The City – Design for Living (Nov, 1956)

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The City – Design for Living

by Lewis Mumford

The city as a purely physical fact has been subject to numerous investigations. But what is the city as a social institution? The earlier answers to these questions, in Aristotle, Plato and the Utopian writers from Sir Thomas More to Robert Owen have been on the whole more satisfactory than those of the more systematic sociologists. Most contemporary treatises on “urban sociology” in America throw no important light upon the problem.

One of the soundest definitions of the city was that framed by John Stow, an honest observer of Elizabethan London, who said: “Men are congregated into cities and commonwealths for honesty and utility’s sake; these shortly be the commodities that do come by cities, commonalties and corporations. First, men by this nearness of conversation are withdrawn from barbarous feritie and force to certain mildness of manners and to humanity and justice whereby they are contented to give and take right, to and from their equals and inferiors, and to hear and obey their heads and superiors. Also the doctrine of God is more fitly delivered, and the discipline thereof more aptly to be executed in peopled towns than abroad by reason of the facility of common and often assembling, and consequently such inhabitants be better managed in order and better instructed in wisdom. Good behavior is yet called urbanitas because it is rather found in cities than elsewhere. In sum, by often hearing, men be better persuaded in religion, and for that they live in the eyes of others they be by example the more easily trained to justice and by shame-fastness restrained from injury.

“And whereas commonwealths and kingdoms cannot have, next after God, any surer foundation than the love and goodwill of one man towards another, that also is closely bred and maintained in cities, where men by mutual society and companying together do grow to alliances, commonalties and corporations:’ It is with no hope of adding much to the essential insight of this description of the urban process that I would sum up the sociological concept of the city in the following terms: The city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities while the second are especially characteristic of city life. These varied groups support themselves through economic organizations that are likewise of a more or less corporate, or at least publicly regulated, character; and they are all housed in permanent structures within a relatively limited area. The essential physical means of a city’s existence are the fixed site, the durable shelter, the permanent facilities for assembly, interchange and storage; the essential social means are the social division of labor which serves not merely the economic life but the cultural processes.

The city in its complete sense then is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action and an esthetic symbol of collective unity. On one hand it is a physical frame for the commonplace domestic and economic activities; on the other it is a consciously dramatic setting for the more significant actions and the more sublimated urges of a human culture. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are formulated and worked out through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events and groups into more significant culminations.

Without the social drama that comes into existence through the focusing and intensification of group activity there is not a single function performed in the city that could not be performed— and has not in fact been performed—in the open country. The physical organization of the city may deflate this drama or make it frustrate, or it may through the deliberate efforts of art, politics and education make the drama more richly significant, as a well-designed stage-set intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play.

It is not for nothing that men have dwelt so often on the beauty or the ugliness of cities. These attributes condition men’s social activities. And if there is a deep reluctance on the part of the true city dweller to leave his cramped quarters for the physically more benign environment of a suburb—even a model garden suburb!—his instincts are partly justified: in its various and many-sided life, in its very opportunities for social disharmony and conflict the city creates drama; the suburb lacks it.

One may describe the city in its social aspect as a special framework directed toward the creation of differentiated opportunities for a common life and a significant collective drama. As indirect forms of association, with the aid of signs and symbols and specialized organizations, supplement direct face-to-face intercourse, the personalities of the citizens themselves become many faceted: they reflect their specialized interests, their more intensely trained aptitudes; their finer discriminations and selections. The personality no longer presents a more or less unbroken traditional face to reality as a whole.

Here lies the possibility of personal disintegration, and here lies the need for re-integration through wider participation in a concrete and visible collective whole. What men cannot imagine as a vague formless society they can live through and experience as citizens in a city. Their unified plans and buildings become a symbol of their social relatedness, and when the physical environment itself becomes disordered and incoherent the social functions that it harbors become more difficult to express.

Before man can become fully humanized the social man must break up into a thousand parts, so that each grain of aptitude, each streak of intelligence, each fiber of special interest may take a deeper color by mingling with other grains, streaks and fibers of the same nature. The undifferentiated common bond of primary association is weakened by these specialized associations, but the cable of civilization itself becomes stronger through such multiform twisting into a more complex and many-colored strand.

From simple consciousness of kind in the tribe or family to the developed consciousness of kind that goes with special associations and differentiated groups, from habit to choice, from a fixed mold to a dynamic equilibrium of forces, from taking life as it comes to comprehending it and redesigning it—that is the path of both human and civic development. This transfer of emphasis from the uniformities and common acceptances of the primary group to the critical choices, the purposive associations and the rational ends of the secondary group is one of the main functions of the city. The city is in fact the physical form of the highest and most complex types of associative life.

One further conclusion follows from this concept of the city: social facts are primary, and the physical organization of a city, its industries and its markets, its lines of communication and traffic must be subservient to its social needs. Whereas in the development of the city during the last century we expanded the physical plant recklessly and treated the essential social nucleus, the organs of government and education and social service, as mere afterthoughts, today we must treat the social nucleus as the essential element in every valid city plan. The spotting and inter-relationship of schools, libraries, theaters, community centers is the first task in defining the urban neighborhood and laying down the outlines of an integrated city.

If this is the correct interpretation of the nature of the city a good part of the work that has been done under the name of city planning must be discounted and discredited. It has no more to do with the essential functions of living in cities than the work of the scene shifter and property man have to do with the development of Hamlet. This is not to deny its use, for scene shifters have their use, but it is to cast a doubt upon its sufficiency. The planning of cities by those who have hitherto called themselves city planners is like having the play itself written by the property man or mistaking the stage directions for the lines of the actors.

Though our conception of the physical structure of cities during the last century has been inadequate even in purely physical terms, like the movement of people and the service of industries, people have been even more wantonly inept in their conception of the social structure and the social activities of cities. With their eyes on the purely material changes that are so necessary, even those who have striven most earnestly for improvement have been content to build mere buildings. But buildings do not make a city, and the adequate planning of buildings is only a part of the necessary social schema.

From the standpoint of city design the sociological theory of groups has a direct bearing upon plan. One of the difficulties in the way of political association is that we have not provided it with the necessary buildings, the necessary halls, rooms, meeting places.

Hence in big cities the saloon and the shabby district headquarters, open only to the more sedulous party members, have served. As for industries, the political opportunities for association have been even scantier. In how many factory districts are there well-equipped halls of sufficient size in which the workers can meet?

The town meeting of the New England political system had reality because it had dimensions and members. The citizens met face to face in a special building, the town hall. They saw and heard their fellow citizens and they discussed problems relating to a unit immediately within their grasp and vision.

But the peoples of the Western World have sought to live under an abstract and disembodied political democracy without giving its local units any other official organ than the polling booth. We have hitherto lacked the energy or the insight to provide the necessary meeting halls, committee rooms, permanent offices. We have still to organize neighborhoods and corporate organizations as if the political functions of the community were important ones.

In the conglomerate masses we have called cities it is no wonder that political life as a concrete exercise of duties and functions has given way to various subtle parasitisms and diversions. And contrariwise, in new communities that have been planned as social units, with visible coherence in the architecture, with a sufficient number of local meeting rooms for group activities, as in Sunnyside Gardens, Long Island, a robust political life with effective collective action and a sense of renewed public responsibility has swiftly grown up.

The moral should be plain: we must design whole social units. We must design cities, and in the order of design the arrangement of the essential social institutes, their adequate provision and servicing, is a key to the rest of the structure. It is on the purely instrumental physical services that we must practice the most stringent economy, even parsimony; it is on the political and educational services that we must spend with a lavish hand.

This means a new order of design and a different type of designer. It means that the emphasis will shift progressively from the stage-set to the drama and that the handling of the social activities and relationships will engage the fuller attention of the planner. In time this will have the effect of reducing the instrumental arts of town planning to fairly stable routine, while a greater amount of energy and economic support will be set free for the expressive arts. Painting and sculpture, drama and music will again have greater importance than sanitation and sewage and antisepsis.

The elemental unit of planning then is no longer the house or the houseblock. It is the city, because it is only in terms of this more complex social formation that any particular type of activity or building has significance. And the aim of such planning is not the efficiency of industry by itself or the diminution of disease by itself or the spreading of culture by itself: the aim is the adequate dramatization of communal life, the widening of the domain of human significance so that ultimately no act, no routine, no gesture will be devoid of human value or will fail to contribute to the reciprocal support of citizen and community.

When this drama is sharply focused and adequately staged every part of life feels an uprush of social energy. Eating, working, mating, sleeping are not less than they were before but far more. Life has despite its broken moments the poise and unity of a collective work of art. To create that background, to achieve that insight, to enliven each individual capacity through articulation in an intelligible and esthetically stimulating whole is the essence of the art of building cities. Less than that is not enough!

One more point about the social nature of cities. Reformers and renovators, whose work usually is prompted by some raucous failure in the social machinery, are tempted to oversimplify in the opposite direction. They seek a harmony too absolute, an order whose translation into actual life would stultify the very purpose it seeks to achieve. The student of utopias knows the weakness that lies in perfectionism, for that weakness has now been made manifest in the new totalitarian states where the dreams of a Plato, a Cabet, a Bellamy have at many removes taken shape. What is lacking in such dreams is not a sense of the practical. What is lacking is a realization of the essential human need for disharmony and conflict, elements whose acceptance and resolution are indispensable to psychological growth.

Communities that are so small that the essential differences between people and groups must be prudently glazed over, or so large that they cannot intermingle and clash without violent disorder, fail to provide the best environment for the development of human character.

But good-fellowship is not the whole duty of social man, and some of the highest products of the spirit have been achieved not out of small contentments but out of great frustration, antagonism, disappointment, bitterness. Koheleth and Isaiah, Euripides and Shakespeare, Dante and Machiavelli offer testimony to the higher disharmonies possible in Jerusalem and Athens and Florence and London. Psychological growth is more important than somatic satisfaction, and in designing cities we must provide an environment broad enough and rich enough never to degenerate into a “model community!”

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