In a time of breakdown, return to the region
The relevance of Lewis Mumford’s regional framework of civilization
This is the first part of a series on Lewis Mumford’s thought on the regional framework of civilization, and why it is vital to reclaim the regional scale to deal with the multiple crises the world now faces.
7 minute read
Rebuilding at the regional level
Lewis Mumford was one of the 20th Century’s most prominent public intellectuals, known for his deep analysis of the technology, cities, and how their development interplayed throughout history. He was the author of numerous books, the best known of which is The City in History. Mumford placed the city in a broader context, that of the region, which he regarded as the building block of human social existence. A self-described regionalist, Mumford asserted that civilization grew and developed in a regional framework. In a world and nation tending towards breakdown, we are going to need Mumford’s regionalist understandings to begin the long process of rebuilding that must take place over coming decades.
Today, an economy based on complex global interconnections is facing increasing shocks, vulnerable at critical points such as last year’s Suez Canal blockage, frayed by the pandemic, connections being snapped by war and the rise of great power competition. Economic insecurity is on the rise. At the national level, a federal government paralyzed by partisan warfare is increasingly incapable of addressing growing crises. With centrifugal tendencies intensifying, greater breakdowns are in sight.
The greatest of those crises, the onrushing tide of climate chaos, is causing increasing calamities which are stressing the capacity of social and natural systems to adapt and cope. For example, Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, is still far from recovered. Left unchecked, accelerating climate disruption will break those systems.
Anticipating a future of increased breakdown, we are going to need survival strategies that allow us to adapt and recover, strengthening our communities and drawing supply lines closer to home. For some survival means disaster prepping. But we as humans are social beings dependent on communities, so we must plan for survival on a community basis. The natural basis on which to do so is the region. The Raven will devote the next several posts to Lewis Mumford’s regionalism and its relevance to dealing with emerging crises.
Defining the region
“The geographer points out that mankind has not spread out in a formless undifferentiated mass, if only for the reason that the surface of the globe prevents this kind of diffusion,” Mumford wrote. “The major land masses divide naturally into smaller units, with special characteristics in the underlying geological structure, in the climate, and consequently in the soils and the vegetation and animal life and available mineral deposits. In each of these natural regions, certain modes of life have arisen in adaptation to the fundamental conditions.”
Mumford generally defined the region as an area from a major city through surrounding communities into the resource and wilderness hinterland. He used the metaphor created by his own mentor, Scottish urbanist Patrick Geddes, of the “valley section.” In his first book, The Story of Utopias, he discusses Plato’s vision of the ideal city, the Polis. Urbanist John L. Thomas quotes Mumford’s analysis, “Geographically speaking, the ideal commonwealth was a city-region; that is, a city surrounded by enough land to supply the greater part of food needed by its inhabitants . . . “ Then, Thomas writes, Mumford reveals his own intentions, “a plan for the regional reconstruction of the United States.” He quotes Mumford, a child above all of New York City.
“It is a mountainous region, this Greece, and within a short distance from mountain top to sea was compressed as many different kinds of agricultural and industrial life as one could single out in going down the Hudson Valley from the Adirondack Mountains to New York Harbor. As the basis for his ideal city, whether Plato knew it or not, he had an ‘ideal’ section of land in his mind – what the geographer calls the ‘valley section.’”
“ . . . balance and variety are the two concepts, in fact, that define a region of cultural settlement,” Mumford wrote in his 1938 classic, The Culture of Cities. “In conceiving a region, then, it is necessary to embrace a sufficient range of interests, and small enough to keep those interests in focus and make them a subject of direct collective action.”
Mumford did not see regions as standalone areas sufficient unto themselves. “Few cultures, unless isolated by insuperable barriers and numbed into submission by exceptional rigors of climate, have ever practiced anything like complete self-subsistence, or autarchy.” “ . . . regionalism implies an inter-regional framework: ultimately a world culture on every plane. Regionalism belongs, therefore, not to a sentimental past, but to a more realistic future . . . “
Regions, are in fact, the basic units through which the world is connected. “Real interests, real functions, real intercourse flow across (national boundaries): while the effective organs of concentration are not national states . . . but the regional city and the region.” “ . . . we must create a groundwork, in city, in region, in province, for the differentiating forces that are so necessary in such a worldwide system . . . which will foster, instead of trying to extirpate or standardize” unique regional cultures. In turn, those cultures are the seedbed for creative innovations that spread universally. Mumford cited the rise of psychoanalysis in Vienna and Zurich.
Highly conscious of the universalizing forces of technology, trade and ideas, Mumford wrote, “A regionalism that affected to ignore these forces would be absurd and stultifying, for the presence of universal agencies does not wipe out the realities of regional life: it merely unites them to a greater whole. One must create an identity, a center of one’s own, before one can have fruitful intercourse with other personalities. This is true, too, for the relations between regions.” “ . . . the region cannot engage in the necessary interchanges and intercourse with other regions until it possesses an integrated life, on its own solid foundations.” 
Space to reclaim democracy and community
That is a crucial point. The region is where we re-integrate and re-create a common life, the vital ground on which we can reclaim democratic life and communities. It is the space between us as individuals and increasingly vast state and corporate bureaucracies, massive standardizing institutions monopolizing action and awareness, before which we might as well be an “undifferentiated mass.” Though we have cities and states, even some metropolitan institutions, we lack the integrating force of the region. The in-between space of the region is denied the opportunity to develop “an integrated life, on its own solid foundations,” therefore neither can fully develop itself or a fruitful intercourse, political or cultural, with others.
Re-discovering who we are as democratic citizens requires rediscovering and exploring the vital turf of the region, especially as democracy is breaking down at national level and in many states, while globalized economics and politics are becoming increasingly turbulent and uncertain. The region provides the indispensable ground for re-centering our collective existence. The regional scale opens the way to rediscover a rich pattern of relationships now obscured and smothered by political and economic massification. It is here we can create an integral whole through which we can grow fruitful intercourse with other regions and the world as a whole. To fully experience our own agency as citizens in a democracy, and develop tools and systems to weather the storms that are coming, we need a venue and context, a stage on which to play. That stage is the region.
Next: How the rise of the nation-state obscured the region, here.
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 Donald Miller, editor, The Lewis Mumford Reader, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986, p. 210-11
 Thomas P. Hughes & Agatha C. Hughes, editors, Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990, p. 79-80
 Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1970, p. 314
 Ibid, p. 316
 Ibid, p. 366
 Ibid, p. 352
 Ibid, p. 371
 Miller p. 211
 Mumford, p. 369