 15). Why pokemon go became an instant phenomenon. The Conversation.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                Katz, J. E., & Aakhus, M. (Eds.). (2002). Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  LaWare, M., & Gallagher, V. (2007). The power of agency: Urban communication and the rhetoric of public art. In G. Gumpert & S. Drucker (Eds.), The urban communication reader (pp. 161–173). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Liao, T., & Humphreys, L. (2014). Layar-ed places: Using mobile augmented reality to tactically reengage, reproduce, and reappropriate public space. New Media and Society, 17(9), 1418–1435.Find this resource:

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