Tag Archives: Lewis Mumford

Back to the City! Back to the Country!

Thomas Jefferson once said: “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” Despite his penchant for Parisian culture and cuisine, Jefferson obviously did not hold the same affection for European cities. Rather, Jefferson, who spent much of his private life gardening and farming at his rural home in Monticello, celebrated those who lived off the land. In 1785, he wrote to John Jay:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.

Although others may not have shared Jefferson’s exact passion for the bucolic, his preference for agrarian life was commonplace throughout much of American history. Indeed, the United States was mainly a rural country well into the twentieth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century, American cities such as New York City and Chicago were metropolises of more than one million people. With the growth and dominance of these cities, apprehensions about urban culture deepened. As William Cronon argues in his study on the growth of Chicago:

What really worried rural and small-town residents of Chicago’s hinterland was their perception that the city acted as a magnet for sin. Young people drawn to the city by its energy and excitement could all too easily give in to pleasures and temptations that would finally jeopardize their souls.

Small town residents were not the only ones to view the big city suspiciously. At the turn of the twentieth century, prominent city-based scholars—particularly from the Chicago School of Sociology—also conceived of cities negatively.

But once urbanization took hold, largely thanks to the immigration and industrialization of agriculture, Americans began flocking to cities. There, they sought economic opportunity, improved education, and the sophistications of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. The city-dweller came to view rural life as backward and narrow.

This trend didn’t last. By the mid-twentieth century, the tide turned in the opposite direction. Once again, cities were perceived as dangerous and undesirable—but the person who sought a safer home turned not to the country, but to the suburb.

Aerial view of Sonoma County, California

Suburbs have existed as long as cities. In the Middle Ages, they were places for the poor—priced out of the cities and living along the city walls—as well as the rich, who had their own suburban villas. In America, suburbs sprang up in the 1800s as a response to urban industrial pollution and lack of sanitation infrastructure. They allowed those with the monetary means to travel back into the city with their health intact. Such suburbs were more akin to natural villages and were closely linked to cities. Suburban expansion was relatively limited compared to urban growth—until the automobile.

After World War II, suburban neighborhoods grew exponentially in size. People left cities for the suburbs, as rural and urban populations declined. Thanks to the automobile and the ease of obtaining a home mortgage, suburban living became easier. Coupled with the outsourcing of urban industry and (often racist) concerns about urban violence, the city quickly fell out of favor. Soon suburban living (or certain forms of it) became the apogee of the American dream.

One of the most salient features of the post–World War II suburb was its localization of the American middle class and its propagation of practices of mass consumption. In her 2003 book A Consumers’ Republic, American historian Lizabeth Cohen noted, “As home in the surburb[s] became a mass consumer commodity to be appraised and traded up like a car rather than a longstanding emotional investment in a particular neighborhood, ethnic community, or church parish, ‘property values’ became the new mantra.”

Although the suburban ideal still figures predominantly in our cultural imagination of individual success, the discussion around suburbs has become more nuanced and complicated. Though the suburb still has its defenders, criticism of the “’burbs” has grown steadily, with many questioning their environmental, economic, social, and even spiritual legitimacy. Perhaps, the most poignant critique is simply that are banal. Lewis Mumford summed that view up best:

Whilst the [historical] suburb served only a favored minority it neither spoiled the countryside nor threatened the city. But now that drift to the outer ring has become a mass movement, it tends to destroy the value of both environments without producing anything but a dreary substitute, devoid of form and even more devoid of the original urban values.

Today, cities and suburbs with high walkability (or access to mass transit) are again growing in population and desirability. City living is increasingly being celebrated for its economic potential. In addition, cities with a range of institutions and opportunities offer particular ecological and social benefits.

This urban revival is well-documented, but a small return to farming has also begun. In an article earlier this month, NPR journalist Jennifer Mitchell reports that “overall, fewer young people are choosing a life on the land. But in some places around the country, like Maine, that trend is reversing. In Maine, farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40 percent.” Mitchell goes on to cite environmental factors as one of the key reasons people are getting back into farming: “all the young farmers interviewed for this story mentioned environmental health and climate change as factors in choosing a life on the land.”

As Thomas Jefferson reminds us, praise of country life has often come at the expense of the city. Now, however, the country appears defined not so much against the city, but rather the sprawling suburb. Although there are clear differences between urban and country living (farming is not exactly a get-rich enterprise), they are no longer opposed to each other.

Each environment offers opportunities for unique connections and activities difficult to attain in mass suburbs. In the country, people live closer with the biotic world and are able to work with their hands. In the city, populations are more dense and diverse, and there are a plethora of cultural, social, and economic options. The very structure of these places makes it easier to be a part of a community larger than oneself.

Yet, the temptation to romanticize both city and country is strong. Community still takes work. Cities can price out the poor, reinforce racial and class divisions, and promote individualistic consumer ideals. And the burgeoning return to farming presents its own challenges to community-building. (Not to mention, it’s really hard work.) Suburbs remain intact and seem unlikely to diminish in significance, and they too contain vibrant neighborhoods.

Though the quest for thriving encompasses all places, including the suburbs, the return to town and country reminds us that where we live can just as much affect who we are.

Stephen Assink manages and curates Common Place. He is a member of the Principle Investigator Team for the Thriving Cities Project

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The Millennials Are Coming, But Who Cares?

Ready or not, 80 million millennials are coming. Born between 1980 and 2000, the largest generation in American history is leaving home (or moving back in), and everyone is watching.

For some time now, cultural commentators across the web have been intent on understanding the inner life of millennials, however harrowing that might be. Through stories on their engagement with technology or work, the goal of most articles has been to predict Generation Y’s future impact. In fact, there have even been stories about stories on millennials. (With all the attention that millennials are garnering, I can see why, as one myself, some would label us narcissists.)


Through it all, one notable conversation follows the movement of millennials back to cities, a trend that has already received a great deal of press over the past year. Recently, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times discussed a new report by City Observatory that highlights this urban migration:

As young people continue to spurn the suburbs for urban living, more of them are moving to the very heart of cities — even in economically troubled places like Buffalo and Cleveland. The number of college-educated people age 25 to 34 living within three miles of city centers has surged, up 37 percent since 2000, even as the total population of these neighborhoods has slightly shrunk.

Depending on the perspective, commentary varies on the social implications. Some fear for the displacement of the urban poor through gentrification. Others worry that this shift will mark the last gasp in the protracted death of the small town. Transportation experts wonder if the millennials’ lack of interest in driving means the death of the car culture. Yet the bulk of the dialogue centers on the potential economic boom in the form of innovative products, new business, and the consumer power that millennials could bring to their cities. Again Miller:

“There is a very strong track record of places that attract talent becoming places of long-term success,” said Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and author of “Triumph of the City.” “The most successful economic development policy is to attract and retain smart people and then get out of their way.” For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city, such as for waiters, carpenters, doctors, architects and teachers.

Following Richard’s Florida’s creative class argument, cities are encouraged to do what they can to attract young people to neighborhoods by providing amenities such as coffee shops, bars, bookstores, restaurants, organic grocery stores, condos, and even new forms of transportation. Or as The Atlantic’s Citylab puts it, cities should aim to look like Brooklyn.

Certainly, part of a city’s attractiveness are its cultural offerings, and capitalizing on them makes economic sense. Yet, focusing on Generation Y’s consumption patterns biases the conversation. First, the millennials that cities want are primarily understood as educated, mobile consumers with ample disposable income. They are not to be confused with Jen Silva’s working class young adults who are often jobless, isolated, and nominally educated—a group that does not fit neatly into the prevailing economic narrative surrounding urban revival.

Second, the urban condition largely becomes a matter of lifestyle or taste, a habitation predicated on the individual’s drive for self-actualization. Cities themselves, as urban historian Lewis Mumford frames it, “become consumable, indeed expendable.” Catering to the wallets of urban millennials reinforces the notion that fulfillment is largely about gratification or self-actualization via commercial consumption. Robert Bellah in his book Habits of the Heart labeled this cultural motif as expressive individualism—the desire not for self-disciplined material acquisition but the endless experience of novelty and technological wizardry. Not surprisingly, experiences for millennials matter more than the typical American dream of a house in the suburbs.

Once the millennials have arrived, the challenge for city leaders is to find ways to engage these new denizens as citizens as much as consumers. Collectively tackling tough urban issues like broken schools, equitable access to healthy food, and growing inequality requires strong civic involvement. Historically, institutions such as churches, volunteer organizations, and business societies facilitated this action. But with the decline of religious affiliation and even volunteerism among the young, what institutions will fill in the gap?

Fortunately, the dynamism of cities can facilitate the remaking of social bonds and groups—a phenomenon explored here on Common Place—and, in general, millennials do possess tremendous energy, creativity, and a strong desire to help others. Yet, will those emerging bonds be created by consumerism and individual desires, as the current conversation seems to suggest, or will millennials coalesce around a commitment to place and the common good?

At the same time, we millennials will need to reckon with our own values and desires. Granted, we are known to be socially aware and more tolerant of other lifestyles, as fellow writer Hannah Seligson notes:

Millennials might care a great deal about their own happiness, but they also care about other people’s well-being—considerably more than previous generations did. We are far less homophobic, sexist, and racist than our parents and grandparents. We are the generation that played a critical role in electing the first African-American president, and most of us believe gay marriage is a right that shouldn’t be denied to same-sex couples. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, those under 30 are emerging to be the most colorblind in U.S. history—nine in 10 18- to 29-year-olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

Through my own experience, my peers often speak of our generation’s commitment to social justice and equity, and I do know many people my age doing great work. Yet can tolerance motivate us to assume the kind of long-term commitment that cities need to face their most pressing problems? We are, after all, the generation that is fueling the rise of a form of libertarianism that valorizes the individual above all.

Whether the demographic trends are good or bad, millennials are going to continue to flock to cities. Cities should be doing what they can to welcome and encourage us while preparing for the inevitable challenges. Significantly, they will need to figure out how to transform their new residents into an active citizenry.

Finally, as millennials join in on the urban dialogue happening across the country, we too will need assess our own commitments and make sure that all members of our generation— especially the ones stuck in broken systems—are included. Therefore, the pressing questions are not what we will buy or whether we will bring innovation, or even which cities will “win” the millennial sweepstakes. Rather, the most important question confronting us and our new communities is will we even care about them?

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