What is the city? How did it come into existence? What processes does it further: what functions does it perform: what purposes does it fulfill?
Lewis Mumford opens the first chapter of The City in History with these questions in 1961. I would like to repeat those questions today. The context for studying the city has changed in some dramatic ways since 1961.
The cold war has ended, the threat of nuclear annihilation exchanged with the threats of non-state based terrorism. The problem of the Post-historic Man seems now a little further away. The threat of technological innovation usurping human interest and scale transformed into a tension between the life affirming use of technology to share and create against the oppressive use of technology to limit and destroy. Globalization has been manifested as a shift of manufacturing to the East, a rise of consumerism in developing nations, and the firm institution of infrastructural cities. Environmental concerns have emphasized a renewed interest in the city as a solution to human excesses, but not without significant opposition. And the rural-urban division may be more divided along political lines than ever before.
Like Mumford, we still use the idea of “open cities” to mean positive urban conditions for a creative and thriving society. Only, today we emphasize the plumbing of access to information.
What are the forces at play upon the city today? While we cannot claim absolute control over the development of the city, neither do I believe we must be reconciled to being mere observers of the changes that take place. What happens here affects us. What happened we’ve affected. Perhaps it is the internet or a change in discourse or values, but living in the city has made me realize that what we build, do, consume, acquire is of consequence. I cannot extricate myself of the violence of being(,) of the city, but I can devote myself to the pursuit of a better order – at least in protest or projection.
In that pursuit is an earnest need to understand material changes within the city. For the material we use to build the city is also the material we use to stabilize a sense of ourselves. Information technology gives us the opportunity to pack and unpack, reveal and cover matter with great flexibility and potential. Exploring, cataloging, and dreaming what we can do with these changes is where I will begin.
Commitment to a better order – an order not yet – means devoting oneself to the development of our deepest humanity (as Mumford put it). We cannot say that what we have done is good. But I would like to be thrilled by what we have made, proud of whom we did it with, and honest about how we did it. So that, at the very least, our earnestness makes the way and space toward an even higher unrealized potential for ourselves, for our children, and for others. And so to focus – to reset – to build – to …
… get a sufficient perspective upon the immediate tasks of the moment, I purpose to go back to the beginnings of the city. We need a new image of order, which shall include the organic and personal, and eventually embrace all the offices and functions of man. Only if we can project that image shall we be able to find a new form for the city.