Saturday, 9 August 2014

Lewis Mumford: "The physical design of cities and their economic functions are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment."

One of the most insightful mainstream analyses of 'development' was put together in the 1960s by Lewis Mumford - very much ahead of its time and today's concern about 'sustainability':

Outside of architecture and urban planning circles, few people today know Lewis Mumford’s name. Yet, in the early-to-mid 20th century, he was a towering American intellectual with an international reputation.

City As Community: The Life And Vision Of Lewis Mumford

Ideas: Mumford believed that what defined humanity, what set human beings apart from other animals, was not primarily our use of tools (technology) but our use of language (symbols). He was convinced that the sharing of information and ideas amongst participants of primitive societies was completely natural to early humanity, and had obviously been the foundation of society as it became more sophisticated and complex. He had hopes for a continuation of this process of information “pooling” in the world as humanity moved into the future.[6]

Megatechnics: In The Myth of the Machine Vol II: The Pentagon of Power (Chapter 12) (1970), Mumford criticizes the modern trend of technology which emphasizes constant, unrestricted expansion, production, and replacement. He contends that these goals work against technical perfection, durability, social efficiency, and overall human satisfaction. Modern technology—which he calls 'megatechnics'—fails to produce lasting, quality products by using devices such as consumer credit, installment buying, non-functioning and defective designs, built-in fragility, and frequent superficial "fashion" changes. "Without constant enticement by advertising," he writes, "production would slow down and level off to normal replacement demand. Otherwise many products could reach a plateau of efficient design which would call for only minimal changes from year to year."

Megamachines: Mumford also refers to large hierarchical organizations as megamachines — a machine using humans as its components.

Urban civilization The City in History won the 1962 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.[5] In this influential book Mumford explored the development of urban civilizations. Harshly critical of urban sprawl, Mumford argues that the structure of modern cities is partially responsible for many social problems seen in western society. While pessimistic in tone, Mumford argues that urban planning should emphasize an organic relationship between people and their living spaces. 
Mumford uses the example of the medieval city as the basis for the "ideal city," and claims that the modern city is too close to the Roman city (the sprawling megalopolis) which ended in collapse; if the modern city carries on in the same vein, Mumford argues, then it will meet the same fate as the Roman city. Mumford wrote critically of urban culture believing the city is "a product of earth ... a fact of nature ... man's method of expression."[8] 
Further, Mumford recognized the crises facing urban culture, distrusting of the growing finance industry, political structures, fearful that a local community culture was not being fostered by these institutions. Mumford feared "metropolitan finance," urbanisationpolitics, and alienation. Mumford wrote: "The physical design of cities and their economic functions are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment and to the spiritual values of human community."

Suburbs Suburbia did not escape Mumford's criticism either:
“In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.[9] 


Architectural and literary critic, urban planner, sociologist, and historian who analyzed the effects of technology and urbanization on human societies.
It seems natural for those of us born since World War II, or the Depression, to name and challenge the pillars that hold up Western civilization. We have seen them tumble down, one by one: at Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Watts, Love Canal, and the Twin Towers; in Bhopal, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Aurora; with Peak Oil, climate change, and escalating tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and glacier melts.
But Lewis Mumford, born in 1895, came of age at a time when citizens of industrialized nations were swelling with pride over the streamlined possibilities of mass mechanistic society. In his day science and democracy seemed about to usher in a permanent era of peace and prosperity. Despite the sinister forebodings of World War I, still, popular attitude championed innocence and faith. Mumford, though, had the insight and courage to pierce through the veneer and stand among America´s prophets. He revealed the deeper patterns of a civilization in terrible trouble.
In his four-part Renewal of Life series, he asserted, against all prevailing belief, that technology did not lie at the dividing line between our animal ancestry and the first sparks of human consciousness; rather art, music, ritual, and language did. In his two-part Myth of the Machine, he explored what he saw as the central template of Western society: the Megamachine. Warning that “a dominant minority” — the masters of science and technology — could create “a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation.” He saw “humans cut off from their own resources for living, feel(ing) no tie with the outer world unless they are constantly receiving information, direction, stimulation, and sedation from a central, external source.”
Although I had been introduced to Mumford´s work in 1968 in a course in urban studies at the University of California/Berkeley, it was not until I was seasoned by a goodly succession of social-change movements that I became worthy of the sweep of his intelligence and imagination. When I rediscovered him, I found myself stopped in my tracks. My battle cry, and that of a host of warriors and visionaries of my generation, was a reiteration of Mumford´s passionate assertion, written so many decades ago: “Progress indeed!”
Inspired by Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, and the Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes, Mumford advocated a de-emphasis on technology, a return to human values and scale, and able planning of villages and cities. He was an ecologist and a bioregionalist before such words came into popular use. And he was, to quote social critic Joseph Epstein, “a writer of fresh possibilities, of green fields and blue skies, of the clarion call to halt the current madness and pull the world out of fire.”
There is much to say about Mumford´s achievements. He contributed to American philosophy, urban planning, architecture, and literature. He fought against freeways, skyscrapers, atomic weapons, and the Vietnam War. He was a husband and father. Despite the fact that he did not graduate from high school and mounted a life-long battle to have his work accepted in academia, in the end, he won the 1961 U.S. National Book Award for The City in History, the 1966 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 1986 National Medal of Arts. He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Yet he was human. He was self-absorbed and driven, and although his work had profound implications that may be called feminist, in his daily life he was not a feminist.
But the cogent thing to remember is that Lewis Mumford had soul. My God! When ever I read his work, I had to stop every three or four paragraphs and breathe. His goal in life was to merge the intellectual with the passionate, the lofty with the earthy, and this he did  whether he was writing at his wooden desk in Amenia, New York; walking the streets of Manhattan to observe buildings and streets; planting a garden with his wife Sophia; or delivering a speech to graduate students at Harvard.
His was a life of feast.
Sadly, Lewis Mumford´s presence among us has vanished. But if it can be said that a person's spirit lives on in the people he has touched, I am one who carries him with me. And every day he is here to remind me: “Life is better than utopia.”
It was Malcolm Cowley who called Mumford "the last of the great humanists." 

Lewis Mumford: Last of the great humanists | The Journal of Wild Culture

See also:
Futures Forum: The Story of Stuff: "You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely"

And Bristol, which has just won the Lewis Mumford Award:
Futures Forum: Making Bristol a sustainable, healthy, liveable city .............. What about making Sundays Special in Sidmouth's Fore St?

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