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.
No one writing about cities in the past 50 years has come close to Mumford’s intellectual stature. His books and other writings are a prodigious attempt to understand cities and their effects on us. It’s unlikely he could have devoted so much of his life to understanding cities if he did not believe the city should do all that. I share his regard for the importance of the living human body in the increasingly urban, technological world we share. Mumford understood the many possibilities cities offered but was unsparing in his criticism of their frequent inability to attain what he saw as possible. The appeal of countryside’s simpler, more stable and attainable possibilities and resources would make up for what a city lacks. Integrating the two into regional cities wherein the fingers of the natural region reached into the artificial city was the most viable possibility. But nothing like this happened.
Mumford’s mistake was saying the traditional grid-form street system was just about land speculation and real estate development. No different from what the planning historian John Reps says was a way for developers to prey on “simple settlers” and pack more houses in a boringly repetitive order manifesting mediocrity. As though developers couldn’t build houses on other layouts. Mumford’s mistake had pervasive consequences: the form of post-WWII American suburbia. His derogation of grid-form street systems was so amplified by his authority that virtually all professionals, academics, critics, government and business people engaged in developing new American settlements after WWII avoided them. There’s a litany of the uniformed stigmatizing the grid. A typical take is found in Richard Sennett’s ponderous moralizing about the evils of the city: “Gridded space does more than create a blank space for development. It subdues those who must live in the space by disorienting their ability to see and to evaluate relationships.” Those poor subdued simple settlers – disoriented and unable to evaluate relationships. What nonsense.
Mumford avoids the economic importance a city’s form and structure and treats the commercial, technological and industrial impacts on form and structure as testaments to dullness, mediocrity, carelessness and authoritarian and bureaucratic impulses. In some ways he’s right. He lived in New York, still a place with hypertrophic tendencies. But power, energy, dead matter, and biological reproduction are necessary resources in converting commercial, technological and industrial activity into all the forms of wealth that support urban societies. This all took form on grid-form and related orthographic street systems.