Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Architecture critic and historian Lewis Mumford argued that growing cities and suburban development in the postwar United States would lead to a dehumanized population and to poor health.

Summary of Event

During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Lewis Mumford, who earlier had written twelve books on architecture, urban planning, technology, and culture, published four books on the history of cities, the current state of cities, and the dangers of uncontrolled growth of cities and suburbs to both quality of life and preservation of the natural environment. These books were The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Prospects (1961), The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967), The Urban Prospect (1968), and The Myth of the Machine II: The Pentagon of Power (1970). Mumford also advanced his ideas in articles, speaking engagements, and classroom lectures. City in History, The (Mumford) Myth of the Machine, The (Mumford) Urban Prospect, The (Mumford) Myth of the Machine II, The (Mumford)[Myth of the Machine 02] Urbanization;environmental impact [kw]Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities (1960’s) [kw]Dangers of Growing Cities, Mumford Warns of the (1960’s) [kw]Cities, Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing (1960’s) City in History, The (Mumford) Myth of the Machine, The (Mumford) Urban Prospect, The (Mumford) Myth of the Machine II, The (Mumford)[Myth of the Machine 02] Urbanization;environmental impact [g]North America;1960’s: Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities[06310] [g]United States;1960’s: Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities[06310] [c]Environmental issues;1960’s: Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities[06310] [c]Economics;1960’s: Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities[06310] [c]Urban planning;1960’s: Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities[06310] Mumford, Lewis Geddes, Patrick Moses, Robert

Mumford’s interest in urban planning was primarily the result of spending his childhood and youth in New York City and observing the effects of early twentieth century urban development. He recognized that city life was enriched by its small neighborhoods in which people of diverse cultures formed communities, enjoyed access to museums and libraries and other cultural places, and had contact with nature in parks and the surrounding countryside.

Mumford credited his theories of urban planning and regional development largely to the influence of Patrick Geddes. Geddes was a Scottish scholar whose Cities in Evolution Cities in Evolution (Geddes) (1915) pioneered the study of cities in relation to their cultural evolution. Concerned about the uncontrolled development of densely populated cities, Geddes proposed the solution of garden cities and regional planning, which became a cornerstone of Mumford’s own theory, the concept of regional cities.

It was the post-World War II era, however—a time of increasingly crowded cities and widespread suburban development—that prompted Mumford to write his major cultural studies of the 1960’s: The City in History and the two-volume Myth of the Machine. These groundbreaking and massive interdisciplinary studies incorporated Mumford’s findings about the forces behind the evolution of cities of the past and the role of these forces in planning the cities of the future. As he reported and synthesized his data, Mumford seemed to leap intuitively to his conclusions.

Mumford determined that the ideal city balanced ecology, society, and the individual in an organic relationship. As a result, the ideal cities preserved the environment, created security and stability, promoted community cooperation, and supported individual development. The downfall of the ideal city was what Mumford called in The City in History the “myth of the machine.” This myth, he wrote, made all people accept without question two fallacies: the intrinsic goodness of technological progress and the ultimate beneficence of technological progress to human life. This myth had caused cities to take, over the course of time, ever larger forms—from village to city (polis) to metropolis to megalopolis.

At one time the ideal city existed. The medieval city was enclosed by walls but had internal openness. It was made up of diverse cultures in an appropriate density for communication and support and was centered by its cathedral structure. It related to surrounding agricultural spaces and other regional villages. Mumford proposed to plan again such well-proportioned cities, with their lively neighborhoods, central civic gathering places, museums and libraries for the individual’s cultural development, and access to nature and other regional cities. More important, the ideal city would provide an atmosphere that would develop heightened human consciousness. This heightened human consciousness would control technology in terms of humanistic values.

In the postwar years, Mumford saw the manifestation of the myth of the machine controlling urban and suburban growth in the form of the automobile Automobiles . The person behind the power of the automobile in the United States was Robert Moses, who, at the time, controlled urban planning and highway development in New York. Mumford objected to Moses’ intracity highway Highways projects, which in New York seemed willing to destroy anything in the name of facilitating vehicular travel. Moses’ road- and bridge-building activities literally demolished New York City’s local neighborhoods, places that embodied Mumford’s cherished values.

Moses and those who followed his example in other cities and states thought that they were solving the problems of congested roadways. Mumford predicted that the new roads would, in actuality, lead to an increased use of the vehicles for which they were constructed, resulting in the devastating displacement of the human communities in U.S. cities. Mumford also criticized highways built to move people from city jobs to suburban homes. These new living areas provided more access to natural areas, but there was no provision for the interaction of inhabitants; they lived in isolation, not community.

Another effect of the massive road-building projects throughout the United States in the 1960’s was manifested when Moses, New York State, and the federal government combined forces in replacing poorer people’s demolished houses with high-rise apartment buildings. Their long corridors and mechanical elevators isolated people in their apartments rather than uniting them in communities. As the 1970’s and 1980’s progressed, contemporary cities grew more populated, city slums worsened, crime increased, and upper- and middle-class suburban areas multiplied.


The 1960’s, a time of political and social turmoil in the United States, were also the years of the greatest recognition of Mumford’s intellectual achievements. He became a figure of international reputation: His ideas matched the public and professional concern about the worsening condition of U.S. cities. Mumford’s cultural histories were impressive in scholarship and insight.

Mumford’s impact on cities can be seen in the United States and Europe. In 1958, for example, he played an important role in keeping Moses’ proposed four-lane highway from destroying the pedestrian area of Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village. In cooperation with the citizens of the Washington Square neighborhood, Mumford was instrumental in causing Moses to change his plan and leave the historic New York City landmark and its community intact. As a result, Mumford has been credited with inspiring other communities to take public action against city government proposals, many of which have been successfully stopped or modified.

The reputation Mumford had attained as a city specialist was reflected by his being asked in 1967 to give testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Urban Renewal. In his testimony, Mumford argued against solving the problems of overcrowded cities by expending large amounts of money without taking time to do careful and long-range planning. He recorded his subcommittee testimony in The Urban Prospect and declared that his reasoning stemmed from the conviction that until the power of technology—the force of the myth of the machine—was controlled by humanistic values, no profitable urban development was possible. Such a shift in values, he acknowledged, would be a very slow process, for it required changing the attitude of every individual. Thus he urged that the government adopt short-term goals for the good of its citizens, specifically the improvement of sanitation, health facilities, and schools.

Finally, as seen in his testimony to the Senate subcommittee, he advocated massive changes in ideology, economy, and geography, work of such a magnitude that few would want to undertake it, even though they might agree with his analysis of the power of technology over humanity and its negative impact on human life. City in History, The (Mumford) Myth of the Machine, The (Mumford) Urban Prospect, The (Mumford) Myth of the Machine II, The (Mumford)[Myth of the Machine 02] Urbanization;environmental impact

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Casey Nelson. Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Considers the interaction of these emerging American cultural critics of the 1920’s, assessing the importance of their early ideas on the life of the individual and society. Discusses the origins of Mumford’s ideas of organicism and regionalism.
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    xlink:type="simple">Conrad, David R. Education for Transformation: Implications in Lewis Mumford’s Ecohumanism. Palm Springs, Calif.: ETC, 1976. Develops schematically the implications of Mumford’s philosophy for individual accomplishment of an ideal life, for use in educational theory and practice. This study clarifies the type of human development his ideal city would foster.
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    xlink:type="simple">DiMattio, Vincent, and Kenneth R. Stunkel. The Drawings and Watercolors of Lewis Mumford. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. Provides reprints of Mumford’s little-known collection of his own drawings and watercolors. Part of the Studies in Art History series.
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    xlink:type="simple">Fried, Lewis F. Makers of the City. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. Compares the urban development concerns and theories of Mumford, Jacob Reis, James T. Farrell, and Paul Goodman. Explains the similarities and differences between Mumford and these professional colleagues and critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Thomas P., and Agatha C. Hughes. Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Presents a series of critiques of Mumford’s theories and proposals for urban planning, organized around his attitudes toward cities over the course of his career. This text is useful for understanding several of Mumford’s key concepts in greater depth.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lewis Mumford Collection at Monmouth University Library. Provides a brief history of Mumford’s life and work, as well as digital images of his artwork. Best for examining Mumford’s drawings and watercolors. To access the collection, click on the Special Collections link.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Donald L. Lewis Mumford: A Life. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. Chronicles from Mumford’s private papers and professional and scholarly writing his personal life, career, and intellectual development. Thorough, accessible, and readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Lewis Mumford Reader. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. A collection of selected writings by Mumford, including “The City in Civilization” and “The Urban Prospect.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mumford, Lewis. Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York. Edited by Robert Wojtowicz. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. A popular collection of Mumford’s observations of New York City and everyday urban life.

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Categories: History