The Sickness of Unlimited Expansion

Photograph Source: Wjmummert – Public Domain

Lewis Mumford, one of the 20th century’s great urbanists, looked across the urban landscape, and he didn’t like what he saw. In his 1961 classic, The City In History, he wrote of “sprawling gigantism.”

“Circle over London, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Sydney . . . What is the shape of the city and how does it define itself? The original container has completely disappeared: the sharp division between city and country no longer exists. As the eye stretches toward the hazy periphery one can pick out no definite shapes except those formed by nature: one beholds rather a continuous shapeless mass . . . “[1]

The loss of form and balance was the central target of Mumford’s often blistering criticism of modern society.  The city, the pinnacle of human creation, expressed what he saw as a general sickness of a civilization given to the pursuit of endless expansion.

“Mere increase in size no more signifies improvement, or even adaptation, than technological expansion ensures a good life. The very dynamism of growth, as in the change of hand weapons to the hydrogen bomb, only increases the area of possible destruction.”[2]

Mumford tracked the philosophy of unlimited expansion to the interrelated rise of capitalism and the nation-state in Europe from the 1300s on, shattering what had been a more balanced development of localities and city states in the middle ages. The previous installment of this series covers that.

“The new disciples of Midas no longer dealt with commodities and men, with families and groups, but with abstract magnitudes. They were concerned almost exclusively with what Thomas Aquinas called artificial wealth, upon whose acquisition nature, as he pointed out had placed no limits. This absence of limits became not the least significant mark of the commercial city: it partly accounts for the steady loss of form that went on after the eighteenth century.”[3] The new system transformed “the complex social order of the city into the over-simplified routines of the market. Its ultimate result was a money-making economy that had no definable ends or purposes other than its own further expansion.”[4]

The new gentry pioneered a lifestyle that would be “massively perverted under capitalism  . . . to popularize  . . . the desirable consummation of human existence and the final cachet of success (as) suffocating luxury, conspicuous expenditure, extravagant waste, a glut of novelties and sensations, organized into a carnival of triviality for the sole purpose of keeping an expanding economy in operation.”[5]

Hitting the wall

Mumford’s words as aptly describe modern life as they did over 60 years ago. In fact, they seem even more prophetic in the age of the billionaires. An economy and a life that seems to have little meaning other than boundless expansion and consumerism are more prevalent than ever. But expansion is hitting walls now. The intensifying climate crisis is only the most visible manifestation, but the ecological roots of life are eroding, from soils and forests to fisheries, while societies with little sense of human solidarity and the common good are fraying. The conflicts of great powers bent on their own expansion at the expense of others portends ill outcomes, including the worst.

Mumford, who in his earlier writings saw great potential for human development in the emergence of modern technologies such as electrical power and telecommunications, had became more pessimistic by the time he wrote The City in History.  He wrote of the emergence of the megamachine which crushed the human spirit. “That which is local, small, personal, autonomous, must be suppressed  . . . In the end, every aspect of life must be brought under control . . . “[6] The megamachine’s ultimate threat was thermonuclear annihilation. The only alternative to an “incinerated civilization” was a return to the human center, to “not only unlearn the art of war, but to acquire and master, as never before, the arts of life.”[7]

The school in which to learn those arts was the region, which Mumford viewed as the fundamental social and natural reality underlaying human life, the place where humans can cooperatively build communities to fulfill the best in the human spirit. “The re-animation and re-building of regions, as deliberate works of collective art, is the grand task of politics for the opening generation,” Mumford wrote in his 1938 work, The Culture of Cities.[8]

Writing in the 1930s, Mumford was confronted with the rise of fascist totalitarianism. Facing similar situations today, we would do well to heed his words. “The real alternative,” he said, is “the restoration of the human scale to government, the multiplication of the units of autonomous service, the widening of the cooperative processes of government, the general reduction of the area of arbitrary compulsion, the restoration of the powers of persuasion and rational agreement.”[9]

Putting forth the regionalist alternative

In In the 1920s and 1930s, Mumford helped create a group to pursue a regionalist vision. The Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) merged progressive urban planners with landscape conservationists. Mumford represented the urban side. The most prominent voice on the conservation side was Benton MacKaye, best known as the progenitor of the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye inspired Mumford, a New Yorker centered on the life of the city, to conceive planning on a broader regional landscape, from city center through smaller communities and rural areas, to the wilderness heights of the watershed.

MacKaye saw metropolitan development consuming the land. “A rootless, aimless, profoundly disharmonious environment has replaced the indigenous one  . . . ,” he wrote in the 1920s. “It is spreading, unthinking, ruthless. Its substance consists of tenements, bungalows, stores, factories, billboard, filling-stations, eating-stands, and other structures whose individual hideousness and collective haphazardness present . . . the slum of commerce.”[10]

Hideous. Haphazard. A “slum of commerce.” One could not pen more cogent words to describe the suburban commercial strips that now encircle just about every city from the modestly sized to the monstrously huge.

Mumford, MacKaye and the RPAA saw massive population and urban growth coming. As an alternative to sprawl they looked to the work of Ebenezer Howard, the British visionary who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries called for what he called Garden Cities. Instead of the formless metropolitan blob that his native London was already becoming, Howard envisioned purposive creation of communities separated by permanent agricultural and recreational greenbelts.

Howard set the ideal size for a community at around 30,000, enough to offer diverse services, and cultural and work opportunities. Within the relatively dense development one could meet all the basic needs of life. Communities would be joined by fast public transportation to create a Regional City, where each community offered specialized services, such as universities, orchestras, and regional hospitals. Howard led the creation of two successful models, Letchworth and Welwyn, that inspired further efforts to create new towns in Britain.

“What was once done by close building could now be done by close organization, thanks to rapid transportation and instantaneous communication,” Mumford wrote. “Howard intuitively grasped the potential form of the etherealized city of the future, which would unite the urban and the rural components into a porous regional complex, multi-centered but capable of functioning as a whole.”[11]

Living in a moderately sized community not beset with urban problems, but with access to urban possibilities and amenities is desired by many today. That is why many move to the suburbs or smaller cities, only to find problems chasing them, including staggering traffic jams and increasingly unaffordable housing. If the Garden Cities Howard and later the RPAA advocated had become the general form, it is hard to imagine we would not live in a happier and more fulfilling society today.

Prophetic words unheeded

The RPAA viewed contemporary metropolitan planning efforts as mostly facilitating unbridled and unbalanced growth. Instead, they sought a more balanced model. They specifically attacked a mid-1920s plan for the New York City region funded by the Russell Sage Foundation which they saw as merely replicating the emerging metropolitan form over a larger landscape. “The inevitable results of such faulty logic, would be an increase in real estate speculation, a massing of outsized Manhattan towers, overcrowding, and impenetrable commercial zones,” writes urbanist John L. Thomas. “Their plan was being drafted simply to meet the needs and prejudices of America’s corporate rulers . . . “ [12]

Indeed, as anyone knows who has tried to drive in Manhattan or find daylight in the skyscraper-lined canyons of the city, the RPAA critique of the Sage plan was prophetic. Unlike many of today’s urbanists, Mumford and his peers were not advocates of unbridled density and growth of urban centers, but instead envisioned a more balanced development. They proposed planned migration from congested cities to smaller centers, along with a decentralization of industry, using newly emerging technologies of transportation and communication. The RPAA developed specific proposals along those lines for New York State. One wonders what the state would look like now if the RPAA path had been adopted. Instead of a hyper-concentration in the New York metropolitan area while upstate cities and towns deteriorate, one can imagine a more balanced prosperity, and a more amenable quality of life in the city itself.

The visions of balanced regional development and the Regional City put forward by Mumford and his companions remain largely a road not taken, with the consequences they envisioned. Mindless gigantism, sprawling metropolitan conurbations of vast commercial ugliness, lives in which consumerism provides ersatz substitutes for rich community experience, increasing divisions between cities into which economic life is pouring and impoverished rural areas which are being drained, and the threats of an “incinerated civilization,” either rapidly by war or slowly by climate heating. Mumford was a prophet, but his words were not heeded. Still, if we are to find a road back from the precipice on which we are situated, we must recall the directions to which Mumford and his fellows pointed, to a more balanced and community-oriented development based on regional planning.

Next, why the regionalist path was not taken, and how we can find our way back.