The great Italian literary critic, philosopher, novelist, and University of Bologna semiotics professor Umberto Eco died last week. On the surface this event is probably of little consequence to professional urban planners. However, ...

Umberto Eco in 2011
Umberto Eco in 2011 © Das Blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann

And herein lies the critical connection back to Umberto Eco. Eco fused his various scholarly and novelistic pursuits together rather than maintaining a firewall between them. Carlin Romano, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, notes that Eco had an uncommon ability to "talk and write in the language of the street," and that he strenuously "opposed artificial disciplinary boundaries." Giovanna Franci, exquisite interdisciplinary thinker that she was, shared this ethos. A commitment to such fusion and fluidity, and the intellectual openness that informs it, can be risky business in the academy. However, the progressive planning educators who spoke in both Bologna and Toronto, and presumably others who are out there, invite us to act like Eco: to use personal narratives, novels, poems, art, ethnographies, and perhaps even a keener understanding of semiotics (signs and meaning-making)—which, for Romano, Eco "pulled down from the clouds"—to cultivate in their students a sensitivity to the lived experience of ordinary citizens. Pragmatist philosophers (like Richard Rorty) note that humanistic approaches, focused on thick description of the intimate and idiosyncratic (rather than approaches of a more theoretical, generalizing, and scientific character), offer our best hope of binding human beings together. It is from these little pieces of revealed experience that we might best forge a path toward human solidarity and, perhaps, urban spaces that better serve the common good.