Philosophy of cities

I’m going to let the late Lewis Mumford speak for himself in a couple of excerpts from The City in History. Even though I love history and have perused many a book on the subject(s), I learned a great deal about Western history from this book. What intrigues me most as I’ve read, though, is Mumford’s roles as historian-as-sociocultural-critic and historian-as-philosopher. When writing a book of this scope, no matter how founded on data, archeological and textual records, it’s hard for this writer to avoid thoughtful forays into philosophy. Mumford looks forward, too, speculating on city life in the future–and he takes rather a dim view of where megalopolises were heading in 1961. He was prescient indeed. While today’s citizens may argue that his judgments are overly negative, it is difficult to refute the accuracy of his speculations, particularly when he foretells the modern city’s environmental impact on society and on earth’s resources.

So much of the book is a warning: cities have a tendency to collapse, and there are reasons for that. Such reasons have to do with greed, power, poorly-applied technology, lack of foresight, overcrowding, ignorance of the need for balance in any system–governmental, agricultural, environmental, social, economic, etc. He sounds like a Cassandra at times, and we all know that aphorism about being doomed to repeat history, as does Mumford. But ultimately, he makes a passionate call to creativity and human life, warning us not to let our burgeoning technology reduce human activity to the level of the hive. He revels in the arts, in the conscious purpose of human living, in the genuine communication among persons, and in the joys available to those who understand an organic system must be balanced.

[He refers to men and mankind using the typical non-gender-neutral language of the era, which I am not going to alter in these excerpts.]


A bit of green…

Here he is discussing the “Green Matrix.” Remember, he’s writing in 1961!


“The maintenance of the regional setting, the green matrix, is essential for the culture of cities. Where this setting has been defaced, despoiled, or obliterated, the deterioration of the city must follow, for the relationship is symbiotic. The difficulty of maintaining this balance has been temporarily increased, not merely by the incontinent spread of low-grade urban tissue everywhere, dribbling off into endless roadside stands, motels, garages, motor sales agencies, and building lots, but by the rapid industrialization of farming itself, which has turned it from a way of life into a mechanical processing business no different in content or aim or outlook from any other metropolitan occupation…”


Following Mumford’s observation that overpopulation is often a result of privation, rather than the expected other way around, and leads to the “bursting” of the city as a healthy, organic system, he notes (with clear reference to his much earlier chapters on the decline of Rome):

“No profit-oriented, pleasure-dominated economy can cope with such demands: no power-dominated society can permanently suppress them. Should the same attitude spread toward the organs of education, art, and culture–man’s super-biological means of reproduction–it would alter the entire human prospect, for public service would take precedence over private profit, and public funds would be available for the building and rebuilding of villages, neighborhoods, cities, and regions on more generous lines than the aristocracies of the past were ever able to afford for themselves. Such a change would restore the discipline and the delight of the garden to every aspect of life; and it might do more to balance the birthrate, by its concern with the quality of life, than any other collective measure….significant improvements come only through applying art and thought to the city’s central concerns, with a fresh dedication to the cosmic and ecological processes that enfold all being…the best economy of cities is the care and culture of men.”

The care and culture of “men” meaning, “human beings”: that’s a lovely purpose for a city–or a nation–a noble one, and one too many people tend to forget as we occupy ourselves with the busy-ness of our own isolated lives.


Of note: The USA’s 50 “greenest” cities…which does not mean they are good cities by Mumford’s definition, but which is probably a good start. Click here.