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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter 2020

Urbanity (urbanitas, Urbanität, urbanité, urbanità, urbanidad…) — An Essay

Susanne Rau
EintragstypEntry Type
Overview Article
EintragsspracheEntry Language
urbanisation; space; place; cities; urban/rural
Cities and Religion after 1700
Georg Simmel, 1858-1918; Walter Benjamin, 1892-1940; Peter Sloterdijk, 1947
InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents


This article deals with the meaning and the historical change of the term urbanity with the aim of making urbanity as an analytical term fruitful. Since urbanity is both a historical concept and the object of analysis, a brief semantic history must be undertaken. It takes us (at least) back to the time of the Roman Republic, experiences a change of meaning in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, and shows how urbanism and urbanity finally found their way into scientific discourse, starting with the social sciences about 100 years ago. Far from representing a uniform concept, it is also often normative or based on quantitative, measurable criteria, thus neglecting practices and ideas. All this (historical change, regional differences, tendency towards normativity in scientific discourse) makes it seem necessary to venture a new approach. My proposal is therefore to understand urbanity as a concept of form that allows for the analysis and better understanding of spatiotemporal configurations, practices and representations in relation to cities.[1]

Exposition: Phenomenon or process addressed, agents, media

In his novel Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino imagines a scene between Marco Polo and the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. The Great Khan possessed an atlas charting the cities of his empire and the surrounding kingdoms, which even included maps of lands with promising cities that remained to be discovered. He thus asks the traveller: where will the favourable winds take us? which cities shall we visit next? Yet as the Khan leafs through his atlas of real and imagined cities, he is seized by a dystopian imagination. Earlier in the novel, Marco Polo had told the Khan of his extensive journey, which included visits to many cities that, over the course of the report, increasingly painted a panorama of a world threatened with ruin. Pulled by this current, the Khan asks Polo whether everything is not in vain if the last harbour (on a journey) can only be the city of hell. ‘The inferno of the living,’ Polo responds, ‘is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together’ (Calvino 1972: 165). One can escape this inferno by accepting it and becoming part of it, so that one ceases to see it. Or—the riskier path—one can ‘seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’

This exchange between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in Calvino’s novel could be applied to the project of this resource on ‘Religion and urbanity’. Which cities will be visited and explored under such a perspective? Which will be looked at only in a historical atlas? Will this publication remain relevant despite its narrow, nearly whimsical selection of cities and case studies? How might its publication and its readers grasp what is important because it is shared?

The ambivalence of these selected places also deserves to be examined—which can be heaven or hell or both at the same time, as expressed in Calvino’s metaphor of the cities of hell. In this vein, it should also be noted what the architectural critic Dieter Bartetzko reported about the fourteenth Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2014. As he saw it, the architects there had demonstrated a ‘merciless reckoning’ with the course of modernity between 1914 and 2014—a century in which it might have been possible to build a ‘global paradise,’ but what was built instead was a concrete desert that he believes ought to be consigned to hell (Bartetzko 2014). Just as Calvino’s Marco Polo trusts human beings to recognise ‘what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno,’ the common task must also be to find out how people in cities made life liveable, how they gave it permanence and spatial form. Cities, Calvino continues, are like dreams, because cities and dreams are built of desires and fears. Wittingly or unwittingly, Calvino thus places himself in an older tradition of attempts to define the city: for a city consists not only of a collection of built structures but also of its dominant ways of life, as well as of ideas and perceptions. And with this thought, we are right in the midst of the topic of urbanity.

Urbanity already figures prominently in the title of this new project. In considering the mutual formations of ‘religion and urbanity,’ two specific guiding questions will be at the forefront of the contributions published here: 1) What role do religious agents, practices, and ideas play for the emergence and ongoing development of cities and urbanity? And 2) what role do urban agents, spaces, and practices play for the emergence and ongoing development of religious groups and religion? Both terms, urbanity and religion, are meant here as analytical concepts and as objects of analysis, i.e., concepts to be explored and more precisely defined in historical terms. The aim of the project is to focus on religion in order to gain new insight into the historical diversity in the formation of urban forms of life and the model of the city, and to focus on urbanity in order to better understand and represent the development of religious pluralisations and religions (as spatiotemporal practices and social formations).[2]This makes urbanity one of the central terms, intended to be applicable to settlements from the first millennium before Christ to the present day, in Europe, the Mediterranean world, South Asia, and beyond. This article deals with the meaning and the historical change of the term urbanity with the aim of making urbanity as an analytical term fruitful. Since urbanity is both a historical concept and the object of analysis, a brief semantic history must be undertaken.

Comparative or entangled perspective: Background and preconditions

But what is urbanity?

It’s not so easy to answer this question, since different meanings of this loan word from Latin circulate. Those who can read a bit of Latin will know that it has something to do with cities (urbs, urbis, urbanus). In several European languages its use is not at all restricted to academic usage.

According to the Duden dictionary of German, urbanity in contemporary usage in German means 1) education, a sophisticated manner; 2) urban atmosphere[3] The term thus brings together the two meanings it has historically carried—although these did not always exist at the same time but rather in succession. The first meaning I named, which would also have to include politeness, has not entirely disappeared, even if the term is used in everyday language rather rarely and nearly almost exclusively in erudite or scholarly language. Spanish, too, has a figure of speech that uses urbanity in this first sense: ‘Me parece indispensable enseñar a los muchachos sobre respeto y urbanidad’ (respect and politeness). And another example taken from German: In 1988, in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, we can still read in a review: ‘Er mochte sie [= die englische Aristokratie, S. R.] nicht und beneidete sie doch um ihre anmaßende Urbanität (Schlötelburg 1988)’ (He did not like them [the English aristocracy] and yet envied them for their presumptuous urbanity). Here, the word ‘urbanity’ means something like gentility, class-consciousness, and arrogance.

City and urbanity as an object of research

Older urban sociology—which we could see as beginning with Weber or Simmel, although it is mainly articulated in the Chicago school—defines urbanity as a manner of living or attitude toward life (‘a way of life,’ to cite the phrase found in the work of Louis Wirth) (Wirth 1938). In this sense, urbanity would be a habitual way of life that emerges because of the size, density, diversity, mobility, instability, and transparency of a settlement or the people living there. Here, we must consider that the concept was not developed until the first third of the twentieth century—and chiefly in reference to Western metropolises, such as Berlin and Chicago, which served as its models. In recent years, it has been repeatedly stressed that urbanity is an opaque concept: and as object of numerous discussions, in particular regarding urban development, it has also acquired a normative dimension (Wüst 2004; Sonne 2014: 14). Urbanity has increasingly become something to be achieved (i.e., an idea of how something should be). For this reason, and also because of the widespread inclination to assess urbanity as something positive or negative, as something worth striving for or to be avoided, the term has become nearly useless as an analytic concept. Additionally, there is the trend of recognising urbanity in rural contexts or towns, which—at least at first—has the potential to cause confusion. A Swiss village such as Gstaad is called ‘sophisticated’ because high society gathers there to ski. With its twelve or thirteen thousand inhabitants, Davos is the highest city in Europe in terms of altitude, but of course it looks quite rural situated amid the Swiss landscape of mountains and valleys, even though a series of global conferences take place there every year with visitors who doubtless bring education and money and are responsible, through their arrival and behaviour, for disproportionately high CO2 emissions. By contrast, in the smallest localities in Italy we often find urban forms such as continuously paved streets, pretty street facades, porticos, large market squares, or traces of formerly reinforced city walls that were built in the late Middle Ages or the early modern period and have been preserved until today.[4] And in moving through the world, do we not ourselves notice that there are metropolises without an urban atmosphere, meaning cities in which we find urbanity to be lacking? Yet there are also villages that strike us as quite urban, for example, if they possess a well-developed infrastructure together with cultural and educational institutions, and inhabited by people who look beyond the horizon seen from their church tower. Simple dichotomies such as that of ‘city and country’ have long disintegrated.

What should we do, given such a state of conceptual confusion? The best remedy is to begin with a conceptual differentiation of several terms used in scholarship.

Urbanity as differentiated from urbanisation, urbanism, or urban development

Urbanisation refers, first of all, to the phases of establishing cities (usually in regions) and, second, to the general process of city growth (Rau 2014: 21–40, 405–406; Keller 2005-2012). For example, the true phase of establishing cities in the German-speaking world was the High Middle Ages, while the number of instances in which cities were established declined again in the early modern period (with the exception of certain types of cities such as mining cities, cities for religious refugees, and aristocratic capitals or Residenzstädte). These kinds of phases in which cities were established can be considered to have been well-researched and accordingly mapped.[5]

For South Asia, our second region to be studied, the development of urbanisation was naturally quite different. Here, we will need to look more closely at the establishment of cities in the Gupta Empire, the Ganges Plain in northern India at the time of the Mughal Empire, the establishment of colonial cities, and today’s megacities (with their associated ‘high speed urbanism’) (Chakravarti 2006; Sharma and Malekandathil 2014). Precisely by juxtaposing developments in Europe, the Mediterranean region, and South Asia, it should be possible to work out analogies and the specific characteristics of such processes.

By contrast, the field that is called Urbanistik in German (English: urbanism, French: urbanisme) stands for the science of urban planning and development. In some Romance languages, the word already appears in the eighteenth century (‘L’Urbanisme est la science de l’Urbanité’).[6] Beginning around 1900, the French word ‘urbanisme’ is used to designate the entirety of all sciences, technologies, and arts contributing to planning urban spaces, to ordering them and architecturally shaping them. In English, the term ‘urbanism’ designates not only ‘city planning’ and ‘the study of the physical needs of urban societies,’ but interestingly also ‘the characteristic way of life of city dwellers’ (Merriam-Webster) or ‘urban life or character’ (Oxford English Dictionary).[7]In German, however, the term ‘Urbanistik’ does not appear until the second half of the twentieth century. For earlier epochs, the word ‘Stadtbaukunst’ (the art of city building) is probably the closest fit (Seng 2005–2012). In Europe, the theoretical foundations for this field were laid down in the first century before Christ with, among other things, the writings (De architectura libri decem) of the Roman architect and architectural theorist Vitruvius (or Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) (Vitruv, ed. Fensterbusch 62008). These writings were taken up during the European Renaissance and, together with the work on the art of city building by Leon Battista Alberti (see below), represented the foundational work in matters of urban planning and its theory.

Those who would like to analyse urbanity as a phenomenon related to the city will likely not be able to avoid including urbanisation and urbanism, since we have to assume interactions between its processes, agents, products, and moments. A difficulty nevertheless remains that has certainly played no small part in producing this conceptual confusion, and which we must deal with: the fact that urbanity is, on the one hand, the object to be examined and, on the other, a term that exists in the sources in some languages (with changing meanings).

Of course, we can best deal with this difficulty by always cleanly differentiating between the historical term and the object of our examination (the explanandum). If I would like to examine how urbanity emerges (and again vanishes), I also have to consider how it can be analysed and recognised—specifically even if the term did not exist in the epoch and region to be examined, or if it meant something entirely different. To do so, we need a method or suitable questions, which might go like this: which agents and practices, which laws, framing conditions, and resources, operated to produce (the fact of) urbanity? Where religion is concerned, the questions must be formulated much more specifically. In our proposal to establish the Centre for Advanced Studies, we already drafted a first set of such questions.[8]

Geographical and temporal reach

But first—a brief conceptual and semantic history of urbanity

To begin with the European/antique usage of the word, we note that the classical references for the precursors of the concept of urbanity in Latin (urbanitas) are mostly Cicero’s On the Orator (De oratore) and Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory (Institutio oratoria).[9] In these writings, urbanitas has the evident meaning of a refined manner of expression in language. In Cicero, the term further includes fine, cultivated manners of behaving and a fine way of living that is primarily ascribed to city dwellers (or to Romans). Additional hints as to when (and with what meaning) the concept first appeared can for now be found in the Oxford Latin Dictionary (OLD), since we are still waiting for an entry in Thesaurus linguae Latinae. According to the OLD the primary meaning of urbanitas is the ‘qualities typical of a city-dweller’ or, more specifically, ‘the condition of living in a city,’ but, secondly, also a question of style or, in a restricted sense, ‘elegance of smartness of humour’ (Glare 22012: 2320-2321). Most of the references date from the first century BC and the first century AD, i.e., from the end of the Roman Republic and the first half of the Roman Empire. Archaeological research, by contrast, uses the term ‘urbanitas’ less to refer to a style of language and behaviour than to urban culture (meaning urban commodities), ornamentation, city squares, monuments, and performative acts (Busch, Griesbach, and Lipps 2017)[10]

The two meanings we find here—of gentility and of life in the city, or an urban atmosphere—are reflected in how the word and its various forms entered European vernacular languages. In French, for instance, the term shows up for the first time in the fourteenth century (1370) and scholars trace it to the Latin noun ‘urbanitas’ or the adjective ‘urbanus.’ The Petit Robert dictionary gives its meanings as ‘“de la ville, qui a les qualités de l’homme de la ville.” Politesse où entre beaucoup d’affabilité naturelle et d’usage du monde’ (Rey-Debove and Rey 1994: 2345) [politeness, civilité: the two concepts have already come together as characteristics of city dwellers]. The term appears in German much later, in the eighteenth century. But the range of forms it takes—urban, urbanisieren, Urbanität—reflect a similar set of meanings. The massive online Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache points directly to the French and Latin etymologies of the word (adding, perhaps, English), with a meaning that refers to both urban spaces and the developing or cultivating of urban attitudes, manners, and ways of life.[11] It explicitly links this shift in meaning from the city itself or the capital city to urban life to the word’s earlier usage in French.

But as we see in Cicero, the Latin word already entailed this connection. In Cicero’s usage, ‘urbanity’ stands for cultivated behaviour and courteous manners, sometimes for humorous speech (Cicero, Ad familiares 3.7.5; 7.6.1; De oratore 1.17; 1.159; 2.227-228, 2.231; 2.236; 3.42-43; 3.161). Yet these were ascribed to residents of the cities (especially to those of Rome) and opposed to rural/coarse behaviour. In rhetorical manuals, the term stood for elegant style and fine manners of expression (Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 6.3.17; 6.3.103–107). In antiquity, urbanitas was accordingly an ideal of virtue and a style (Ramage 1973). It was in this sense that the term was adopted during the Middle Ages, although it gradually acquired a new point of reference: the court and chivalry (Zotz 1990).

In his Etymologiae (early seventh century AD), Isidore of Seville introduced a fundamental distinction to the concept of the city: urbs is the physical city made of stone, while civitas denotes the community and its views.[12] (Interestingly enough, St. Augustine’s civitas Dei plays no role in Isidore.) The word ‘urbanitas’ does not appear in Isidore’s writings, but the distinction between urbs and civitas (a distinction that cannot be made as such in German) sets a framework that can be used to understand urban space as built space (buildings, streets, city squares, possibly a city wall) and as social space (sociability, views). These two modes are not spatially separate but intermeshed; they mutually shape and determine each other. And this understanding of city/community was taken up much later by the sociologist Richard Sennett. In his book Civitas, Sennett analyses the interplay of urban environment (architecture), on the one hand, and the experience of space and time, styles of behaviour, and patterns of sociability in large cities, on the other (Sennett 1991: 25–26). To quote Dominik Skalas: ‘The […] study Civitas [in English: The Conscience of the Eye] focuses on states of affairs in architecture and urban planning and examines their interactions with social life, the things that promote and hinder public communication’ (Skala 2015: 17).

Leon Battista Alberti’s work De re aedificatoria (ten volumes) appeared between 1443 and 1452—first in Latin, but soon followed by translations into Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese (Alberti 1485). However, the work failed to garner widespread contemporary reception (Petry 1996: 241). The ten volumes treat questions of materials and construction (II, III), function and typology (IV, V), ornament, appropriateness, and proportion (VI, VII, VIII, IX). For Alberti, architects are among the leading figures of a state or a city. In particular, they are assigned the task of planning and advising (Petry 1996: 240–241). Alberti formulates something new here: the architect or Baumeister is no longer a craftsman but a planer and someone who makes sure that buildings are completed (Fischer 2012: 160–161).

Books Seven and Eight treat the question of how cities are to be built, how their elements are to be arranged and how they are to be decorated. Alberti is thus not concerned with urban life but with the question of how this living space is to be built and decorated so that a community can live well and order can be represented in the overall work. Anyone given the opportunity to build a new city must first find a good location and design the site in such a way that the individual elements, such as buildings, are well distributed. A good arrangement of streets, city squares, and buildings is as important for this planning as is the layout of city neighbourhoods in which both citizens and foreigners should be able to live. Alberti also suggests that suitable locations be found for the shops of the craftsmen. Together with the task of deciding and planning the material elements of the city, Alberti introduces the distinction of public and private buildings; both of these are in turn divided into categories of sacred and profane, which are decorated accordingly (Alberti 22005: 342). The fact that private and profane spaces rank lower is also a result of this distinction. Book Seven first takes up the sacred buildings of the city, which include the city walls (protected by heroes or demigods, and before which, Alberti suggests, the enemy ought to tremble), temples, basilicas, and monuments. Book Eight then takes up public profane buildings and their respective features, which Alberti argues ought to be adequate to the buildings’ purpose. These are streets, tombs, chapels, epitaphs, towers, gates, harbours, bridges, portals, playhouses, and theatres, as well as senate curiae, groves, baths, libraries, schools, arsenals, and thermal baths.

As can be gathered from these examples, the history of the concept is entangled with the object captured by this very term. The discourse about urbanitas is part and even measuring rod for contemporaries’ imaginations and discourses about that urban-ness, about that urbanity, that qualifies a settlement as an urban settlement, reaching from the education of its (important) inhabitants to the presence of certain types of places and architecture as indicators of city administration and the way of life more generally. It is to this development of the concept to its being a defining subject of research that I will turn now.

Current research and related phenomena

The scholarly history of the concept of urbanity does not begin until the twentieth century

Georg Simmel: Even though Georg Simmel does not use the word ‘urbanity,’ his famous essay from 1903—which originated in a lecture given at a large urban exhibition in Dresden—is concerned with analysing city dwellers whom Simmel sees as being surrounded by impressions, speed, and the division of labour, and as being marked by these phenomena in a specific way, unlike residents of towns or the countryside (Simmel 1903). In his essay, Simmel thematises the efforts people make to adjust to social framing conditions especially in the modern metropolis. Simmel is concerned with the reciprocal relationship between metropolis and individual, which he sees as being mediated on a psychological level:

Indem die Großstadt gerade diese psychologischen Bedingungen schafft – mit jedem Gang über die Straße, mit dem Tempo und den Mannigfaltigkeiten des wirtschaftlichen, beruflichen, gesellschaftlichen Lebens – stiftet sie schon in den sinnlichen Fundamenten des Seelenlebens, in dem Bewusstseinsquantum, das sie uns wegen unserer Organisation als Unterschiedswesen abfordert, einen tiefen Gegensatz gegen die Kleinstadt und das Landleben, mit dem langsameren, gewohnteren, gleichmäßiger fließenden Rhythmus ihres sinnlich-geistigen Lebensbildes (Simmel 1903).

To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions—with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life—it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory—mental phase of small town and rural existence (Simmel 2010: 103–104).

Simmel’s undertones make it clear that he is no friend of the metropolis, since it renders its inhabitants indifferent, numb (to differences), and reserved (see Jazbinsek 2003). In any case, he continually emphasises the ambivalences of the metropolis: it enables social advancement and education, but also creates social differences. If offers anonymity, which on the one hand can be a privilege or a protection, but is also a hallmark of being alone or forsaken. To follow Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, who once characterised spaces as ‘fields of latency,’ metropolises can also be called spaces of possibility to the extent that they open a horizon of possibilities that can only be realised ‘on site,’ and that also repeatedly generate contradictions (Rehberg 2006: 46).[13]

The philosopher Walter Benjamin also occupied himself with the contradictions generated by the metropolis, above all in several works that have survived only as fragments, in which he looks back at the time of his childhood or attempted to describe the European metropolis of the nineteenth century. His Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Berlin Childhood around 1900, written ca. 1932 to 1934, first published in 1950), which is a collection of autobiographical texts, deals with the contradictory nature of the modern city. Nearly every sketch contains such contradictions or tensions. An example are the ‘loggias’ that Benjamin discovered in the courtyards of Berlin’s buildings, one of which seemed to him to be like a cradle. At the end of life, he writes, this cradle becomes a mausoleum.[14] With its streetcars and the sounds of carpets being beaten, the city appears to set the rhythm of life, and of day and night. In the loggias, illusions and disillusions alternate. But the loggias mainly stand for permanence in a world that is constantly changing, in which the loggias, too, become uninhabitable. Nevertheless, they do not yet take on the fleetingness of life. And this is why, Benjamin argues, they are where time and place find and encounter each other (Benjamin 1991: 296). Several other short texts and essays on cities he wrote from time to time, some of them published in newspapers, underline his interest in the perspective of people living and behaving in urban buildings, places and streets (Benjamin 22017). According to Savage, ‘Benjamin offers a distinctive view of urbanism, stressing the relationship between the built environment, personal and collective memory, and history’ (Savage 2000: 47). In cities, Benjamin was able to observe the emergence of modern life—though not in the sense of a linear history of progress, but as a history of ruptures and dislocations to which lost dreams, vanished hopes, and disappeared artefacts belong, just as much as the still visible remains that sometimes no longer fit into the present (see Savage 2000: 39). Scattered over many texts, to which the ‘Passagenwerk’ could be added, Benjamin’s work contains elements of a theory of urban space and life in cities, which, however, remained fragmentary, partly for biographical reasons.[15]

But back to the sociologists: Simmel’s conception, which essentially already denies that towns can possess urbanity, found a follower in a much more influential essay from 1938 written by the American sociologist (of German-Jewish origin) Louis Wirth (Wirth 1938). Wirth defined urbanism as a way of life in a metropolis or world city. One explanation for the decision to use this term is probably that his sociological source of inspiration—Georg Simmel—did not at all characterise or define the concept of urbanity, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary. English, however, already offered the meaning of ‘urbanism’ as the ‘characteristic way of life of city dwellers.’ However, Wirth’s criteria are size, density, diversity, and heterogeneity, as well as mobility, instability, insecurity, and membership of individuals in a multiplicity of social groups. Whereas Wirth was working on a theory of modernity, a phenomenon he located in the metropolises of the twentieth century, Norbert Elias limited himself to the development of civilisation (fine manners, rationalisation, self-control), primarily in the courtly context of the early modern period (Elias 2010; Asch 2005: 126–127). However, historical research today takes a much more differentiated view of the ‘process of civilization.’

The French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who came to urban research late in his career, first formulated his thesis of ‘urbanisation without urbanity’ in 1968 in his book Le droit à la ville (Right to the City) (Lefebvre 1968: chap. 1). The fact that his thesis became a slogan for an entire generation of social scientists and activists need not further interest us here. Lefebvre observed this loss of urbanity not only in the post-war buildings of the French suburbs or the high-rises resembling socialist residential blocks. Rather, he identified the beginnings of this history of loss at least one hundred years before his time, in the aftermath of industrialisation and its effects on cities. For him, one of the criteria for the loss of urbanity lay in the ever-increasing distance of residents from the ‘centre’—regardless of whether they lived in single-family homes or large residential complexes at the edges of the city. But something important to know about this thesis is that Lefebvre already considered the modern city to be an ‘urbanised region.’ For him, the specific criteria of urbanity lay in centrality: centres in which humans and things come together, where exchange takes place, where signs and symbols are created. Urbanity can also take the form of a nodal point in a regional or global network. Centres do not have to be privileged founding cities, but they must be primarily sites of encounter and exchange, sites where decisions are made or where the world economy is regulated. To this extent, every location can, according to Lefebvre, theoretically be ‘central.’ Other sites of this network are, on the other hand, peripheral. They tend to stand in relation to one another. In an interview from 1968, Lefebvre again clearly located urbanity in the centre—while admitting, however, that in the meantime many cities had developed that lacked an urban centre. Discussing the specific qualities of Los Angeles, Florence, and Paris, he concludes: ‘The globalization of the city is a fundamental phenomenon. In the future, the city will inevitably be polycentric, a multiplicity of centres, diversified but conserving a Centre. There is no urbanity without a centre. I believe in a general urbanization. There will remain vast spaces but deserted, little inhabited” (Lefebvre 2006b: 208).[16] In addition to distance from the centre, and perhaps also as its consequence, the loss of civic values and of a social conscience are further features of the loss of urbanity in industrial and post-industrial society.

Yet as the historian Denis Bocquet has noted, Lefebvre gave his concept shaky historical legs: the knowledge he possessed about urban history when he wrote his texts on cities must be described as obsolete; he was apparently entirely unfamiliar with urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs or Aldo Rossi; and life in French suburbs was actually more complex than he described it (Bocquet 2012). We shouldn’t blame sociologists and philosophers for a lack of historical knowledge. After all, they follow different aims with their research questions. But a theoretical problem still lies in the reference of what Lefebvre laments as having been lost, or what he describes as a process of alienation resulting from the process of industrialisation. One might occasionally get the impression that intact urbanity for Lefebvre is only to be found in the Italian cities of the Renaissance, with their humanistic-civic culture. Indeed, there are repeatedly passages in Lefebvre that are somewhat coloured by historical romanticism. We might suspect to find another exemplary phase of urbanity in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century, between the revolution in 1848 and the beginning of Haussmann’s project, which not only radically changed Paris’s streetscape but also forced many people to relocate:

The life of Paris reaches its greatest intensity between 1848 and the Haussmann period—not what is understood by “la vie parisienne,” but the urban life of the capital. It engages itself into literature and poetry with great vigour and power. Then it will be over. Urban life suggests meetings, the confrontation of differences, reciprocal knowledge and acknowledgement (including ideological and political confrontation), ways of living, “patterns” which coexist in the city. During the nineteenth century, a democracy of peasant origins which drove the revolutionaries could have transformed itself into an urban democracy. It was and it is still for history one of the beliefs of the Commune. As urban democracy threatened the privileges of the new ruling class, that class prevented it from being born. How? By expellsing [sic] from the urban centre and the city itself the proletariat, by destroying “urbanity” (Lefebvre 2006a: 75–76).

But Lefebvre is not simply referring to a certain society or epoch in which urbanity was still whole. He describes the transition from an industrial to an urban society—just as he does the entire course of history—in terms of a dialectical process that he, in his day, did not yet consider complete, or that he at least did not yet know how to describe. Still, he identified the suburbs (of the nineteenth century) as places that lacked all urbanity (as a bourgeois value); it was the suburbs where anti-urban thought spread, endowing urbanisation as a social phenomenon with a desuburbanising function (Bocquet 2012: 44). Seen thus, it might be possible to locate urbanity in the centre, and yet the further away one gets from the centre, the less one can find urban values—not least of all as a consequence of industrialisation, which transformed some parts of the city into purely residential areas. Elsewhere, Lefebvre opens up a dichotomy between town/country or urban/rural that might be able to serve as an analytic category.[17] Reason corresponds to one side of the dichotomy, nature and a ‘sacralised’ earth full of obscure powers to the other. But Lefebvre, a thinker attentive to the figure of the third, did not stop at such dichotomies. For one thing, city and country find themselves in a permanent reciprocal relationship, meaning they mutually transform each other (Lefebvre 2006a: 118). And for another, Lefebvre argues that reason nowadays no longer appears to be located in the city but rather at a ‘national or continental scale.’[18] He argues that cities have thereby not only lost their rationality but have also been overwhelmed by a form of homogeneity stifling all differences that might otherwise arise from a confrontation with nature, the rural environment, or history.[19] In other words, the transformation of the city-country-relationship became so extreme that today these differences have been basically levelled out.

On the geography and sociology of the present

Social geography defines urbanity as an indicator for a specific state of organisation (or arrangement) of a society’s objects in the context of a specific urban situation. In doing so, it operates with the concepts of density, diversity, and spatial configuration, which stand for reachability and social relationships, among other things (Lussault 2003: 966– 967). Urbanity is understood here, first, as a result of how urban ‘organisation’ functions—which nevertheless remains mutable, can vary in intensity, and generally (gradually) decreases as one moves from an urban centre to an area that is no longer urban. Yet urbanity is not only a result/state but also an agent operating in and through this organisation.[20] In addition to material and functional aspects, the term ‘urban capital’ has also been introduced—with recourse to Pierre Bourdieu—in order to also capture the degree of urbanisation of an urban ‘geotype,’ both qualitatively and in its immaterial aspects (ideologies, norms, individual and collective values).[21]

For the Austrian cultural sociologist and urban researcher Manfred Russo, the omnipresence of the concept of urbanity in discourses on urban development and urban planning is an occasion to write an overview reaching back to antiquity. From among the numerous meanings of the word, he adopts neither the morphological nor the (classically) sociology sense. Rather, with recourse to Sloterdijk’s notion of the sphere, he defines urbanity ‘as the phenomenon of urban sphere formation that corresponds to this communicative situation while also manifesting a morphological dimension expressed in the forms of the city.’[22] In contemporary urban sociology, there are also proponents of approaches that intentionally no longer locate urbanity only in large cities or metropolises but also in medium-sized cities (Schmidt-Lauber 2018). For example, one FWF-funded project focusses on Wels in Austria and Hildesheim in Germany.[23]This opens up the concepts of urbanity—not only by shifting the focus to smaller or medium-sized cities but also toward the (still-open) question of how different groups produce urbanity and how residents themselves assess living at this urban place, and possibly compare it to other places.

As others have already pointed out (Wüst 2004; Russo 2014), urbanity has since become the object of numerous discussions and has enjoyed differing interpretations. Wüst even goes a step further in noting that there have been many attempts to explain urbanity but none he finds sufficient. For him, the solution lies not in explaining urbanity but always in only examining discourse about urbanity (Wüst 2004: 10–11). Deciding to no longer engage the ‘ontological’ side of urbanity, meaning to not ask what urbanity might actually be, is of course a skilful strategy for avoiding forms of essentialism. But at the same time, it also poses the question of whether we can be satisfied in limiting our work to the level of discourse. We end up comparing definitions but don’t learn much about strategies of how discourse is imposed and implemented.

So where do we stand now? Since antiquity, we can observe a variability in the concept of urbanity (which is hardly surprising); only at the beginning of the twentieth century does urbanity become a research topic (and a topic for observers of the city and cultural critics); urbanity quickly came to overlap with the concept of modernity (die Moderne); modernity is given normative meaning; today it has also become an aim of urban planning policy.

Our task will now be to develop a way of dealing with the situation and designing a way of working with the concept that allows us to employ it in research. What follows is one such attempt.

Urbanity is not a concept denoting a process (like urbanisation), even if urbanity develops, can take shape, or fade away. And, like religion, urbanity is also no material thing, something tangible. All the same, we understand urbanity to be a city-related phenomenon that materialises, takes spatial and temporal form. Taking spatial form means urbanity can emerge out of spatial practices and that these practices can also be translated into spatial structures. Taking temporal form means urbanity can emerge out of temporal practices and that these practices can also be translated into temporal structures—rhythms, for example. So how can we make sure that urbanity is given its historical due (meaning that the concept is always historicised and contextualised) and also serve as a concept of form (Formbegriff), without becoming normative in the process?

In this form the concept is heuristically applicable to an urbanity which we can identify also beyond the geographical space, in which the term has been developed starting from its Latin roots. It is the confrontation of terms in different languages and with different and non-Western backgrounds that will allow us to sharpen and enrich the concept in the future.

Conclusion and outlook

Here’s my idea: since the historical change in the term’s meaning has shown that urbanitas (Urbanität, urbanity, urbanité, urbanità, urbanidad ...) escapes an unequivocal, generally valid definition, it is only ever possible, on the one hand, to begin with just that: concepts of urbanity that change over time or are regionally different. If we follow one of the pervasive definitions from urban sociology, which are based on density, heterogeneity, size, and anonymity, we will be applying largely measurable criteria but thus also decide, on the other hand, to use a normative concept of urbanity. Yet this concept would not only have the disadvantage of lacking historicity that might be able to open our eyes to the plurality of urban life. It would also mean doing without practices that produce urbanity in the first place, ideas and self-descriptions. But how can these levels—all of which have their justification—be brought together?

In all the transformations we find in the concept of urbanity, a common core can nevertheless be made out, insofar as I can retrace it in the context of some Western languages: namely, the relation to a city. Urbanity would therefore have to be understood as a form of relation, not as a state or condition, that can only be localised in the city. And with this idea, we must take recourse to a metaphor: this conceptual core is a kind of lowest common denominator, not an immutable substance but rather something constructed, produced and negotiated by agents. The urban character of a settlement of any size is not something that exists per se but only through ascription of meaning, comparison (with other settlements), and processes of negotiation (which are never free from power). Moreover, specific respective urban practices, forms, and phrases that add to this conceptual core change over the course of time and can differ at different locations. Depending on the epoch and, not least of all, religious context, differing definitions and activities (meaning ideas and practices) build up around this core that, in turn, have an effect on cities and phenomena that point beyond cities. Only thus can urbanity be understood as both a historic concept (meaning culturally determined and needing to be contextualised) and a concept of form that helps us to better understand the spatial configurations and transformations of the city, in which ‘religion’ represents one essential factor. In short: urbanity arises from the interplay of a spatial configuration (namely of the settlement, its size, form, density, material), spatial and temporal practices, ideas and perceptions (from within and without), and self-descriptions or descriptions of the self by others. Only when we have understood this can we also ask what role religious agents, practices, and ideas play in urbanity.

With this conceptual core as a start, it is possible to examine urbanity—with or without a reference to religion—from various points of view (for which disciplinary preferences may also always play a role) or in partial aspects. These points of view, which can be pieced together step by step into a more complete image, include

  • The differentiations or delineations through which urbanity (in a respective time, in a respective region) is viewed must be examined. Widespread dichotomies that are not always appropriate are ‘urban/rural,’ ‘city/town,’ ‘centre/periphery,’ as well as ‘heaven/hell.’ These charged relationships usually express value judgments that need to be deconstructed.

  • Urbanity is frequently a question of scale or an observer’s point of view. It makes a difference whether a mayor, urban planner, citizen, or foreigner is speaking about a city and its characteristics. It also makes a difference whether an individual or group is speaking—or whether the discourse emerged in the context of image-making or city marketing. The question to be examined is this: Who is speaking? With what intention?

  • Given the diversity of different cities, city forms, and city sizes, we must assume that there are different kinds and degrees of urbanity (urbanity in a mega-city vs. urbanity in a country town). In terms of religion, we must consider whether the city is also a political centre of power (an episcopal city, a residential city, etc.). The Roman urbs, which could also more or less become a synonym for the state, also differed in this regard from cities at the periphery of the Empire. There seem to be degrees and gradations of urbanity not only in comparisons between cities but also in the diachronic development of urbanised living space: possibilities of both urban decay and intensification.

  • In searching for factors or indications for urbanity, it seems appropriate to distinguish between (a) structural, measurable terms (such as density, heterogeneity, size), (b) qualitative aspects or user-perspectives on urban living space, and (c) the symbolic level that shapes the ‘image’ of cities and thus also that of urbanity. The respective image of a city, which is usually constructed through media, is always only able to refer to one aspect of a city. Hence it is especially interesting to ask what this viewpoint has left out, what it has not looked at (generally, for instance, the suburbs in which most people live today). Dresden derives its ‘image’ of urbanity not from its prefabricated buildings but mostly from its cityscape along the Elbe or the architectural complex of the Royal Palace, Theaterplatz, and Zwinger.[24] Hamburg offers its Speicherstadt (warehouse district) and the Elbphilharmonie or, if the religious dimension is to be given greater emphasis, St. Michael's Church. And an Indian megacity like Mumbai offers its Gateway of India, while a street such as the Colaba Causeway appears chaotic and vibrant, a place where urban and rural, highly modern and religious elements (including sacred cows) mix together. Are these kinds of entanglements ‘urbanity’?  

Precisely this question is what the toolkit presented here is intended to answer in greater detail.


  1. 1

    Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – FOR 2779. Special thanks go to Claudia Heise, Monika Leetz, Karl-Siegbert Rehberg and Michael Thomas Taylor.

  2. 2

    This is a sentence taken from our research proposal, chapter 1.6 (In German: ‚Ziel ist es, durch den Fokus auf Religion neue Einsichten in die historische Vielfalt der Formierung städtischer Lebensformen und des Modells „Stadt“ zu gewinnen, und durch den Fokus auf Urbanität neue Einsichten in religiösen Wandel und die Ausbildung religiöser Pluralisierungen wie „Religionen“ (als raumzeitliche Praktiken wie soziale Formationen) zu erhalten.‘). See also DFG, GEPRIS: (accessed April 3, 2020).

  3. 3

    ‚Urbanität.‘ 2020. In Duden. Berlin: Bibliographisches Institut. (accessed April 3, 2020).

  4. 4

    On this point, cf. the illustrated volume by Attini and Reina 2007.

  5. 5

    ‘Deutschland – Phasen der Stadtentstehung’ [Germany – Phases of City Emergence]. (accessed October 13, 2018).

  6. 6

    ‘Urbanisme.’ 2012. In Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales. (accessed October 12, 2018).

  7. 7

    [7] ‘Urbanism.’ In Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. (accessed October 31, 2018); ‘urbanism, n.’ July 2018. In Oxford English Dictionary Online. (accessed October 31, 2018). The meaning is attested in both dictionaries as first appearing in 1884.

  8. 8

    This part has now been published in a further developed version: Rau and Rüpke 2020: 674–679

  9. 9

    See, for example, Zotz, 1990. The selection of these passages is also confirmed by Georges’s dictionary; see Georges 21998: vol. 2, column 3311–3312: ‘urbānitās, ātis, f. (urbanus), I) das Stadtleben, bes. das Leben in Rom, desideria u. desiderium urbanitatis, Cic. ep. 7), 6. § 1), 17. § 1. – II) meton., die städtische Weise, a) das städtische Wesen, feine Benehmen, [3311] die feine Lebensart, Cic. ep. 3, 7, 5: Plur., deponendae tibi sunt urbanitates; rusticus Romanus factus es, Cic. ep. 16, 21, 7. – b) die Feinheit im Reden, teils in der Aussprache, teils im Ausdrucke, urbanitatis color, Cic. Brut. 171; vgl. Quint. 6, 3, 17 u. 103 sqq. – c) die Feinheit im Witze, Scherze, der feine Witz, feine Scherz od. Spaß, vetus, Cic.: in iocis, Quint.: oratoria, Quint.: vernacula, Tac.’

  10. 10

    One reviewer of the book made the following critical comment, despite their emphatic enthusiasm for the book: ‘It was not always bright and shining marble that made a town, and the accent on monumentality does make us forget that for many citizens all the splendor was no daily commodity’ (Moormann 2018).

  11. 11

    ‚Urbanität,‘ In Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache,ät (accessed on October 4, 2018): ‚urban Adj. „höflich, weltgewandt, gebildet,“ entlehnt (2. Hälfte 18. Jh.) aus lat. urbānus „fein, vornehm, von gutem Benehmen, gebildet, geistreich,“ eigentlich „zur Stadt (besonders Rom) gehörig, städtisch,“ zu lat. urbs (Genitiv urbis) „Stadt, Hauptstadt (besonders Rom).“ Dann auch (unter Einfluß von frz. urbain, engl. urban?) „(groß)städtisch, für das städtische Leben charakteristisch“ (1. Hälfte 20. Jh.). urbanisieren Vb. „(eine Ortschaft) zur Stadt machen, an eine Stadt anschließen, städtischen Charakter verleihen“ (1. Hälfte 20. Jh.); zuvor (1. Hälfte 19. Jh.) in der heute veraltenden Bedeutung „jmdn. (kulturell, zivilisatorisch) verfeinern.“ Urbanität f. „Vornehmheit, feine Lebensart, Bildung“ (2. Hälfte 18. Jh.), in neuester Zeit „(groß)städtische Atmosphäre, (groß)städtischer Charakter“ (Mitte 20. Jh.), lat. urbānitās (Genitiv urbānitātis) „Stadtleben, städtisches Wesen, gutes Benehmen, Feinheit.“‘

  12. 12

    Etymologiarum, Chapter XV. (accessed October 6, 2018).

  13. 13

    See also the abstract in English: ‘Spaces are defined by their open potentiality, while sites or places are always tied to past, present or future actions: concretised spaces, so to speak’ (Rehberg 2006: 383–384).

  14. 14

    The final sentence of ‚Loggien‘ reads: ‚Das Kind jedoch, das einmal mit im Bunde gewesen war, hält sich, von dieser Gruppe eingefaßt, auf seiner Loggia wie in einem längst ihm zugedachten Mausoleum auf‘ (Benjamin 1991: 294–296). The sociologist Walter Siebel referred to the ‘Loggia’ text in his reflections on the urban and urbanity, by which he understands not reality but a concept. See Siebel 1994.

  15. 15

    For a reappraisal of Benjamin's city-related texts, see Buchenhorst and Vedda 2010.

  16. 16

    The original version of the essay was published under the title ‘Hors du centre, point de salut?’ Espaces Temps 33 (1986): 17–19.

  17. 17

    ‘In the past, reason had its place of birth, its seat, its home in the city. In the face of rurality, and of peasant life gripped by nature and the sacralized earth full of obscure powers, urbanity asserted itself as reasonable’ (Lefebvre 2006a: 127).

  18. 18

    ‘Today, rationality seems to be (or appears to be, or pretends to be) far from the city, above it, on a national or continental scale’ (Lefebvre 2006a: 127).

  19. 19

    ‘Homogeneity overwhelms the differences originating from nature (the site), from peasant surroundings (territory and the soil), from history’ (Lefebvre 2006a: 127).

  20. 20

    ‘L’urbanité est tant un résultat du fonctionnement de l’organisation urbaine qu’un opérateur de l’organisation et de son fonctionnement’ (Lussault 2003: 966).

  21. 21

    Geotype = geographical situation in which multiple spaces (at least two) interact: cospatiality, interspatiality, typically: a city.

  22. 22

    For Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of the sphere, see Sloterdijk. 2016: 284–285: ‘While Kantian physics defines things as simply filling out the preexistent space (or rather, the space represented a priori) and subsisting alongside one another in the mode of mutual exclusion, those assembled in the psycho- and sociospheric space are themselves space-forming by virtue of their coexistence: they are intertwined with one another to form a psychosocial place sui generis in the mode of mutual harboring and reciprocal evocation.’ For Manfred Russo, see Russo 2016: 7: ‚Daher möchte ich Urbanität als jenes Phänomen der städtischen Sphärenbildung beschreiben, das dieser kommunikativen Situation entspricht, aber eine ebenso morphologische Dimension aufweist, die sich in den Formen der Stadt ausdrückt.‘

  23. 23

    Wels is a city in Austria with around 60,000 inhabitants; Hildesheim is a city in Germany with around 100,000 inhabitants. Funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), ZK-60 (2019-2023).

  24. 24

    On symbols of places or objects (Raum- und Ding-Symbole), see Rehberg 2001: especially 39–43. On the silhouette, see Rehberg 2002: especially 80 and 83; Rehberg 2014: especially 248.


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