The United States has experienced over 40 years of diminished economic growth. While different data sources and analyses yield different estimates, they all confirm several decades of slow economic growth. Earlier, from the 1890s to 1972, American labor productivity according to economist Robert Gordon increased 2.3 percent annually. Since 1972 it’s averaged 1.3 percent per year, a decline of about 40 percent. Along with Nixon’s resignation, the oil embargo, and the founding of Apple, Inc., the 1970s saw additional declines in entrepreneurship and social engagement and increases in obesity, loneliness and mortgage debt. What happened?
Whether you call it post-WWII, post-industrial, post-Modern or post-liberalism, urban form at this point in the 21st century appears to have an entropic destiny that defies analysis and prediction. Urban form a century ago had a well-defined and understood structure or framework of real estate and infrastructure that, including the Great Depression trough, enabled enough social stability for steady increases in economic productivity and the trappings of civilization. But that framework was being questioned.
Toward the end of The City in History published almost 70 years ago, Lewis Mumford says, “The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” Mumford’s writing on cities, technology, architecture and their influence on the human condition spanned 60 years and were influential from the beginning. In my possession are ten of his books from The Story of Utopias to The Urban Prospect and his biography, Lewis Mumford: A Life, by Donald Miller. Among the most appealing is his holistic thinking about what he calls biotechnics, a term that today has both far greater relevance and more authentic possibilities than decades ago.
Form, culture, art and social creativity are assets expressing a city’s capabilities, but a city must generate enough wealth to produce these assets over and above sustaining everyday life. Assets deriving from form, culture, art and social creativity would fall by the way without trade because trade, which includes the making of things and offering of services that can be sold or exchanged for value, is what creates wealth. Urban places are where each individual works to secure a place in the multi-dimensional division of labor that produces the wealth needed for civilized life.