Lime-green background, black text. Outline of a cloverleaf highway.

The thing to note about Lewis Mumford is that above all else he’s a moral theorist. This observation changes his books from what might otherwise seem like mere catalogs of architectural mistakes into something much more vital. He observes societies’ moral rot — the two books of Mumford’s that I’ve read don’t document any other direction of moral change — through the way they build their cities. And there’s a lot to be said for this point of view. If, like Mumford, you believe that the city is a place where people come together to form a community that’s much greater than the individuals who comprise it, then we’re not just talking about beautiful or ugly buildings and congested or empty roads; we’re talking about nothing less than the structure of civilization itself.

Even if you accept this in principle, it’s hard not to perceive cities in much more limited terms; I’m certainly guilty of this in day-to-day life. A city is a place where lots of people happen to live together; they are, more or less, just places where commerce happens. Cities are where you can go to buy more-interesting foods and expensive coffees. They’re where you go shopping. They’re where some beautiful homes are. At best they’re where you find gorgeous neighborhoods. That impoverishes much of the dialogue over the direction in which we should take our cities. On the one hand, these days, you very often have people arguing that home prices are too high, and that a necessary (but perhaps not sufficient!) way to solve this is to build more housing. I certainly make this point a lot, and I’m most familiar with it coming from Matt Yglesias.

On the other side you have people who make, to my eye, mostly incoherent arguments: the city is already too crowded (tell that to those who lived here in 1950, shortly before Mumford compiled this book); public services are already terrible, and more people will just make them worse (so improve the services!). Beneath this there may lurk the sort of moral argument that Mumford is making, but it doesn’t come out often enough.

I agree with some of Mumford’s proposed solutions, but I’m at least skeptical of the others. On the skeptical end of things: he believes that people shouldn’t live at densities of greater than 100 people per acre, which is about 64,000 people per square mile. I think you have to view this as a moral argument for it to really make sense: Mumford wonders, essentially, what the point of all this density is. Merely throwing people into a gigantic high-rise doesn’t create a community; those people may be just as isolated from one another as if they lived in the remote countryside. So along with all the housing, Mumford wants spaces where people can both ennoble themselves and enlarge their communities — parks, for instance. The appropriately designed park is healthy for the individual people in it, and gives them space to interact.

You can’t have a healthy park if the air is filled with fumes from automobiles; on this I couldn’t agree more with Mumford. I quote here one of many passages from Mumford that left me yelling, “Yes! This!”:

Like the railroad, again, the motorway has repeatedly taken possession of the most valuable recreation space the city possesses, not merely by thieving land once dedicated to park uses, but by cutting off easy access to the waterfront parks, and lowering their value for refreshment and repose by introducing the roar of traffic and the bad odor of exhausts, though both noise and carbon monoxide are inimical to health. Witness the shocking spoilage of the Charles River basin parks in Boston …

This, mind you, was written in 1958, 30 years after Helen Osborne Storrow donated $1,000,000 toward the beautification of the Esplanade and, while she was alive, objected to plans to build a road through it. It’s a cruel irony that a few years after she died, a road called Storrow Drive tore through that beautiful park. This is the sort of wanton destruction that Mumford observed just a few years later.

The automobile is the antithesis of the city that Mumford wants — the city that elevates the person. The automobile atomizes us, disconnects us as a society, pollutes our collective air, and frays our nerves as individuals. It has also slaughtered the American city. It may seem overwrought when Mumford puts automobiles in the same bucket as atomic weapons — which he does, repeatedly, throughout The Highway and the City. In fact he puts many of our society’s most destructive technologies and inclinations in that bucket. I believe he’s referring to something much greater than mere machinery when he discusses “the machine” or “technics”. He’s referring, I think, to the attitude of a society that finds one thing to optimize, then monomaniacally focuses on that one thing while destroying everything else; this is part of what Ernest Gellner referred to (not at all disparagingly) in Plough, Sword, and Book as the “single-stranded thinking” of post-Enlightenment rationalist thought. The Manhattan Project is the absurdly logical conclusion of that path; it is what results from committing 1 in every 250 dollars of national product to the task of efficient destruction. It is the engineer’s mindset made flesh: given this goal, this technology will get you there in the time allotted. Likewise, given the desire to move isolated individuals trapped in their private motorcars as fast as possible from point A to point B, this highway will do the job for you. Both of these ignore the broader world that they’ve created: a world in which the power to destroy all humanity lies anxiously in wait for someone to pull the trigger, or a world in which highways tear gashes through the city and still remain gridlocked.

Half of Mumford’s solution makes sense to me and half does not. The half that makes sense seems obvious to modern eyes: reduce drastically our dependence upon the automobile. Make our cities safe for pedestrians again. Resurrect our crumbling mass-transit systems. The half that doesn’t make sense centers on that 100-people-per-acre bit. In order to achieve that goal, he suggests — is forced to suggest — thinning out cities. They’d be thinned out, though, in a more-planned way than what we landed on in the U.S., namely moving people to car-dependent suburbs. Instead Mumford would have cities ringed by closely connected small towns, each with the parks and so forth that he views as so vital for the ennoblement of the person.

Here’s where he runs into Jane Jacobs; I had to revisit the index to Death and Life of Great American Cities to remind myself (if I ever knew it) that she and Mumford didn’t see eye to eye. Jacobs is basically an anarchist; she (and Jim Scott) believes that cities adopt the order that makes sense to them at the day-to-day street level. Based on what she’s seen of Moses and Haussmann, it’s only the eye of the planner, believing itself in command of greater intelligence than the grubby hordes, that views the city as chaotic and in need of rationalization. Sometimes the planner has the right idea — as when Mumford envisions a city with far fewer personal automobiles — but in some sense that’s accidental. The people, Jacobs would say, know what they need out of their city, and the planner merely imposes his own plan on their needs. Mumford would have to agree with at least part of this: anyone watching highways being erected throughout the United States in the 50s was witnessing planning run amok. On the other hand, Mumford had the sort of mind that envisioned a ring of green sub-cities; his was the mind of a large-scale engineer.

(An economist — Ed Glaeser, say — would side with Jacobs, and would ask: if typical urban densities are so bad, then why do people keep crowding in? He would turn this same question toward, say, the favelas of Brazil as well: if the slums are so terrible, then why do people seem so eager to live there?)

Maybe that sort of large-scale engineering is necessary, though. The world that we inherited from Mumford’s generation is a world in which the cities and the suburbs work at cross purposes. The suburbs need the cities for the jobs and cultural amenities that are available there, while the suburbs and further-flung rural areas are where people from the city go when they want peace, quiet, and better schools. The structure of many American urban areas is a central city joined to the countryside by highways that drain all the city’s vitality. Merging an entire urban area so that everyone is rowing in the same direction makes a lot of sense.

It’s hard to think that far ahead when cities are fighting a rearguard action to correct for the mistakes of the past — mistakes that Mumford was already denouncing almost 60 years ago. Before I’d think about bringing the suburbs along with my plans, I’d want to correct a lot of things in actually-existing Boston: vastly improve the mass-transit system so that it befits a major American city; remove Storrow Drive or put it underground; do to the tangle of highways separating the South End from South Boston what we did to Interstate 93; do something to the Mass Pike gash through Boston (e.g., fill in all its air rights); remove the insane intersections that prevent the Emerald Necklace from being a completely walkable path through the city that we love. And that’s just the architecture, which is what Mumford focuses on. Then we’d have to talk about the schools.

There’s a lot to do and a lot of challenges. It’s unreasonable to expect that every word out of Mumford’s mouth would be directly applicable to the world we inhabit, but it’s shocking that so much of what he wrote foresaw the sad state we’re in today.