Jane and Lewis

Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford were united on many urban issues, but could not agree on how best to humanize cities.

By David Cohen
Published May 05, 2006

Memorial tributes to Jane Jacobs, who died recently, have been unanimous in identifying The Death and Life of Great American Cities as her most important book.

DLGAC was also Jacobs' first book, published in 1961 and soon recognized as a work of major importance. Time has only magnified the book's reputation, especially among urban planners - ironically the targets of much of her scorn in the book.

However, amid the initial applause for DLGAC lurked an important dissenter: Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), the great historian of cities who, in the early 1960s, was at the height of his fame as an urban/architectural critic.

Mumford published a review of DLGAC in The New Yorker magazine derisively titled "Home Remedies for the Urban Cancer". Although he saw much in the book that he could agree with, Mumford summed it up as a "mingling of sense and sentimentality, mature judgements and schoolgirl howlers."

Jacobs seems not to have forgotten the review, even more than 40 years later. Her last book, Dark Age Ahead (2004) got in a brief but unmistakable dig at Mumford, saying he had written an "obtuse" foreword to a paperback edition of Medieval Cities by Henri Pirenne (p.178).

The Mumford-Jacobs differences could be the subject of a book. Here, I'll try to get at their essence.

Jacobs and Mumford were united in the in the late 1950s on many urban issues. Both strenuously fought the New York urban expressway builder Robert Moses; and each opposed the wanton destruction of the "urban renewal" wave that was then gaining momentum in American (and Canadian) cities.

Their differences had more to do with the cure for the urban plague.

As readers of DLGAC know, Jacobs believed the essence of urban form was "organized complexity." There was a sort of "unplanned casualness" at the core of urban life. She focused on the street - how to make it safer, how to enhance human contacts on it, how to make it a place for assimilating children. As for parks, squares and other "planned" urban forms, Jacobs expressed guarded skepticism at best.

In fact, her book attacks most attempts to envision new urban forms - eg., the City Beautiful movement, the Garden City promoted by the English journalist Ebenezer Howard, Radiant City promoted by the French architect Le Corbusier, and U.S. experiments like Sunnyside Gardens on Long Island, Radburn in New Jersey, and Chatham Village in Pittsburgh.

(City Beautiful ideas influenced several of Hamilton's most enduring public spaces and monuments, including John Lyle's magnificent High Level Bridge on York Boulevard. The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Hamilton Region Branch, will run a double-decker bus tour of "City Beautiful and John Lyle" on Sunday, June 4, at 2 PM. It will leave from the Dundurn National Historic Parking Lot at York Boulevard and Dundurn St. $15.)

Jacobs derisively summed up her distaste for these early 20th century attempts at enhanced urban design with the term "Radiant Garden City Beautiful".

Mumford was himself a critic of many attempts to beautify cities. But he also believed that order was preferable to disorder, that beauty was preferable to ugliness. He took particular umbrage with Jacob's treatment of the Garden City ideas of Ebenezer Howard. Jacobs saw the Garden City as the precursor of suburban sprawl.

For Mumford the Garden City wasn't without flaws but he saw it as an answer to the congestion and misery in late Victorian/Edwardian industrial cities in England and North America.

"It [was] a question of order versus disorder, of disciplined, or well-planned urban development versus a more haphazard, hit-or-miss approach," sums up Donald M. Miller Mumford's biographer and editor of The Lewis Mumford Reader (1986), where Mumford's review of DLGAC can be found.

Readers of DLGAC will recall that Jacobs begins her consideration of streets with a chapter entitlted The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety. Safety, especially in parks, is an abiding theme in her book.

Mumford accused Jacobs of being obsessed with criminal violence in the city while overlooking the true pathologies of the city - overgrowth, materialism, congestion and "insensate disorder" .

Furthermore, Mumford accused Jacobs of "aesthetic philistinism" - of not caring for planned open spaces and architecture. For him, London, Paris, and Rome were great cities because they have beautifully planned public squares and parks as well as great public architecture - cathedrals, city halls, museums, and so on.

On the question of sprawl, Mumford noted that by the early sixties the flight to the suburbs had been a "century old drift". It could not be blamed on Howard's Garden Cities.

A key difference between Mumford and Jacobs was on the question of walking in the city. For Jacobs, the existing street grids were the focus. She wanted shorter blocks, a greater mix of uses to enhance pedestrian activity.

Mumford was a proponent of the superblock - rebuilding cities on the basis of exclusive pedestrian areas separated from traffic. At first glance, this would appear to be a prescription for more Jackson Squares, "Plus 15's," and so on - urban forms that have proved disastrous in the Hammer. But Mumford had other models in mind, such as pedestrian-only enclaves in the centre of an increasing number of European cities.

In the Hammer, this could see, for example, King Street, from Wellington to Queen, being turned into a pedestrian enclave. A few years ago, an architectural charrette organized by the Hamilton Society of Architects suggested that Hughson St. in the core could be tuned into a pedestrian flea market.

But we instinctively turn away from such proposals. We've had enough of the "visionary". We are, like Jacobs, skeptical of planning even though planners are the key advisors to our politicians about how to develop our city.

We derisively say with her, "Radiant City Garden Beautiful"!

But what would Lewis Mumford say?

David Cohen is a freelance writer and a part-time teacher. He has worked as a journalist and a communications officer (promoting workplace health and safety). He served on the Dundas Town Council from 1991 to 1994.

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By Fireweed (anonymous) | Posted September 03, 2014 at 16:42:40

Re. the Conclusion: There's planning, and then there's planning. It's similar to the huge political issue today. There's government and then there's government. Bad (i.e. corporate dominated) government doesn't make all government bad.

One of Mumford's major views was "the fallacy of systems." He opposed neat and clean systems that didn't account for life's irrationalities and dilemmas. He favored ideals, but opposed utopianism (see essay in Interpretations and Forecasts," but the key idea is in an even later work). That is, at the end he saw utopianism as authoritarian, like the megamachine, (though he used the word differently, I think, in earlier work). Likewise, he saw city planning by a megamachine (Manhattan project) as something destined to fail (Urban Prospect). As I recall (City Development) Mumford wanted the planning process to include citizens in a gutsy, dramatic way, to avoid these kinds of problems.

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