January 19, 2018

Lewis Mumford’s Urbanism and the Problem of Environmental Modernity by Aaron Sachs

Abstract

This essay reconsiders the early career of Lewis Mumford and the assumption that modernity has been disastrous environmentally. Might it be possible to see Mumford, especially in his writings of the 1930s, as an early exemplar of green urbanism? Within environmental history, Mumford has been treated mostly as a regionalist—sometimes even as an opponent of the city. This essay argues that in fact his path toward ecological “balance” led directly through the city, not out of it. Indeed, he gives us access to modernity’s ambivalence and complexity by accompanying his trenchant critique of modern cities

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with a positive vision for how people might design and occupy urban spaces more sustainably. To rediscover Mumford is to reconsider the city not just as a site of erasure and hubristic “renewal” but also as a landscape full of what he called “remnants” and “persistents”; it is to rediscover modernity’s environmental possibilities, in line with current trends in urban ecology and design, and with the new momentum in urban environmental history to combine material and cultural perspectives.

by Aaron Sachs

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