Erwin Gutkind

The expanding environment

(1953)

 



Note

A prescient view of the necessary transition from impersonal hierarchical cities to satisfactory federated communities.

Source: The expanding environment. The end of cities, the rise of communities, London 1953.

 


 

Introduction

Just as the spiritual anxieties of man are torn between the uncompromising truth of religion and the ready adaptability of the Church, his worldly quest for protection and social attachment is divided between the immediate reality of a community and the vague irreality of the State. As long as the unit of the State, or for that matter of a tribe, a city-state, or a town, was small in scale and dense in structure, as long as State and Community were one, architecture and the design and building of cities grew out of a cultural unity of every day life and spontaneous certainty which were ever present and never artificial. But as soon as State and Community began to fall apart, the decline of creative spontaneity sets in till it disappears almost completely under the impact of the impersonal forces of a State which could not any longer be experienced directly. It had grown in scale and complexity to such a degree that it became a mere fiction — though a fiction in which most people believe rather uncritically and therefore the more sincerely. The present State has all the disadvantages of a tribal regime without the fertile integration of an original tribe. The old taboos which guaranteed social coherence and economic rationality in accordance with a particular stage of development are still alive to-day.

We drag them along like chains which fetter our spontaneity and retard a cultural revival.
The tribal State needs centralization. The essence of a nontribal society is decentralization and dispersal. Let us revert for a moment to Sir James Jean's suggestion that we are still very young, still living in our cradle or perhaps just beginning to move about in our play-pen and to try to stand erect by holding fast to the railings. It is precisely this intermediate stage between the utmost dependence on others and the very beginning of independent and individual movements which is also characteristic of our relation to the State. A growing number of people become conscious of their own individuality but are still too deeply attached to the old tribal habits and customs of thinking and acting, to evolve an independent mode of behaviour, not as mere non-conformists but as stimulating members of a non-tribal society.

It is a long way from the early and rudimentary beginnings of the national State. It leads from the kingdoms of Egypt and BabyIon resembling royal domains to the Greek city-states with their deliberately limited size; to the clearly defined entities of the cities and towns within the framework of the Roman Empire; to the small-scale towns of the Middle Ages, the narrow and yet eventful world of the burghers. It leads in the Renaissance to the small principalities competing with each other for the primacy of cultural perfection, and in the Baroque to the rise of National States with their identification of King and State, to the l'Etat c'est Moi doctrine, till it ends in the uncreative State of modem times with the Crown as a sort of impersonal appendix of the State and with its feeble ostentatiousness and purposeless ado in all matters of art.

The transition from a disorganized society to organic communities within a functional State will involve profound changes. It will be a human revolution smashing the already crumbling crust of conventional thoughts and penetrating to the deepest layers of our personality. It will free creative forces which were buried under mountains of frustration and repression. It will be of infinitely greater consequence than any previous revolution in the religious, political, industrial, or even in the social sphere. Man will learn that to rely on himself and to "stand alone" without the levelling and deadening embrace of group bondage under the names of patriotism, nationalism, professional interest, and the like, does not mean isolation but a new oneness with the world around him, a world which he has never experienced before. As long as he feels safe only within a group he will be haunted by fear of losing its support. He will be frightened by the prospect that his own responsibility will increase and confront him with an entirely unaccustomed situation if he ceases to be a full conformist. It is not loneliness which awaits him. It is merely a shifting of the ground on which he stands and from which he has developed. It is a new openness and a vitalized sensibility to values and things of which man has never dreamt before. It is a human atomization which will release forces of revival and imaginative reality. Only then will man be ready for new relationships and attachments. It is this which has found expression in one of Goethe's profoundest poems: As long as you have not this "die-and-become you are only a dismal visitor upon the gloomy earth".

The word History has a double sense. It is the recording of events and the events themselves. We are here concerned only with its first meaning, with History as, so to speak, the cookery-book of the past providing advice on all the raw materials and ingredients which the cooks, the historians, can use according to their own recipes and the taste of the time. Likewise Tradition stands for two interpretations different not so much in substance than in quality: for Tradition in depth and for Tradition of the surface, two aspects of the same problem which are more or less synonymous with subconscious and conscious tradition respectively. Subconscious tradition is like a never ending thread twisted together with the innumerable fibres of our being. It reaches down to the deepest layers, while conscious tradition resembles a tapestry woven of the narratives of recorded events of the past and hung up on the walls of the narrow passage through which life proceeds. The drudgery of existence would leave these walls bare to the eyes and senses of the many who without the bright and even without the dusty colours of the traditional canvas would feel lonely in a world that grows from day to day more and more impersonal and estranged from the asylum of cherished habits and customs.

Unfortunately, though naturally, this tradition of the surface is based on a reading of historical events which it would be wrong to say is distorted but which is certainly incomplete and is therefore a history of the surface. We can assess the background or the foreground of events and of the functional life of individuals and groups; we can trace by brilliant short-cuts and sympathetic identification the artistic emanations of mankind, even some of the oscillations of the spiritual life of man, but we cannot direct the spot-lights of our interpretation with any hope of completeness on the centre, on the very personal life of man.
The static conception which has so greatly influenced our ideas of historical development is also responsible for the wrong time-scale in the assessment of historical events. We think mostly of events as taking only a short time thus being either destructive or productive while in reality they carry the germs of both possibilities. This attitude is paralleled by our persistent refusal to think rather in generations than in years. Reckoned in years the known history of man seems to be very long, about 5,000 to 6,000 years, while on the "improved" time-scale it covers only 170 to 200 generations as the utmost. And even this should be put into the right perspective. Man has existed on earth for something like 300,000 years, that is for 10,000 generations. This time-scale brings us "down to earth" and also back to Sir James Jeans' babe that is three days old. With this time-scale a static conception of historical events and historical units is incompatible.

This old idea of a static balance has perhaps found its clearest conception in the cosmology of the Renaissance. God was the architect of the universe, and the universe was like a machine which He had set in motion. Now, a machine is — at least before the invention of moveable machines such as the motor car — a static entity whose movements are confined within its limited and not moveable body. This is the conception which Copernicus proclaimed. His universe was still finite bounded by the outer sphere of the fixed stars. The ideas which man had about the universe had a profound influence on all his artistic creations, on his notions of space and space-relations, and on his general attitude towards life in the present and history in the past. The modern conception of the universe is totally different from the old static-mechanical concept. As Sir James Jeans says in The Mysterious Universe: "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine ... The old dualism of mind and matter ... seems likely to disappear, not through matter becoming in any way more shadowy or insubstantial than heretofore, or through mind becoming resolved into a function of the working of matter, but through substantial matter resolving itself into a creation and manifestation of mind."

Can we have an objective history of the past? I think we cannot. It is impossible to re-live the past and to identify ourselves with past generations. There is nothing wrong with that as long as we look at the past, as it were, through synoptic spectacles and sufficiently detached. What is wrong, however, is our insistence on the shallow belief that History repeats itself, and that for this reason the past can teach us how to act. Just the opposite is the case. History never repeats itself. There are only superficially similar situations which appear to be similar if they are taken out of the configuration as a whole. But this is just what we are prone to do. If there is any sensible relationship at all between the past and the present, it lies in the fact that the past can teach us how not to act in the present. Were this not so, it would not be worth living, for it would mean that mankind is an unchangeable entity moving within the same narrowly limited orbit and just marking time. Glorification of the past as a source of positive guidance is sheer escapism and a true sign of a decaying civilization. It is an expression of diffidence, even of fear, and of our longing for a re-insurance against the uniqueness of our actions. We seek a retro-active affirmation for our alleged conformity with the usual standards of behaviour recognized by History. In fact we read History as a reversed utopia and try to live up to the Golden Past just as if it were an inspiring leader into the future.

Our time has been compared with the Dark Ages after the Downfall of the Roman Empire. Without objecting to this view I venture to suggest that our situation has also something in common with the dawn before the Renaissance. Then, as Anatole France describes it in The Revolt of the Angels: "during this time of great terror when Papists and Reformers rivalled one another in violence and cruelty, amidst all these scenes of torture, the mind of man was regaining strength and courage. Then a new order of things was born, then the great centuries came into being. Without publicly denying the God of their ancestors, men of intellect submitted to his mortal enemies, Science and Reason." The parallels, not only in the political field but also in the human sphere, with our own situation are striking. Just as then mankind is to-day at the beginning of an eruption into the wide open spaces of an only dimly divined world which is ready to unveil some of its still guarded secrets. Not the least of these gifts will be our growing insight into the oneness of the universe and of this little world of ours. The coming age will witness the decline and finally the disappearance of Church, State and Tradition. Already to-day those who have the will and the independence to see without the blinkers of conformity and generalities, are aware that the role of these parental guides is nearing its end.

 

The End of Cities

What is it that attracts people to cities? In present conditions it is, broadly speaking, work, wages, social contact and entertainment. But it is very likely that the main incentive is a subconscious craving for social conformity. Because the Smiths and the Browns are living in a city, the Johnsons cannot possibly stay behind, thus admitting tacitly a certain social inferiority and a lack of smartness in managing their life. Not much thinking is involved in this decision. It is rather a rationalization of emotional urges which takes place after the decision has been made subconsciously. These observations must not be taken as a defence of rural and small town dullness or of life as it is now in small towns or in the country in general. No real cure is possible of the isolation and narrowness of the masses in rural areas, in towns and cities before fundamental changes in our social conceptions and institutions have grown so strong that they revolutionize the physical environment and wipe out the antagonism between town and country. It is simply not true that life in cities is less "isolated" than in the country. It is merely another sort of isolation. In the cities this isolation, this human desert is superficially hidden by the agitation and variety on the surface; and in the country by the rhythm of nature imposing a rigid equality of life in time and space upon the members of a rural community.

It is an illusion, and a very dangerous one at that, to think of our cities as something that cannot be changed fundamentally, as something that can be transformed on the surface and reformed in detail. We fail to understand that cities are themselves mere details, that regions and countries, continents and the world are the realistic units of man's living space. The present structure of our cities has developed during the life-time of the last five to six generations. The forces which before this time have made cities and have given them their physical shape have died away. To-day cities are vehicles for certain functions working through a number of institutions which possess all the characteristics of a lifeless organization catering for economic needs but none of a life-centred organism grown out and taking care of social aspirations and values. Most of our institutions are like the dry bed of a river which has changed its course or has completely disappeared. One example may stand for many others. Why do business men, especially those of the higher categories, the so-called captains of industry and banking, believe that their offices be close together? Practical considerations cannot possibly play a decisive role, for in reality most of them sit the whole day clustered in their office without seeing their opposite numbers from other offices.

This belief in the indispensability of proximity has been lingering on from medieval times when life proceeded more leisurely, more through personal contacts and on a pedestrian scale. To-day all this has changed: time is money, and as money is the god of a devoted business man he must worship it without losing too much time. Life has become impersonal and hectic. The pedestrian scale has been superseded by the scale of the motor car, the telephone, and the post. The spirit of the guilds with their personal relationship has given way to the rationalism of large scale organizations. The factories which produce the goods that are administered in the clusters of offices are far away. The money accumulated in and redistributed from the cities runs through the smallest channels to all parts of the country. A small number of enterprises have understood this development and moved out from the crowded urban centres without any disadvantage to the conduct of their affairs. This tendency is slowly growing but it is still unsystematic and dependent on individual decisions which may produce unfavourable effects in the new places to which the business has been moved because an over-all guidance is lacking. Without planning on a national scale no sound balance between individual communities can be expected, and no social integration can result. The motive power behind these moves is purely economic. Even if the State tries to regulate the redistribution of industry and commercial offices it does so only in a preventive way marking out districts and towns to which factories or offices should not be moved. In any case social considerations cannot play any role; social integration cannot be created to order, not even economic coherence.
...

Cities have been the prime movers of change and expansion all over the world. Now a further expansion of one civilization at the cost of others is impossible. The material and ideal frontiers have been reached as far as the individual political units are concerned. This end means also the end of our old conception of the City. Practically all reasons for urban concentrations which have been instrumental in the past are disappearing. They are dissolving under the impact of new forces which though still fluid are yet powerful enough to disintegrate the old structure. This has become especially evident after the war. There is not one single part of the world which is not in a state of violent transformation. Victory is a curse for a society that has no new and clearly defined social objectives. It burdens it with the unbearable, with the fulfilment of expectations which are platitudinously raised during the war and which are by now in many cases out of date. The war has destroyed something that did not exist in reality.

The End of Cities is not to be based on the cheap though possibly correct argument that in a future war cities cannot be defended, that they are in fact the most vulnerable objects, and that for this reason they must be decentralized. The material and above all the ideal structure of cities is crumbling. An era which has extended over thousands of years is drawing to its close, an era which has seen the slow but irresistible coalescence of civilizations and the ever increasing concentration of power, wealth, and knowledge in the cities; till to-day they are flowing over into the country spreading disorder and ugliness everywhere. They are like giant caravanserais in which the dispossessed proletariat of all classes meets, the professionalized and fractionalized nomads, the slaves of technology, and all those who are haunted by the fear to be not "up to date," to lose the non-existent social relationship and all the glamour of life without objectives and a deeper responsibility. Urban society is parochial in its outlook, self-centred and unaware of the possibility that most of its activities could be carried on anywhere. It is mobile physically but not enough functionally and intellectually. It can bridge oceans and countries in imagination but is unable to comprehend regional unity in its immediate neighbourhood. Cities as all-absorbing centres have passed the climax of their influence. It is a development that is parallel to the fate of the sovereign State. In a “state-less world” only “functional states” can exist. And within a “functional state” there is no room for “sovereign” cities. A general and mutual adaptation, an equalizing dispersal, and a diversified integration on a national and regional scale of what was formerly called urban and rural districts will take place. The centreless region is the final goal of development.

 

The Rise of Communities

The End of Cities means the Rise of Communities. It is a process which demands the most careful and far sighted co-ordination. The new structural unity will result in a free association of equally important communities and in a dismemberment of the metropolitan empires as well as in the abolition of the antagonism between town and country. A new landscape will emerge, a continuous green carpet interrupted by the small community units. The modernized idea of a green belt surrounding them like a city wall will be merged into the wider concept of limitation by a purposeful allocation of functions to every community. Just as the body cannot grow beyond a size which is compatible with and dependent on its internal organism, so the new communities will be restricted in their growth by forces working from within and not by an external confinement. Although the green belt is intended as a permanent limitation, there is not the least guarantee that it will not fall a victim to the spread of the towns when their unbalanced social and economic structure grows beyond the absorptive capacity for which they have been planned. And this will certainly happen, if the confused conditions of the present system are allowed to continue. Even the best laws can be repealed and, moreover, only an extremely small number of countries have thought at all of limiting the size of towns.

Regionalism is the result of functional spacing within a certain area. It is a process of gradual growth from inside this area; but it stretches out beyond the regional sphere towards other regions establishing manifold contacts with them. Regionalism is a unifying force co-ordinating consciously all activities which make up the life of a region. The following quotation from American Regionalism by Odum and Moore gives an excellent summary of the problem involved. "Regionalism takes into account the whole phenomenon of the new mobility of people, the migrations to and from cities, it comprehends movements to and from farms, providing technical ways for the reintegration of agrarian culture. . .. It points to the development of new frontiers of ... culture which may provide new centres of health and recreation, of opportunity of urban decentralization where surplus wealth may be expended or normal culture develop. . .. In the second place the region differs from mere locality or pure geographic area in that it is characterized not so much by boundary lines and actual limits, by extension from a centre, and by fringe or border margins which separate one area from another. A key attribute of the region is, therefore, that it must be a constituent unit in an aggregate whole or totality. Inherent in the region as opposed to the mere locality or the isolated section is the essence of unity of which it can exist only as a part. . .. In this more vital sense urbanism or metropolitanism is not regionalism in so far as urban centres seek their own ends regardless of relationship to other great centres or in opposition to national and rural ends."

The concept of a region should be determined, first of all, by social considerations. This postulate has not yet been accepted as the principal basis of regional planning. Professor Boas, the eminent American anthropologist, gives a clear critique of this previous phase of regionalism: "Political theories have also been built upon the assumption that single forces determine the course of cultural history. Most important among these are the theories of geographical and economic determinism. Geographical determinism means that geographical environment controls the development of culture; economic determinism that economic conditions of life shape all the manifestation of early culture and of complex civilization. It is easy to show that both theories ascribe an exaggerated importance to factors that do play an important part in the life of man but that are each only one of many determinant elements. The study of the cultural history of any particular area shows clearly that geographical conditions by themselves have no creative force and are certainly no absolute determinants of culture."

Functional spacing leads to two different though closely interdependent results: it assigns certain functions to every individual community thus giving it a special character; and it balances this distribution of functions among the individual settlements of the region. Regional integration embraces the whole life of a region. Social forces are the prime movers of the process. Economic factors are the buttresses giving stability to the former and guaranteeing their smooth working. In the social sphere an elastic framework of social services reaching every community and every citizen on an equal level must be developed so that home life, recreation, social intercourse and cultural activities find ever widening opportunities and increasing stimulation. In the economic sphere a similar framework must be devised for the provision of work, the distribution of goods and all material amenities over a network of public utility services bringing scientific and technical innovations within easy reach of every inhabitant of the region.

Planning a region is not a mere redistribution of what exists but an eminently formative task, namely that of initiating a greater productivity and a rational adaptation of the natural resources to man's needs. A simple example may be helpful. We move to a new house. The first thing we do is to adapt it in general to our personal taste and convenience. We will be brooding over the best use of the different rooms; each should fulfil its purpose efficiently and all together should form an integrated dwelling unit. The use of a number of rooms has been fixed from the very beginning; they correspond, as it were, to the natural resources of the region such as coal, water and fertile agricultural land. Here we will build up our "fixed industries" of cooking, washing, storing and so on. The main issue with which we are confronted is how we intend to arrange our life. Will we acquiesce in a household which is an economic and physical burden, or do we intend to make our social and intellectual interest the mainstay of our life? These and similar considerations will be foremost in our mind before we settle down to furnish the individual rooms — the different "communities" of the house. The furnishing of the rooms is in the main the equivalent of an allocation of functions to the individual communities of the region.

Systematic growth is another prerequisite of regional integration. It means the development of the constituent parts of a body, in this case the region, to their fullest capacity by the provision of the right vitamins as a natural source of energy in the form most rapidly absorbed and used by the body. Vitamins are, in this connection, the right quality and the right quantity of social and economic services. Favourable results can be expected only if every part of the "body" region is balanced to all the others and not impeded in its working. Consequently it is necessary to eliminate waste of resources, of time and space, and to eliminate all substances which have produced regional and local arteriosclerosis; and to increase the efficiency of services and the scope of consumption and life in general. The shift from emphasis on the needs of production to those of consumption is another result of this process. At present towns compete with each other because big and small business want an increase of population in their respective towns. The more people congregate the more money can be made; and the parish pump attitude is only the natural reaction under such conditions. The National Resources Board has explained this problem very well in the words: "The disintegrating effect produced by our economic system on the sense of regional community is shown by the attitude of small cities, which cluster around large metropolitan centres, towards such centres. Much of what is called urban-rural cleavage is really the traditional antagonism of the small town against the metropolis (Regional Planning: Pacific Northwest).

We cannot conclude these remarks without mentioning a theory which has still a hold over the mind of quite a few planners. The idea of this theory is that there is a hierarchy of settlements situated around the national or provincial capital in a declining order of importance. This is unfortunately true of the present structure of settlement. It is the last vestige of the Aristotelian hierarchy of different types in nature, of a classification according to a quantitative discrimination which has been maintained artificially and in contradiction to the needs of the inhabitants. A hierarchy of communities means in reality a hierarchy of standards of existence. On paper and to people who think in institutionalized types instead of in terms of human beings it may seem to be natural that there are different classes of settlements in a region graded according to size and function, and that on the basis of this hierarchical pattern social and economic services become thinner the lower the grade of the settlement. This gradation means in terms of actual life that by far the greater number of settlements of a region are excluded from a direct access to many important services. It means that people living in these lower-graded places are deprived of the full scope of self-expression and participation in the social life of the country. On paper this may produce a nice and neat pattern. But it is unrealistic. It has developed from a purely abstract conception of township and borough which are just as unreal as the idea of the State. What matters are the human beings living in these places. They are the sufferers, the forgotten men, excluded from the amenities and stimulating opportunities of a full life.

The hierarchical pattern belongs to the past, to an epoch when space and time were still two separate entities. It has grown out of topographical and socio-economic conditions which our age has made meaningless — or rather should have made obsolete. True regionalism is based on an equally efficient distribution of all social and economic services and opportunities among equally important community units. Either we have genuine and fully balanced communities of the same status everywhere or none at all. There is not one single valid reason for maintaining a gradation of settlement, if we want to free the whole population of a country from the fetters of a dull and disinterested exclusion from a full life. We must give up thinking in drawing-board patterns and administrative units. We must think instead of the living human beings who have everywhere the same right and who can have everywhere the same opportunities of participating in the manifold and adventurous march of events which life can offer.

 

The expanding environment

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution a transformation of environment has taken place which would have been thought unbelievable at the time of its beginning. Scale and intensity have grown at an unprecedented pace till this development has now involved the whole world. It has created a unity all over the planet which in reality is a unity of surface values and a conformity to disorder. It has been a revolution incomparably greater than any political revolution but it has failed to build the slip-ways on which social responsibility and social rehabilitation can reach the open sea of creative adventure. It has attained its highest technical development in the U.S.A. But glorification of a managerial class and idolatry of time-saving gadgets are not the harbingers of a new epoch. They are an end, not a beginning. To state this is not a counsel of despair. Our situation is unique. It has brought out into sharp relief the negative as well as the positive prospects. It has made terrifyingly clear that we cannot survive without a determined break with the past. Human values must be paramount and everything else must be subordinated to them.

NOT MECHANIZATION BUT HUMANIZATION TAKES COMMAND.

Technical progress will be the greater, the more exclusively it will be concentrated on the attainment of human happiness and social aspirations.

Even the driest philistines talk now about the Shrinking World. It is, however, not quite clear whether they resent or welcome it. Let us take this presentiment in any case as a hopeful sign, though a real understanding of what is going on may be rather vague. To-day the whole world is our unit of thinking and acting. It is one of the most exciting thoughts firing the imagination as never before that nothing can develop in isolation and that a revolution of environment in one country has reactions on the physical and social structure of all the others. The pace is quickening. The Industrial Revolution was carried through by five generations till it ended in the civilization of the present. There is no reason to doubt that the Social Revolution, the long over-due-counterpart of the Industrial Revolution, cannot be carried into effect by the next five generations. Around 1800 A.D. the population in most States was widely scattered over the country. The first trends towards urban concentration on a large scale were just beginning to take shape. Technology was still in its infancy. To-day the physical environment is totally different from what it was one hundred and fifty years ago. To-day the forces of social integration are still in their infancy while we have at our disposal a technical machinery to ensure their successful working, if we use it sensibly as a means but not as an end in itself. To-day the man-made environment and the mutual adaptation of Man and Nature are incompatible with even modest standards of adequacy. We are not sufficiently aware of this discrepancy because we got so used to our environment that we take it for granted and regard minor and unrelated changes as considerable improvements instead of as danger signals indicating the inadequacy of the structure as a whole.

On the foregoing pages we have used, for want of a better word, the term regionalism. Regionalism in the usual sense has been restricted to the structural unity of more or less clearly defined regional units. The new regionalism is free from all limitations. It is a centre-less and limit-less conception. It is the equivalent of an expanding environment, expanding materially and ideally. It is more than a mere decentralization which proceeds always in relation to a centre. Hence its name. It is a dispersal, a scattering apart, and its final result will be the End of Cities and the Rise of Communities.

 


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