The world has not been at any time different than it is now.
Lewis Mumford, perhaps the 20th century’s most broad-ranging and eclectic thinker and critic concerned with the American urban experience, is remembered mostly as a messenger of modernism. Certainly, his open contempt of architectural ornament and of the City Beautiful movement in general was, like many of his counterparts, influenced by the dark and overwrought Victorian era that preceded it. However, modernism in general was enamored of the opportunities extended by new building materials and techniques – materials such as steel, glass and concrete that would be combined to create entirely new structures such as skyscrapers – which empowered it to leave behind the context of place. In contrast, Mumford’s concern was primarily humanistic, that is, one where an act of planning or design was primarily about the way in which the social life of a town, city or neighborhood could be understood, and only then improved.
Mumford was greatly influenced by Patrick Geddes, a peripatetic Scot whose diverse explorations lead him to apply Spencer’s idea of biological evolution to the investigation of society – that “society itself was an organism and that social progress was analogous to biological change” (Wojtowicz, p11). Mumford’s idea of the regional survey as the principal tool by which society, economy and nature could be holistically apprehended was derived directly from Geddes’s idiosyncratic, interdisciplinary style of thinking.
Along with Geddes, Mumford was also deeply influenced by Ebenezer Howard, who authored the Garden Cities movement, which was designed to combat inner city squalor by redesigning the urban concept into large towns of about 30,000 inhabitants, surrounded by an agricultural belt meant to make the city nearly self-sufficient (Howard was perhaps the last urban planner to take into account that people needed to eat as well as work, shop and sleep). These cities were meant to foster a deep and proximate connection to nature, and were intended to remain insular, their centers connected by light rail.
In all, not many of these designs were executed, and New Yorkers wondering how far away one ought to build a Garden City are encouraged to visit Forest Hills Gardens, which is now a part of Queens. Rather, the modernist enterprise took off with full force, and the holistic approach that Geddes and Mumford sought was buried in the succeeding tidal waves of boom, bust, war and post-war prosperity.
It is perhaps instructive that Mumford was a lifelong autodidact and synthetic thinker, but never completed university; the same was true, in fact, of Geddes, although both men held university appointments at various points in their lives. That this kind of range of thought proved difficult to sustain in the broader sweep of architecture, planning and policy, is unsurprising, especially as these disciplines fragmented into ever-finer specializations. Jan Gehl, Danish architect and author of Cities for People and Life Between Buildings summarizes the history of post-Mumfordian urban planning as such:
The big change in paradigms happened around 1960 [when] planning took off as a profession. They took off in airplane [sic] so they could organize the new optics of the big city. Typically on a big model, you push around with the optics until bingo you had something that looks like some wonderful composition. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a great example. From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level. That was typical — planners were to look after the plan, the architects were to look after the buildings. With modernism, they were free of the context of the city. They placed it on open lands surrounded by grass. Nobody was responsible for looking after the people who were to move in these new structures. You would think that the landscape architects were the ones. At least they were down at eye level and were moving around. But as far as I’m concerned, some landscape architects have done great jobs for people, but most of the work is not great, just silly benches. They’re more occupied with plans and form. There’s a general pursuit of form in the area of architecture and also in the profession of landscape architecture. So, what really happened was that the eye level stuff were handled by the traffic engineers. They are the ones who mostly shaped our environments in our cities.
According to Gehl, it was in 1960 that “we had a modernist ideology but we didn’t use it very much because we were still adding small units to existing cities. It’s only when cities took off and planning really went up in scale and there was a rapid expansion of cities did the modernist principles become applied in practice. That meant that we were able to mass produce big buildings that could fill the whole landscape.”
To this I would add that the increasing specialization of disciplines and the efflorescence of bureaucracy and government made it nearly impossible to maintain a holistic view of planning in the mode of Geddes and Mumford, or even Howard.
However, this is not to say that the individual’s experience of the city, which became increasingly lost over this period of time, was not seriously considered by others. In a turgid yet seminal 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life,” German sociologist Georg Simmel posits the emergence of a distinctly urban consciousness and its effect on our cognitive processes. Much as today’s researchers and commentators grapple with the question of whether the Internet is “re-wiring” our brains, Simmel was concerned with the consequences of living in the unnatural, urban social arrangement, which he defines as one where the individual is bombarded by overwhelming quantities of stimuli. To Simmel, the individual’s response was rationalistic, developing an affect of “reserve” in order to cope effectively. Furthermore, immense value was placed on money and time as common currencies by which the city, or rather its stimuli, could be navigated and negotiated. At the same time, Simmel’s subject was granted an unprecedented freedom to construct and maintain a unique identity; in fact, the creation of this identity was mandatory, since “cities are above all the seat of the most advanced economic division of labour” and individuals must develop specializations that will maintain their economic viability.
One might be inclined to dismiss Simmel’s concept of “reserve” in the city as a speculative exercise not uncommon at the time. Nevertheless, more recent research has borne him out. Jonah Lehrer discusses a 2008 study, where psychology professor Marc Berman
…outfitted undergraduates at the University of Michigan with GPS receivers. Some of the students took a stroll in an arboretum, while others walked around the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor. The subjects were then run through a battery of psychological tests. People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory, which involved repeating a series of numbers backwards. In fact, just glancing at a photograph of urban scenes led to measurable impairments, at least when compared with pictures of nature.
So it would seem that, while the assault on the senses is real, the benefits of being in the city – that is, outside of nature – are not quite so evident. Moving beyond undergraduates as universally reliable fodder for psych experiments, however, the work of Roger Ulrich has also shown that hospital patients accrue significant benefits when they are placed in direct view of nature or a natural setting:
Patients, who were demographically matched and recovering from the same surgery, located in recovery rooms that offered a view of nature from the window were released to go home after an average of 7.96 days, while patients located in a room with no view of nature spent an average of 8.7 days in recovery (Ulrich 1984)
These and other findings are providing the underpinnings to a new design movement known as biophilia. The term, originally coined by E.O. Wilson in 1984, makes clear that our relationship to nature has never diminished, and that rather we ourselves are much diminished if we attempt to discount its importance. Now architects like Terrapin Partners and Ken Yeang are actively incorporating design principles that emulate and integrate natural systems into our built environment. These new buildings and indeed master plans for entire cities gently but decisively unwind the legacy of modernism’s acontextuality while at the same time exploiting all the advantages that new materials and methods continue to bring.
Most importantly, they recognize that, for better or for worse, the individual must continue to exist within the milieu of the city and the built environment in general, and that many of the solutions already exist, if only we would more deeply engage our recognition of the world in which we are already so deeply enwoven. In fact, it may have been Geddes himself, imbued with the spirit of Spencerian evolutionary proto-consciousness, who had it right when he wrote:
This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.
It is an extraordinary and sobering fact that today we are struggling to recapture this understanding.