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C200: The City In History

2011 April 13
by Lewis Mumford

< Historic layers of Boston >

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 or 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 the city to the maternal, life-nurturing functions, the autonomous activities, the symbolic 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 and 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, and the color of love. That magnification of all the dimesnsions of life, through emotional communion, rational communication, techonological 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.

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Lewis Mumford pretty much invented the concept of the multidisciplinary interpretation of cities when he published The Culture of Cities in 1938. Twenty three years and 12 books later he published the classic The City in History, the last and third-to-last paragraphs of which are reprinted above (emphasis added). It says a lot about Mumford that he concludes his masterwork—widely recognized as one of the most influential books on cities ever written—by twice invoking the word “love.”

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