Words and Cities: The Case of Urban Villages and Eco-Cities/ By Chuan Wang

Chuan Wang: PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh

Photograph by Mark Horn, Getty Images. Retrieved from http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/365-photos/elevated-roads-chongqing/
Chongqing, China. Photograph by Mark Horn, Getty Images. Retrieved from http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/365-photos/elevated-roads-chongqing/

In urban studies, vague concepts accommodate different meanings under the same name. Recent terms are being invented in order to name our dreams of future cities, but this pattern is not new (Garden City 1898; Radiant City 1924; New Urbanism 1993; Global City 1991, etc.) Many might think that terminologies are merely the names to help our communications. Here I would argue, in contrast, that the linguistic aspects of terminology affect our thinking and understanding of concepts.

Linguistic research findings are employed to reveal this phenomenon. New terms are usually made as compounds or phrases since it is difficult to come up with completely new words. It is common that people have different understandings of the way phrases are coined. Two case studies – ecocity and urban village – are examined to facilitate readers’ thinking on this issue.

Urban Village

Urban village is the first example, in which the first half is ‘urban’ which means ‘city’, while another morpheme is ‘village’. This contradicting combination is called oxymoron in linguistics. It usually shows special meanings.

Compound processing depends on two aspects: how compound words are decomposed into their constituents, and the consistency between the meaning of compounds and their constituents (Cheng et al., 2011). As for compound phrases, the first aspect is called semantic transparency, which is the dominant part for understanding. For some phrases, it is easy to understand the meaning if the constituents are familiar, e.g. contemporary art and film studio. In contrast, some are difficult to grasp by its constituents: e.g. hot dog. This aspect is defined as opaque phrases, in contrast to transparent phrases. However, there are more half-transparent phases, which is linked to one or two words but need further information to be understand, such as urban agriculture or radiant city. Four types of constituent compounds are investigated to understand the way of activation (Libben et al., 2003), as seen in Figure 1

Figure 1 Four Types of Constituent Compounds and Their Application to Urban Village. Chuan Wang
Figure 1 Four Types of Constituent Compounds and Their Application to Urban Village. Chuan Wang
Retrieved from: http://tectzheng.lofter.com/
Xian village, Guangzhou, China, Retrieved from: http://tectzheng.lofter.com/
Aerial photo of Poundbury, England. Retrieved from http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/behind-the-facade-of-prince-charless-poundbury_o
Aerial photo of Poundbury, England. Retrieved from http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/behind-the-facade-of-prince-charless-poundbury_o

If we examine urban village, the compounding mode is diverse in different contexts. For the British urban village, the exact meaning is urban quarter with village-like atmosphere (Aldous, 1992). It is far away from urban village in East Asian, which means villages in the rapid-developing/expanding cities (Chung, 2010; Hao et al., 2011). They are completely different understandings but many researchers mix them due to the same name.


Ecocity is increasingly popular in research and design of contemporary cities. What is the exact meaning of ecocity? Since ‘city’ has no disputation, ‘eco’ itself largely determines the meaning of ecocity. From the linguistic perspective, there are two different ways to think about this compound: either ‘eco’ is a prefix or free root. The status of ‘eco’ influences the meaning of ecocity. ‘Eco’ is no longer solely rooted in the environmental field, but has permeated more commercial realms as a kind of marketing slogan (Benz, 2000). ‘Eco’ shares a much broader concept than its origin – ecology or ecological, and ‘eco’ is still undergoing an expansion of its scope. Similarly, ecocity is a broader concept than ecological city, which initially meant restoring ecosystems or sustaining biodiversity in the city (Platt et al., 1994; White, 2002).

Moreover, the meaning of ‘ecology’ is also changing. Originally, ‘ecology’ meant management of a household according to Greek etyma, and developed to underpin concepts of economics from the 1810s and to the sense of habitat in 1870s (Williams, 1983). Meanings of ‘ecology’ have extended from environmentalism to philosophy, towards current focus on deep ecology and ecosophy (Naess, 1973), with our increasing concern with the environment. It now extends to thinking of human subjectivity (mental ecology) and social relations (social ecology) in The Three Ecologies (Guattari, 2005). ‘Ecology’ has become a composite concept not only reviving its original meaning of economic concern, but also reflecting an expansion of the environmental, social, philosophical, technological and political directions. These fundamental changes of the notion of ‘ecology’ increase the ambiguity of the term ecocity.

The examples of urban village and ecocity demonstrate that terminology affect our understandings of the new concepts in urban studies. Multiple understandings of terms widely exist in both research and practice of urban studies. The vaguer the term is, the longer it can last.


Aldous T. (1992) Urban villages: a concept for creating mixed-use urban developments on a sustainable scale: Urban Villages Group.

Benz B. (2000) Let it green: the ecoization of the lexicon. SAmerican Speech 75: 215-221.

Cheng C, Wang M and Perfetti CA. (2011) Acquisition of compound words in Chinese–English bilingual children: Decomposition and cross-language activation. Applied Psycholinguistics 32: 583-600.

Chung H. (2010) Building an image of Villages‐in‐the‐City: A Clarification of China’s Distinct Urban Spaces. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34: 421-437.

Guattari F. (2005) The Three Ecologies: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hao P, Sliuzas R and Geertman S. (2011) The development and redevelopment of urban villages in Shenzhen. Habitat International 35: 214-224.

Libben G, Gibson M, Yoon YB, et al. (2003) Compound fracture: The role of semantic transparency and morphological headedness. Brain and Language 84: 50-64.

Naess A. (1973) The shallow and the deep, long‐range ecology movement. A summary. Inquiry 16: 95-100.

Platt RH, Rowntree RA and Muick PC. (1994) The Ecological City: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity: Univ of Massachusetts Press.

White RR. (2002) Building the Ecological City, Cambridge and Philadelphia: Woodhead Publishing.

Williams R. (1983) Keywords : A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London: Fontana.


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