Lewis Mumford's Green City

By Michelle Mairesse

Civilization is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion

William Butler Yeats

   The Greeks believed the civilizations that preceded theirs were characterized by the metals used for ornaments, implements, and weapons: the earliest was the Age of Gold, its successor the Age of Bronze, and the last was the Age of Iron.

During the nineteenth century, European production of iron and steel increased four hundred-fold, and may be said to have inaugurated the Age of Steel. Public transportation systems proliferated, along with mechanized factories. England, richer and more intensely industrialized than the continent, saw mass migrations from country districts to factory towns. Deprived of the traditional communal lands that yielded fuel, game, and pasturage, poor agricultural families, children included, labored in mines and factories up to eighteen hours a day at bare subsistence wages. Hunger and misery were so widespread that the government grudgingly and gradually enacted a series of reforms to avert a revolution.

In America, too, industrialized cities attracted displaced and unemployed workers. In 1790, there were fewer than a million residents in American cities. By 1860, there were eleven million. The poor were crowded into dark, airless tenements and damp basements, where they suffered from poor sanitation, epidemics, and fires, but the plight of the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" was no concern of the real estate speculators and factory owners yearning to be rich.

In New England, led by Emerson, a group of intellectuals persistently denounced the new commercial ethic. They warned their fellow citizens against money-lust and its consequences.

Henry David Thoreau didn't mince words. In an essay titled "Life without Principle," he said, "This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me make a minute in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life, or scared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for--business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business."

Thoreau took to the woods to escape incessant business, but his famous retreat to Walden Pond was less wild and solitary than he intimated. He brought manufactured implements for building and planting, friends from Concord helped him roof his cabin, and he supplemented the diet he describes in Walden--plants he gathered or cultivated himself--with the suppers he ate during his frequent visits to his sister's house in town.

A lifetime fugitive from regimentation and acquisitiveness, Thoreau sporadically re-entered the money economy as a handyman, surveyor, writer, and lecturer. He could not be accused of truckling to his audience. He began a lecture on "Walking" with this declaration: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement. If so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee, and every one of you will take care of that."

Despite his expressed contempt for civilization and civilized conventions, Thoreau was enough a member of his society to find Walt Whitman's erotic references offensive rather than "part and parcel of Nature." He recognized Whitman's originality, but his ascetic soul was as much repelled by the poet's sensuality as by his fellow citizens' luxurious living.

It is this streak of asceticism in the neo-Thoreauvians that our contemporary consumer society rejects. Asceticism posits limits, and the consumer society, by definition, repudiates limits: as long as there is as drop of oil or a speck of gold to be wrung out of Nature, it belongs to the takers for marketing.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), like Thoreau, deplored the effects of the new cities on "a world of professional illusionists and their credulous victims." Unlike Thoreau, he did not believe in arrant individualism. He decried the new economy's creation of alienated individuals. " Freed from his sense of dependence on corporation and neighborhood, the 'emancipated individual' was dissociated and delocalized: an atom of power, ruthlessly seeking whatever power can command. With the quest for financial and political power, the notion of limits disappeared--limits on numbers, limits on wealth, limits on population growth, limits on urban expansion: on the contrary, quantitative expansion became predominant. The merchant cannot be too rich; the state cannot possess too much territory; the city cannot become too big. Success in life was identified with expansion. This superstition still retains its hold in the notion of an indefinitely expanding economy."

He argued that humans, who belong both to the natural world and the artificial world of their own making, are capable of designing wholesome living environments, that cities are as much natural structures as anthills or beaver colonies. In The Story of Utopias (1922) he admonishes planners of ideal communities to be practical, to study the intricate human, natural, and commercial networks both of the site of settlement and the entire region. Influenced by the Scotch botanist Patrick Geddes, who urged planners to adopt a wider scheme of ecological reference, Mumford helped found the Regional Planning Association of America, which promoted detailed regional surveys, decentralization, green urban spaces, and lower density in dwellings and commercial buildings.

Like Thoreau, Mumford was a great walker and observer. Traipsing through the mean streets and great avenues of New York, he saw the juggernaut of laissez faire capitalism destroy neighborhoods, pack tenants into small spaces, pollute the air and water, and create a mass of rootless workers. There seemed to be no limits to exploitation and destruction. "Instead of being penalized for his anti-social exploitation of land, the slum landlord, on capitalist principles, was handsomely rewarded: for the values of his decayed properties, so far from being written off because of their age and disrepair, became embedded in the structure of land values taxes. If a new use were proposed for the land, it could only be done profitably by maintaining a slum level of congestion, or by admitting even higher densities."

As an alternative to urban growth and suburbanization, he envisioned new towns surrounded by greenbelts as satellites to older metropolises, with the greenbelts serving as open space and as boundaries to the urban area. Boundaries limit both the physical size of cities and population density, and ensure a human scale. The new towns would maintain a balance of town and country as well as an equilibrium between home, industry, and market.

In The City in History (1961), Mumford traces the malaise of modern cities to the new mechanistic, scientific outlook in the service of mercantilism. "The generating agents of the new city were the mine, the factory, and the railroad. But their success in displacing every traditional concept of the city was due to the fact that the solidarity of the upper classes was visibly breaking up: the Court was becoming supernumerary, and even capitalist speculation turned from trade to industrial exploitation to achieve the greatest possibilities of financial aggrandizement. In every quarter, the older principles of aristocratic education and rural culture were replaced by a single-minded devotion to industrial power and pecuniary success, sometimes disguised as democracy."

Mumford insisted on putting human values ahead of avarice, on re-examining the premises of city planners. "That a city could not control its growth without controlling the development of its land, and that it could not even provide space for its own public buildings, in the right situation, unless it could at least acquire and hold land long before the actual need for it arose, had not even entered the new urban mind. The very notion of public control was from the outset taboo. Where profits were concerned, private interest was held superior, on classic capitalist theory, to public interest. True, the powers of the state or the municipality were never entirely rejected by capitalist enterprise. Capitalism greedily demanded large subventions and subsidies, vast outright gifts, like those that originally promoted the western railroads and that now, just as improvidently subsidize private air and motor transportation.

"Thus the city, from the beginning of the nineteenth century on, was treated not as a public institution, but a private commercial venture to be carved up in any fashion that might increase the turnover and further the rise in land values. The analysis of this condition by Henry George, and its bold rectification by Ebenezer Howard in his proposal for the new Garden City, which would corporately hold all its land, marks a turning point in the conception of both municipal economics and municipal government."

Mumford asked the municipal movers and shakers to regard the assets already in place before they unleashed their bulldozers. "In the interest of expansion, capitalism was prepared to destroy the most satisfactory social equilibrium. Just as the new ideas of business resulted--gradually after the sixteenth century, rapidly after the eighteenth--in the suppression and destruction of the guilds, so these new ideas brought about the demolition of old buildings and the effacement of playing fields, market gardens, orchards, and villages that stood in the way of the growing city. No matter how venerable these old uses might be, or how salutary for the existence of the city itself, they would be sacrificed to fast-moving traffic or to financial gain."

In a series of books that appeared between the two world wars, Mumford examined the impact of technology on every aspect of civilization. The unifying theme of these books was the importance of organic planning, of open spaces for interaction, of greenbelts, of taking into account the wisdom, skills, traditions, institutions, and history of the local community, of the renewal of life.

In 1944, when much of Europe lay in ruins after World War II, a war in which Mumford's own son perished, he called for a re-evaluation of Western civilization in The Condition of Man. "Western man has exhausted the dream of mechanical power which so long dominated his imagination. If he is to preserve the instruments he has so cunningly created, if he is to continue to refine and perfect the whole apparatus of life, he can no longer let himself remain spellbound in that dream: he must attach himself to more humane purposes than those he has given to the machine. We can no longer live, with the illusions of success, in a world given over to devitalized mechanisms, desocialized organisms, and depersonalized societies: a world that had lost its sense of the ultimate dignity of the person almost as completely as the Roman Empire did at the height of its military greatness and technical facility. All that the Nazis have done has been to bring to a more rapid climax a process that was more slowly, more insidiously, undermining our whole civilization."

When The Condition of Man was reprinted eighteen years later, it had lost none of its force. In the preface to the 1962 edition he says that he had pointed out that "the now obsolete economy of expansion might be maintained by continued preparations for war, which would absorb by sheer waste the surplus that orthodox capitalism had never learned to liquidate without bringing on an economic depression; and that stabilization by 'financial insurance and corporate monopolies' might frustrate a more viable social form for achieving a dynamic equilibrium. Both these possibilities have come to pass."

Like Henry Adams, Mumford repudiated machine-life and machine-thought. In an essay on Adams, he says that the historian, seeking a corrective to the perverse direction of civilization, realized that we did not need more information, statistical data, or exact knowledge. "Adams saw that we needed more feeling, feeling and gentling such as infants first get at their mothers' breasts: such feeling as women symbolically embodied and projected from the Paleolithic Venus of Wilmersdorf to the Venus of Milo; from Egyptian Isis to the Virgin of the Thirteenth Century: feeling that has poured into a thousand benign cultural forms, pictorial, musical, architectural and expressed itself in every sustaining mode of embrace . . . from the kiss of greeting to the hot tears with which we take our leave from the dead." In this, as in so much of his work, Mumford demonstrates that the greatest thinkers are able to think with the heart.

There are whole universes of discourse in Mumford's huge body of work, and anyone who chooses to quote him regrets having to omit hundreds of equally brilliant passages, but here is a timely message for the bureaucrats and politicians who are intent on reforming American education: "If we are to create balanced human beings, capable of entering into world-wide co-operation with all other men of good will--and that is the supreme task of our generation, and the foundation of all its other potential achievements--we must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent. And values do not come ready-made: they are achieved by a resolute attempt to square the facts of one's own experience with the historic patterns formed in the past by those who devoted their whole lives to achieving and expressing values. If we are to express the love in our own hearts, we must also understand what love meant to Socrates and Saint Francis, to Dante and Shakespeare, to Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti, to the explorer Shackleton and to the intrepid physicians who deliberately exposed themselves to yellow fever. These historic manifestations of love are not recorded in the day's newspaper or the current radio program: they are hidden to people who possess only fashionable minds. Virtue is not a chemical product, as Taine once described it: it is a historic product, like language and literature; and this means that if we cease to care about it, cease to cultivate it, cease to transmit its funded values, a large part of it will become meaningless, like a dead language to which we have lost the key. That, I submit, is what has happened in our own lifetime."

(Sketches by Lewis Mumford)

References and Updates:

  • 2/1/216: Trees are social beings