Friday, September 28

Book: The City in History

By Louis Mumford. This work from 1961 is often recognized as the top of the list in the urban planning canon. While it took a little while for me to get used to his incredibly erudite style, I found myself being drawn into his vision more and more as I read. He writes in a style of history that moves seamlessly between hard archaeological facts and wildly philosophical speculation, maybe a little reminiscent of Gibbon's history of Rome. I'm personally not put off by a mixture of intellectual history and "actual" history, but I can understand how it may frustrate some. He's also very selective in his focus, but that also makes his own argument much more cohesive. One important caveat: It really should be titled, "The City in Western History."

Overview: [this is painfully brief]. Humans moved away from a low-density hunter and gatherer system as the Neolithic era arrived. Villages became centers of the sacred as well as agricultural storehouses, merging "feminine" domesticity and civilization with "masculine" drive for dominance. Technological innovation, moral and legal systems, political and religious bureaucracies, and a market economy all fed and were fed by urbanization. All elements of urban space were in place by 2500 B.C.

The city functioned as both a magnet and a container. Various forces drew the population together, and literal walls were in place to protect from military aggression and maintain the density necessary for civic life. Walls, whether physical or not, are a trans-historical and essential fixture of urban space.

Early Greek civilization developed because distinct city-states were formed, geographically isolated from each other. This allowed strong urban and rural interaction and kept governance local. Human expression flourished despite lacks in sanitation and elaborate infrastructure. However, eventually, the Greeks turned the polis into a god itself, a testament to mankind's own dominance. Utopian dreams of Plato and the empire of Alexander unraveled Greek society. Rome followed in this mold, failing to respect natural limits to growth and the moral decay it leads to. "Barbarism captured the city from within."

Christianity, which embraced suffering, began a revival of the localized city, even in the midst of economic collapse. The monastery and the citadel were the central features. The medieval city grew organically and fostered a rich and diverse social life. Sanitation standards were low, but this was offset by the availability of open space outside the boundaries of town. Corruption in the Church and among feudal lords began to challenge the medieval city.

The baroque period brought the cycle back to "centralized mass organization." Static and rigid planning was imposed from above, rather than organically ushered from below. Grids replaced meandering streets. Military objectives were in the forefront of city design. Nationalism drew large populations to the capital centers. Class stratification intensified. The city was pitted against nature. Commerce and politics became the most important functions of the city. The industrial revolution and rise of full-fledged capitalism intensified this process.

There were many reactions. Some pursued the mistaken belief that a proletarian revolution would solve the problem. Many others began to flee this city, while enjoying the benefits at the same time. "cult of nature" merged with the "horrors of industrialism" to provoke suburbanization. It started out as successful, but became a disaster as it grew in popularity. Surburbs are "anti-city." The old credo of the planner Unwin, "nothing gained by overcrowding" should be supplemented by "something lost by overspacing."

A modern faith in technological progress and totalitarianism is currently leading to a dystopia of "post-historical man." But history is not deterministic. The solution is to decentralize, privilege organic growth, respect natural limits to human society, promote "invisible" networks between cities (foreshadowing the internet?), and restore a sense of the divine that transcends our thirst for material power.

Engagement: The combination of Mumford's passion, encyclopedic knowledge, and and sustained focus made this book a treat to read, even if he does get carried away at times. It is fascinating to see how he relates big-picture values to something as mundane as the layout of a city sewer system.

The clear message throughout: small, organic, and diverse over large, organization, and monotonous. Pre-socratic Greek and Medieval civilization is preferred over Roman and modern civilization, although his stance is not entirely without nuance. A good example of this is the difference between the medieval winding streets, based on the visual and accessible scope of a human pedestrian, and the straight baroque avenue, designed for military and elite wheeled vehicle access and as a means for displaying power with parades.

Arising from the discussion (302) of this difference, he writes,

"Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal; it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a preformed geometrical pattern."


J.W. said...

Interesting stuff. I got my hands on the City in History last year but haven't had time to read through it yet. It's quite interesting to think about the historical development of the city. Since Hobbes, most people have posited that the city developed out of the need for mutual protection from external enemies. But cf. this article by Joseph Bottum in First Things:

Daniel Nairn said...

I know that Mumford does consider the need for protection, but he contends that the first settlements were sacred ceremonial places that would be visited periodically by the inhabitants of a region. Then later these temples would serve as storehouses for an agricultural surplus, and once that was in place they would need to protect their economic investments with fortification.

And thanks for the Bottum article. I've appreciated what I've read of him before, so I'll certainly take a look at this.