Utopia as a yardstick for the present
Lewis Mumford's utopian regionalism
9 minute read
This is the fourth part of a series on Lewis Mumford’s thought on the regional framework of civilization, and why reclaiming the regional scale is vital to address the multiple crises the world now faces. The first part is here. The second part is here. The third part is here.
Utopian visions as engines for change
Lewis Mumford was a prolific writer. His collective works of 60 years fill approximately 2-1/2 feet on my bookshelves. In a way, they all flowed from his original book published in 1922, The Story of Utopias. Through his life’s writing, Mumford would pursue both the utopian possibilities of human existence and their dystopian counterpoints.
In surveying the history of utopian thinking, Mumford distinguished between utopias of escape and utopias of reconstruction. Viewing the trend toward dehumanizing gigantism emerging in modern times, Mumford conceived a utopian vision of regional decentralization where possibilities for living a fullness of human life could be reconstructed.
“Neither utopias of escape nor of reconstruction can be achieved, but the utopias of reconstruction provide a set of references against which society can evaluate its existing values and technology,” Thomas and Agatha Hughes explain. “Mumford did not hesitate to draw on his knowledge of utopias to conceptualize a utopian regionalism, not expecting that it would be realized, but using the utopian vision as a measuring rod of progress and as an idealized goal . . . Utopian visions were for him engines of change.”
Previous posts in this series have covered Mumford’s view of the region as the framework of civilization, how the cojoined rise of the nation-state and capitalism obscured that reality, and how a more balanced life could be recovered by regional planning focusing growth in garden cities. A number of developments informed by the garden city concept were indeed created around the world, including Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, New York where Mumford lived. But they represent a smidgen of the metropolitan development that has taken place since Mumford and his peers began advancing the concept in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Certainly, the vision advanced by Ebenezer Howard, the progenitor of the garden cities movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and carried by Mumford and the Regional Planning Association of America which he co-founded (covered in Part 3), has not been realized. They envisioned coordinated development of the social city, a network of densely populated settlements around 30,000 each, every one providing the basic range of human needs with some offering specialized services. They would be separated by agricultural and recreational greenbelts, and linked by rapid public transit. Instead, many developments inspired by garden city thinking have been criticized as being little better than low-density suburban bedroom communities, devouring land, and promoting automobile use.
Mumford’s regionalism was one of those utopias never realized, but it can still offer a measuring rod for a reconstruction that is going to be needed, of both metropolitan areas and human settlement in general.
Planning for the region
“Regional planning sees that the depopulated countryside and the congested city are intimately related,” Mumford wrote. Those words ring even more true today than when he penned them many decades ago. People have crowded into metropolitan areas, while rural areas are even more drained of population. The backhanded joke on people seeking space in low-density suburbs is traffic jams on freeways and major arterials. There is no escaping the consequences of unbalanced development, particularly climate disruption brought on by land use organized around the car. A long-term reconstruction of suburban areas that re-creates dense, mixed-use centers linked by transit has started in small ways. It is going to have to be massive.
A dispersal of economic and cultural opportunities across the landscape will also be required. Many in rural areas and smaller cities have the sense that they are the left-behind “flyover people.” That is feeding today’s reactionary politics. Meanwhile, generations of investment of in buildings and infrastructure is rotting away. We can ill afford that in a resource-constrained world. Mumford saw great possibilities for more balanced development in the emerging communications technologies of his day. Today those potentials are at least an order of magnitude greater.
But to begin to realize such possibilities, it is necessary to understand why Mumford’s utopian regionalism fell short. What were the forces that drove toward the world we have today, of even more unbridled gigantism, of metropolitan areas where daily life is increasingly stressful, and rural regions which offer young people few incentives to stay? The reasons are civilization-deep, rooted in our culture and political-economic system. Overcoming them will indeed take some utopian thinking, at least as a measuring stick toward what might realistically be accomplished. The first step is to specify them.
Mumford conceived development driven by regional planning. “The task of regional planning, as concerns both the earth and cities, is to make the region ready to sustain the richest types of human culture and the fullest span of human life, offering a home to every type of character and disposition and human mood . . . ”
“Regional planning is the conscious direction and collective integration of all those activities which rest upon the use of the earth as site, as resource, as structure, as theater,” Mumford wrote. “To the extent that such activities are focused within definite regions, consciously delimited and utilized, the opportunities for effective coordination are increased. Hence, regional planning is a further stage in the more specialized or isolated processes of agriculture planning, industry planning, or city planning.”
The vested interest of metropolitan capital
Mumford contrasted his vision of regional planning with standard city and metropolitan planning. “The first different factor in regional planning is that it includes cities, villages, and permanent rural areas, considered as part of the regional complex. While metropolitan planning regards the surrounding open country as doomed to be swallowed up in the inevitable spread and increase of population, the regional planner seeks to preserve the balance between the agricultural and primeval background and the urban environment . . .”
The great obstacle to which Mumford pointed is the speculative value of land in a system of private ownership.
“Metropolitanism is in fact another form of land skinning. In the interests of urban growth, rising land values, opportunities for financial killings, it ignores the natural capacities of site and soil, and continues to spread a uniform urban layer over the countryside . . . the massing of population it creates tends to increase and bolster up financial values at the center.”
“The metropolis is a large and unwieldy unit: it represents an enormous vested interest of capital, and it necessarily will take no steps that are likely to displace the real and imaginary values that have been created. As the metropolis increases in magnitude, it becomes more and more committed to the mistakes of the past, even when they have become unbearable.”
Mumford’s words were prophetic. One thinks of sitting in maddening traffic jams and breathing smoggy air, the distance between home and work increased by housing costs, as rents and mortgages gouge out increasing chunks of income. Even in places that have adopted a modicum of land use planning that limits growth beyond certain boundaries, such as Oregon and Washington, standard assumptions of metropolitan growth grounded in financial gain still create such conditions.
Collective ownership of land
Mumford targeted the very system of private land ownership. “It is only in a capitalistic civilization that people have come lightly to believe that land may be bought and sold, divided up, monopolized, and speculated in like any other commodity.” He called for community ownership of land, with guaranteed security of tenure. “ . . . this is what makes possible continuity of use, encourages permanent improvements, permits long range investment of effort.”
“By owning the land, the community will dispense with the economically inert (that is, privileged and piratical) role of the private landlord . . . “ The community would then be able to capture the increased value created by common investments, which would themselves be made more practical. “Since regional communities are more permanent bodies than individual families or business organizations, they can undertake improvements of the land that the individual cannot wait for or hope to profit by.”
Today’s urban landscape evidences many of the vicissitudes of land held in a speculative context. Rising property values and taxes drive low- and moderate-income homeowners and renters from their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods densify, but lacking sufficient taxation to capture the increasing values, public investment in transportation is starved, especially mass transit. So congestion accelerates. Between increased land values and squeezed public resources, creating parks and greenspaces adequate to serve growing populations becomes ever more difficult. Standard urban planning can apply palliatives, such as affordable housing mandates on developers, or improvements in parks and transit. But conventional planning cannot keep up with the needs. It lacks the resources and powers.
“Without the decisive control that rests with collective ownership, in the hands of responsible public administrators, working for the common good, regional planning is an all but impossible task . . . “ “Modern civilization will not be able to use it collective energies and collective wisdom for the benefit of its members until the land goes back to the community . . “
Mumford noted that in Howard’s vision of the garden or social city, he “called attention to the fact that the growth of the city must be in the hands of a representative public authority, and that the best results could only be achieved if the authority had power to assemble and hold the land . . . “
While many of the Garden City models do indeed have forms of collective land covenants and even ownership, private land speculation is overwhelmingly the standard model of development. Mumford concluded, “The slowness of the garden city in taking root is due to the fact that it is, so to speak, the native form only for a co-operative and socially planned society . . . “
Drawing utopia to the present
Overall, the frustration of Mumford’s utopian regionalism, and the vision of the networked social city, derives from barriers created by institutional- and self-interest. They set up a structural inability to conceive and plan in terms of the common good and regional whole. We are far from a co-operative and socially planned society. Recent decades have instead been characterized by a market free-for-all.
But in so many ways, we are reaching the limits of the free market model. Increasing wealth inequity, the connected housing and transportation crises, the permanent economic depression gripping rural areas, growing great power tension driven by economic competition, and above all, the intensification of climate chaos, all speak to the need for more emphasis on the common good. We need to build models for considering the whole, and at the scale which they can be feasibly considered. Even if some aspects Mumford’s regionalism do indeed seem utopian, such as collective land ownership, its emphasis on regional planning that embraces the fullness of human existence is a yardstick by which we can measure our efforts.
Next, how can we draw Mumford’s utopian vision to the present day? With a warning based on past civilizations about what will happen if we continue our present course.
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 Thomas P. Hughes & Agatha C. Hughes, editors, Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990, p. 18
 Donald Miller, editor, The Lewis Mumford Reader, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986, p. 209
 Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1970, p. 336
Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 374
 Miller, p. 212
 Ibid, p. 215
 Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 327
 Ibid, p. 328
 Ibid, p. 329
 Ibid, p. 330
 Lewis Mumford, The City In History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1961, p. 521
 Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 401