Sunday, August 18, 2013

City Cycles: Utopian rises, Dystopian falls and the City's continued existence



Original Art from The Economist 
From the latest edition of the Economist:

Free Exchange | Down towns

The article begins with the following sentence: "When cities start to decline, economic diversity is the thing that can save them."

I agree with this premise, but there's more to a city than economic diversity. There's additional factors that contribute to economic diversity; cultural and aesthetic values that make a city's permanence long lasting.

I wrote a letter to The Economist to let them know my point of view:

Dear SIR, 
A city's revival and/or survival might not only be dependent on economic diversity, as your article suggests; it is also necessary for the humanistic component to be strongly present in order to make a metropolis an autonomous and productive settlement. Neglecting the aesthetic and cultural values inherent in cities and failing to promote them as such can give way to the gradual decline of any city. Detroit's fixation on its industrial prowess and its failure in achieving "economic fuel" from other sources quickly led to its demise. The California Gold Rush promoted the "California Dream", but that dream successfully graduated from gold to farming, filmmaking, technology and other pursuits. It was that same "Dream" that attracted thousands of immigrants to make California their home through the decades. 
While your article does an excellent job detailing the technical death of cities and its potential revival through hard facts, regarding economic diversity as the sole reason cities flourish is short-sighted: economic diversity is the product of properly motivated profit-seekers, but money is fungible and highly fickle - the way people live and experience a city, however, is much more permanent and long-lasting when the proper social and cultural factors are put in place. 
If this is wishy-washy or hard to fathom, just go and visit Paris for a day. Anyone with a soul will understand that there's much more to the city than its economic prowess.

Lewis Mumford's magnum opus "The City in History" backs this up.


Lewis Mumford 
The following are excerpt's from the book's last chapter, "Retrospect and Prospect":
"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. The positive functions of the city cannot be performed without creating new institutional arrangements, capable of coping with the vast energies modern man now commands: arrangements just as bold as those originally transformed the overgrown village and its stronghold into the nucleated, highly organized city." 
"We must now conceive the city, accordingly, not primarily as a place of business or government, but as an essential organ for expressing and actualizing the new human personality - that of 'One World Man.' The Greek and barbarian, of citizen and foreigner, can no longer be maintained: for communication, the entire planet is becoming a village; and as a result, the smallest neighborhood or precint must be planned as a working model of the larger world. Now it is not the will of a single deified ruler, but the individual and corporate will of its citizens, aiming at self-knowledge, self-government, and self-actualization, that must be embodied in the city. Not industry but education will be the center of their activities; and every process and function will be evaluated and approved just to the extent that it furthers human development, whilst the city itself provides a vivid theater for the spontaneous encounters and challenges and embraces of daily life." 
"As we have seen, the city has undergone many changes during the last five thousand years; and further changes are doubtless in store. But the innovations that beckon urgently are not in the extension and perfection of physical equipment: still less in multiplying automatic electronic devices for dispersing into formless sub-urban dust the remaining organs of culture. Just the contrary: significant improvements will come only through applying art and thought to the city's central human concerns, with a fresh dedication to the cosmic and ecological processes that enfold all being. We must restore to the city the maternal, life-nurturing functions, the autonomous activities, the symbiotic associations that have long been neglected or suppressed. For the city should be an organ of love; and the best economy of cities is the care and culture of men." 
"The final mission of the city is to further man's conscious participation in the cosmic and historic process. Through its own complex and enduring structure, the city vastly augments man's ability to interpret these processes and take an active, formative part in them, so that every phase of the drama it stages shall have, to the highest degree possible, the illumination of consciousness, the stamp of purpose, the color of love. That magnification of all the dimensions of life, through emotional communion, rational communication, technological mastery, and above all, dramatic representation, has been the supreme office of the city in history. And it remains the chief reason for the city's continued existence."
The city is a constantly thriving collection of buildings and the people that inhabit them (to live, work or play), whose survival is threatened daily through population depletion/expansion, economic strife and other factors. 

Despite these threats, cities have always flourished.

To disconnect a city's economic vitality from its very human owners is to disregard the mechanics responsible for the machine's output.

Not recommended.