Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Read: Lewis Mumford on Narrow Streets, Wide Streets, and the Car

Several months ago, I excerpted a few passages from Jane Jacobs' work addressing street width.  As it turns out, one of her great antagonists had even more to say on the topic: not Robert Moses, but Lewis Mumford, whose scornfully-titled rebuttal to The Death and Life of Great American Cities came only a year after the publication of his own magnum opus, The City in History.

Mumford's own views on urbanism didn't fit neatly into any single category of his day, or ours.  While he abhorred the industrialized city, he was also a vocal opponent of sprawl; in the heyday of highway building, he singled out the interstates as the destroyers of cities; he wrote admiringly of the medieval town, yet the garden city forms he advocated bore little resemblance to 13th century Bruges or Siena.  His concern with congestion was in many ways a relic of the 19th century, yet his opposition to the effects of the car anticipated the 21st. His idealized conception of small town America, meanwhile, foreshadowed the rise of the New Urbanism in the early 1990s.

Still, like Jacobs, Mumford was a perceptive observer of the urban form, and even in a book covering some 5,000 years of urban history, few details eluded him. On the functional benefits of narrow streets, both in northern and southern climates, using what we might today call "original green" techniques:
"Not by accident did the medieval townsman, seeking protection against winter wind, avoid creating such cruel wind tunnels as the broad, straight street. The very narrowness of medieval streets made their outdoor activities more comfortable in winter. But likewise, in the south, the narrow street with broad overhangs protected the pedestrian against both rain and the sun's direct glare." p. 308
In response to Corbusier's derogatory reference to emergent street plans as the product of "donkey paths":
"Those who refer to the winding streets of such a town as mere tracings of the cowpath do not realize that the cow's habit of following contours usually produces a more economical and sensible layout on hilly sites than any inflexible system of straight streets." p. 301
Following a discussion of the relative space allotted for public buildings and streets in L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C., and observing the "absurd" ratio between the two, he noted:
"The other fact that redeemed L'Enfant's original plan, though it did not add to its beauty, was the filling up of the overload of wide streets with sufficient wheeled traffic to justify their existence: this came in only with the motor car. Though motor traffic has now caught up with the plan, clogging the most extravagant arteries, and hiding the verdure behind a wall of parked cars, Washington has proved a classic testing station for the question of whether a city dedicated wholeheartedly to traffic could sufficiently survive for any other purposes." p. 408
In the case of Washington, it was a test which was cut short when, some years later, the city cancelled the majority of its ambitious plans for a downtown freeway network and instead began the construction of Metro.

Finally, Mumford was one of the few writers of his time to note the "heroic materialist" aesthetic underlying the design of the streets of 19th century American cities:
"Even where overcrowding of the land did not exist – for example in many of the smaller towns of midland America – the broad street or avenue was valued as a symbol of progress: so that it was laid out with an amplitude that bore no functional relation to its present or its potential use. . . ." p. 427
Ultimately, Mumford's keen eye for urban details and his appreciation of the medieval city did not translate into a direct advocacy for anything resembling medieval urban form, which he apparently considered excessively dense. Still, the derided superblock, the setting for dozens of the garden-style housing projects that Mumford advocated, was with its approach toward the car perhaps more sensitively designed than the current historical narrative would have it.  Of all Mumford's observations, it is his identification of the car, or rather the prioritization the needs of the car in urban planning decisions, as the greatest long-term threat to the health of the city, that seems to resonate most strongly today.   

Related posts:
Jane Jacobs on Narrow Streets


  1. People like cars because cars provide freedom.

    Cities should not be jails.

    1. I have never felt more free that when I got rid of my car 2.5 years ago. It feels so good that I can live in a place (Center City Philly) with endless opportunity to freely move by foot or subway. If anything a car can trap you from the outside world. On foot my senses can take in the surroundings much better than you can in a car. Really, a car is a jail cell cutting you off from experiences and people.

    2. I'm not sure that Mumford (or Jane Jacobs for that matter) saw the car itself as the enemy, but rather the prioritization of cars above all else in designing towns and cities. Still, with car sharing and rentals, it can be possible to "have your cake and eat it too."

  2. Having to spend a sizable portion of my income to be able to go anywhere does not make me feel free.
    Knowing that people feel they can't be free without a form of technology that's only existed 100 years is depressing.

  3. I love having the freedom to sit in traffic for up to 10 hours a week. A couple weekends ago me and a friend drove our kids up to the mountains for some sledding. The entire rest of the city had the same idea. The result? A 1 hour drive there and a 5 hour traffic jam going back.

    So here's the thing: cars aren't the freedom so much as mobility is. And really, mobility is a means to an end: getting to interesting places. Proponents of traditional urbanism advocate for filling in cities with interesting places. In that regard, I have a car and live in a suburb . I consider the suburb a jail because I can't walk anywhere and the suburbs are cultural dead zones.

    But really we're just talking about different strokes for different folks. We have plenty of car suburbs for people like you, Cambias. I'd just like city planning and zoning policies to allow for some traditional urbanism for people like me.

    1. Great points, Vince. There is nothing about cars, though, that requires rigidly segregated uses -- rather, it's the use segregation that creates the requirement for a car. Oddly enough, the rise of both use segregation and widespread vehicle ownership occurred almost exactly at the same time (circa 1916-1926), which could make one suspect that it was the start of people driving to commercial establishments which led to calls for their exclusion from largely residential districts (really, not an irrational position to take).

  4. I forget who said it, but it's a very simple explanation of the situation.

    "Automobiles are great servants, but terrible masters."

  5. There's one problem with the freedom that comes from driving a car, which is that this freedom takes away an infinitesimal slice of freedom away from everyone else who also has a car, and now can't occupy the space that your car is occupying. If there are few other cars, then nobody really notices, but if there are a lot, then those infinitesimal slices start to add up, and the time you save by having a car has to be balanced against the time you waste for everyone else who has a car, since your car is now in their collective way.

    1. Not to mention the enormous cost of the resources consumed and damage wrought by car culture...

    2. I'd also add the psychological cost -- not only the disorders and traumas arising from crashes and crash injuries, which affect millions of people, but the cumulative effect of driving on stress levels and people's respect for others. From the windshield perspective, after all, every other motorist is a competitor or potential threat (drive defensively!), while pedestrians and bicyclists are mere obstacles.

  6. There are advantages and disadvantages of suburbs, especially when sprawl and overdevelopment increase traffic congestion with resulting smog and other air pollution. Human health is also negatively impacted by automobile dependency, heart disease and other ailments occur from reduced physical exercise. If there are greenways and wilderness areas people can have outdoor recreation without breathing in auto exhaust from being limited to roadsides. Most suburban politicians favor developers over protecting green spaces and thus the overcrowding reduces quality of life for all, including newcomers.