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Direct Action and the Urban Environment

The following essay was printed in ANARCHY 41: THE LAND (Vol. 4 No. 7) July 1964.

Since the Cuban crisis the international tensions, which in the past few years, made every demonstration of the Committee of 100 or CNVA, of immediate urgency to try to prevent a nuclear holocaust, have to a considerable degree relaxed. In the international game of “chicken” with the chips down, neither side was willing to push the button. As a political consequence, it is probable that we are seeing a major change in Europe, possibly including (according to Joseph Harsh in the Christian Science Monitor) disengagement, denuclearisation, and eventual unification of Germany, an easing of controls in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, as well as continuation of the process of destalinisation in Russia itself. As Harsh puts it, “as a result of England’s exclusion from the common market, we may see an end to the iron curtain in Europe, and this is all to the good.” Basically, however, the danger of war remains, even though it doesn’t appear so threatening. But in the coming period it may not be as easy to enlist people in demonstrations partly because there will not seem to be an immediate threat of impending crisis. Partly, however, it will because there has been a tendency in the C of 100 and CNVA demonstrations towards repetition or “ritualism” as Peace News puts it. These factors are causing a reappraisal of peace force strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, as a result of the decisive defeat of most “peace candidates” there is a growing realisation of the enormous task which faces us in order to lay the groundwork for any real political changes in the U.S. if not England and elsewhere. It is true that we have made a beginning in the World Peace Brigade to forge an instrument to help break down international barriers and create in embryo the alternative to armed international conflict. But we have a long, long road before us, and none of our efforts will be successful until we have found the keys with which to unite the needs and problems of the “ordinary citizen” at the local level to the national and international problems of peace. It is in the hope of trying to find some of these “keys” that I am making these suggestions for a strategy of action.  We must, eventually, begin to face more forthrightly the social and economic problems that surround us and find ways of utilising our knowledge of nonviolence to apply directly to these problems. Our preoccupation with crisis-oriented projects will only lead to our defeat in the long run if not in the short run.

A few years ago (1958) Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited about what he considers, aside from war itself (but directly related to it), to be the central problem of our time.

We know that for most people life in a large modern city is anonymous, atomic, less than fully human. Nevertheless, the huge cities grow huger and the pattern of urban-industrial living remains unchanged. We know that in a very large and complex society, democracy is almost meaningless except in relation to autonomous groups of manageable size; nevertheless more and more of every nation’s affairs are managed by the bureaucrats of Big Government and Big Business. It is only to evident that, in practice the problem of over-organisation is almost as hard to solve as the problem of over-population. In both cases we know what ought to be done, but in neither cases have we been able, as yet, to act effectively upon our knowledge.

Big cities, big governments, centralisation, over-organisation, over population, alienation, mass paranoia, mass schizophrenia, dictatorship based on mass psychology run like a refrain through Huxley, Fromm, Mumford, and many another critic describing modern man and his diseases, of which war may be said to be only the final result; lacking ability to solve his problems in any other way, man tries to end it all in an orgy of self-extermination.

In Mumford’s most recent book on the city (The City in History) he develops the thesis that war as an institution, essentially war as we know it, is a product of city culture, and was not known to man before city culture in Mesopotamia, approximately 3,000 years ago (in the perspective of evolution this is very recently). Mumford tries to show that the ritualistic “war”, or hunting of neolithic man and primitive tribes, bears little or no relationship to war as developed in city culture. City culture, especially in its decadent phases was closely related to a priesthood or “authority” with its accompanying magical power and divine rights (“They know better than we do”) which alone possessed the power and the control over its citizens to make mass participation in war and slaughter possible. This has remained down to this day. Mumford’s main point seems to be that until we can understand and control the city, to make it liveable, vital, and free from the fears which create insecurity and paranoia, we cannot expect to free ourselves from the institution of war, and the control it has over us.

Centralisation of power, and the accompanying loss (if he ever had it) of decision-making power of the “ordinary citizen”, is undoubtedly at the root of much of man’s social and psychological ills. We may, however, question some of the “answers” made by men like Huxley about such things as big cities, or over-population. (L. Mumford points out that a rise in the birth rate may be only a direct, if irrational, biological response of the species to the threat of biological extermination itself.

Almost all species react this way under a similar threat. “The answers”, which Huxley refers to in his last chapter under “What Can Be Done”, may be generally summarised as “de-centralisation” meaning, in large part, physical decentralisation of large cities. While most critics of modern civilisation would agree in general with this diagnosis, they might disagree as to degress (extreme decentralists like Borsodi and F. L. Wright on the one hand, or “regional city” decentralists like Mumford and Catherine Bauer on the other). But it has remained for Jane Jacobs (in Death and Life of Great American Cities) to dispel some of the myths and attack some of the assumptions which have associated freedom, and individual decision making power (democracy) with physical decentralisation on the one hand and dictatorship, arbitrary power, mass control with centralisation in big cities on the other hand. Some of this drive, of course, to decentralisation has resulted in the expansion of the suburbs—the pseudo-life of the city— and is the result of over-sentimentalism of nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. (“Even Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual rejection of cities of free artisans and merchants and his dream of an ideal republic of self-reliant yeomen—a pathetic dream for a good and great man whose land was tilled by slaves.”) “City air makes free” was the medieval saying when city air literally made free the runaway serf, and, says Mrs. Jacobs, “City air still makes free the runaway from the country towns, from plantations, from factory farms, from subsistance farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one class-suburbs.”

But it is on the central assumptions most de-centralists make where Mrs. Jacobs makes her heaviest attack. It is, she argues, not over concentration which causes the ills of the city, but rather under-concentration and under-diversification. Where cities are functioning best (as in Greenwich Village in NYC and in the north end of Boston) we find not only heavy concentration of population (as high as 900 per acre—most de-centralists recommend maximum around 80-100 per acre), but also a maximum of diversification of small business and industry, and a lively population participating in local government. It is, in fact, where cities are not working properly (where “erosion” sets in early) as in the dull, grey and monotonous suburbs, or pseudo-city, that the major malfunctioning diseases—high crime rate, paranoia, alienation, decay, etc.—develop. It is, then, not cities in themselves which are causing our problems, but what is wrong with cities and what we are trying to do about it that should concern us. Perhaps especially if we are concerned about the threat to ourselves, our children and the cities in particular which the bomb poses. It is illogical to fight against war itself and not against the crimes perpetrated against the peoples in cities.

“The will to order”, says Huxley, “can make tyrants out of those who merely aspire to clean up a mess. The beauty of tidiness is used as a justification for despotism.” In discussing city planning and rebuilding, Mrs. Jacobs says:

There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend—the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars—we would wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, grey belts that were yesterday’s and the day before yesterday’s suburbs; anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the tax problem.

But look what we have built with the first billions: Low-income projects that become worse centres of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness worse than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life, luxury housing projects that mitigate their insanity, or try to, with a rapid vulgarity. Cultural centres that are unable to support a good looking bookstore. Civic centres that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of a loitering place than others. Commercial centres that are lack luster imitations of standardised suburban chain store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenades. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

What is most significant about Mrs. Jacobs’ book is that through her insights, her diagnosis of what is wrong with cities, she clears the way for a practical attack on the problem in which every citizen has a role to play if he wants to. This is especially true when we see the possibilities of applying the techniques and understandings of nonviolence to this task. Moreover, it is probable that only if the ordinary citizen does play a vital role can the necessary changes take place. In fact, a citizens “ordinary citizens . . . have the advantages over planners” in understanding what needs to be done, because “planners have been trained and disciplined in deductive thinking” while what is needed is “inductive thinking”, based on every day observations which is what most citizens are accustomed to doing. This is why, as Mrs. Jacobs points out, often at board of estimate sessions in New York (and other cities) ordinary citizens “very plain people, including the poor, including the discriminated against, including the uneducated, reveal themselves momentarily as people with grains of greatness in them, and I do not speak sardonically. They tell with wisdom and often eloquence about things they know first hand from life. They speak with passion about concerns that are local but far from narrow.” The planners, officials, traffic commissioners “…know all about such protesters (who often come to meeting with signs and petitions): well meaning people, but in the nature of things, ‘ untrained’ in these problems, concerned with ‘ parochial interests’, unable to see the ‘ big picture’.” But it is these people who by their “very earnestness and directness of their reasoning about concrete and specific local effects is the key, I think, to rescuing cities from destruction by traffic” (as well as many other problems which plague cities).

For it is often these very people who are also the helpless victims of planned paternalism (whether in democratic U.S.A. or communist Russia) who are pushed aside and made to pay involuntary subsidies for “slum clearance” or “urban renewal”, etc. or forced to live in one of those monolithic slabs of homogeneous planning, where life becomes increasingly endangered as the crime rate increases, or to move to another slum, which in turn becomes increasingly worse with each depredation and added human increment. “Meantime, all the art and science of city planning are helpless to stem decay—and the spiritless-ness which precedes decay—in ever more massive swatches of cities.”

We can no longer ignore the fact that even if we are successful in preventing the bomb from blowing up the cities, our own policies will surely destroy the cities themselves. But what is more likely, if this process continues, is that the cities, like Samson, will pull down all of Western (if not Eastern) civilisation with them in a final orgy of extermination. Yet there is a way out if we can, as L. Mumford said recently, “Put the needs of human beings ahead of General Motors”, or the sterile dreams of planners (Russian, American or other).

It is disappointing that neither Huxley, Mumford, nor Mrs. Jacobs takes into account the potential of nonviolent action to effect the changes, and transformations they all speak of as being so crucially important. It is, however, perhaps understandable that intellectuals who see and analyse the problems most acutely do not always see the means needed to bring the transformation. It is most disappointing in the case of Huxley whose emphasis on the means and ends relationship should make him the most aware. For while all the methods and ideas mentioned by Huxley (in his chapter on “What Can be Done”, in Brave New World Revisited) are undoubtedly inadequate to cope with the extent of the problems he poses, by leaving out nonviolence— the Gandhian techniques and spirit—he leaves out the one idea capable of challenging and organising, all the latent forces needed to cope with these problems. Yet it is Mrs. Jacobs’ insights which have given us the tools, the concepts whereby we may apply the practical means of nonviolence.

It is obvious by this time that I am proposing that the peace movement in general and nonviolent action in particular should include in their agenda, in fact, make it a first priority, a constructive programme for revitilsation of cities. As I have tried to show it will not come about except through action by concerned citizens (planners and officials may be helpful but more often be opponents). And who is better equipped by the way of organisation, motivation, and understanding than members of the peace movement for the task of catalysing such a programme? If we will not, or cannot, who will? We have been search for the vital links, the keys, where we can join our insights and understandings to the needs and problems of the ordinary man, at the point where he feels threatened in an immediate way, since the threat of nuclear holocaust seems remote, abstract, hard for most men to understand. Is this not such a place, here in the city, where the threat cuts across class and race boundaries, but where the new danger is to produce new forms of solidified class, and race segregation, whether in the suburb (as a by-product) or in the “slum clearance” and “renewal” projects?

In our search for peace, we must begin, as Abbe Pierre said last summer in London, “a la bas”, with the poor, the helpless, the unprotected, not as social workers though they may be very helpful—but as peacemakers determined to right the wrongs, to redress the balance which gives Big Government, Big Business, Big Money, all the advantage over the individual, especially here in the city “slums” and blighted areas, where the automobile (“General Motors must come first”), and ignorance or callousness of official policy wreaks havoc, almost as destructive (though more insidious because it is less immediately apparent) as the bomb, itself.

What, then, are the specific tasks that need to be accomplished, and what is the strategy of action, which may be undertaken to accomplish these tasks?

First, then, a brief outline of the tasks and objectives which we should be seeking (I am indebted to Mrs. Jacobs for most of these). On the political and planning level:

  1. Re-districting of cities into viable political and social units and
  2. Analysis of districts and neighbourhoods, for needs, in terms of diversity, traffic, money, etc.

 

On the level where direct action techniques may most fruitfully be applied:

  1. Defence Against Automobiles, or attrition of Autos, as Mrs. Jacobs puts it.
  2. Defence of so-called “Slum Dwellers” in danger of eviction for ” slum Clearance “.
  3. Fighting the Blacklist of Banks.
  4. Defence Against Proposed Expressways, which may threaten vital community tissue and create new erosion.

Each city would, of course, have to work out its own strategy in terms of its needs, size, problems, and available personnel, but a coordinated effort on a regional level would make maximum use of available resources of people and money, and would permit maximum flexibility for strategy as well as co-ordination of information and ideas. At the political and planning level it would seem natural and appropriate to develop committees through the structures of Turn Toward Peace and political peace groups such as PAX. Special interest groups, some with professional skills might undertake the tasks of re-districting cities along the lines suggested by Mrs. Jacobs. In this task they might very well enlist the aid of official planners and planning commissions. Such districts, would not likely coincide with present districts, and would remain unofficial (although the long range of objective might be to encourage them in political re-organisation on horizontal lines). A kind of local “parallel government”, however, could be developed; community councils, and ad hoc committees to carry out specific functions. One such specific committee would work on Analysis of Neighbourhoods within the district, depending on local citizens for information and ideas to formulate proposals and underline needs. Such committees could be coordinated through local peace centres (Greenwich Village Peace Centre for instance, is an obvious and ideal location for this purpose, and undoubtedly is already performing this function to some degree). In large cities each district might eventually get its own peace centre. Such districts would, or should begin to have real political significance. The best illustration of this kind of development is the Back-of-the yards districts in Chicago, where essentially three men were responsible for developing a viable political unit out of the most depressed and hopeless district in Chicago. (See Saul Alinsky’s Revielle for Radicals.) In Mrs. Jacobs’ words ” the district’s power to get from city hall the municipal services, facilities, regulations, and exceptions to regulations it needs is regarded with considerable awe throughout Chicago. In short, the Back-of-the yards is no portion of the body politic to take on lightly or unthinkingly in a fight”. Let no one think that such a district is not a potential factor of great political significance.

But it is on the level of the possibilities of direct action which I wish to pay special attention. While, hopefully, such action would be coordinated through a peace centre and directly related to the suggestions or recommendations of unofficial planning committees, it would not depend on such prior developments, and might very well precede over-all organising, helping to catalise such organisation as a result of action, itself, just as sit-ins in the South preceded the over-all organisation of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee.

Let us examine, then, specific areas of action: Under Defence Against Automobiles, there is abundant opportunity for action. Here, as Mrs. Jacobs puts it, ” The conflict is real. There is no need to invent tactics artificially”. Pedestrian and car are in constant struggle. The general strategy is simple: reverse the present policy in most cities of improving traffic conditions (speed-up, one way streets, expressways, etc.). This policy is only creating a worse problem of erosion, more decay, etc. as more and more cars are dumped into the city.

In her chapter on this problem, Mrs. Jacobs argues persuasively for this reversal of present policies. She shows how it is, in fact, the continued increased invasion of the automobile which constancy worsens the cities’ problems. As every new expressway, every new widened street, every “improved” one way street system, and speeded up traffic light control system, is put into play our problem intensifies, becomes worse. What actually happens is that a cycle is set in motion which creates new problems as rapidly as the old ones are solved. For instance, each “improvement” encourages more cars to enter the city, and as this happens simultaneously other things happen. More cars require more parking space, which creates demands to tear down more old buildings to make room for them. Tearing down old buildings in turn usurps space for either businesses, people, residences, or small parks, all of which are needed by the city if it is to function properly. Cars do not contribute to the city, but usurp space needed for other purposes which cities need for diversification and intensity. Secondly, as more cars are used public transportation systems are not used, and this in turn discourages and reduces the use of these systems. Thus, the systems become worse in competition with the motor car, schedules are reduced, and as a result more people are encouraged to use the motor car because of the poor service. Thus the cycle goes on, the traffic gets worse again, new measures are required to “improve” traffic conditions, etc. One other point should be noted here. As the centre city becomes more and more usurped by the automobile, the resulting congestion and noise discourages local residence and more and more people flee to the suburb to avoid the confusion. They in turn, however, become commuters adopting the motor car and adding their part to the problem. The best illustration of the extreme result of this cycle is Los Angeles, where the process has reached the point of such congestion that the traffic commission is considering the use of helicopters to remove stalled cars from the expressways during rush hours, in order to relieve the hopeless tie-ups created. Los Angeles with the best system of expressways in the country, and the highest percentage of transport by car (95 per cent) has the worst traffic problem in the country, not to mention the worst smog problem, a byproduct of the automobile exhaust.

What, then, is the policy and programme to reverse this process: On the political and planning level a campaign to “defend the city against erosion by automobiles” could be instituted. Such a campaign could utilise all the conventional techniques and methods of education through mass media and advertising. By enlisting groups with strong vested interests in preserving and vitalising the centre city, money and support could be raised. Such a campaign would advocate use of public transportation (working to improve it at the same time), walking instead of riding, within the city (possibly even tieing in with President Kennedy’s physical fitness programme), and work to educate through discussion and public debate the reasons for such a programme. Coordinated with such a programme, but not necessarily dependent on it would be a programme group as those most vitally effected by traffic conditions. At first such action might be primarily symbolic, a dramatise and advertise the problem itself. This might take the form of sit-downs to prevent traffic from entering a certain district or street. (It is interesting to note how in C of 100’s demonstrations and Ross Flanagan’s action in Berkeley, where by sitting down in the street and stopping traffic this action was used to publicise opposition to nuclear war. Is it possible that we could combine the immediate pratical needs of cities with publicising the dangers of nuclear war by instituting such action projects?) Later the campaign, after unsuccessful negotiation with the city officials would begin prolonged direct action Satyagraha to effect changes where a reduction in traffic and greater freedom for pedestrians was vitally needed. A deliberate programme of blocking traffic would begin at strategic points with organised citizen groups setting up a self-appointed traffic corps. Mothers would be most likely for this job, especially where new children crossings are needed. We have already seen how often spontaneous demonstrations have developed, where due to speed of cars and other factors, mothers, often with baby carriages, have deliberately blocked traffic in order to get official traffic changes. This could be on a continuous organised basis. For instance, had the campaign to block Washington Square to traffic been unsuccessful at an official level, the community itself could have taken direct action to set up barricades manned by local people on a round the clock basis. Some might have been arrested, of course. (It is possible that in a campaign of this kind some of the young teenage people, including some of the “gangs” might be enlisted to protect their “turf” from the automobile, rather than the opposing gangs from the other “turfs.”)

Mrs. Jacobs suggests that where too wide streets exists (and too narrow sidewalks) that the sidewalks should be enlarged and the street narrowed. Again, if the street were blocked off for pedestrian use, it would be virtually the same result, even if the city were slow or unwilling to widen the sidewalks (local neighbourhoods might even widen their own sidewalks).

Mrs. Jacobs issues a word of warning here about the cities need for trucks. Trucks are needed to carry on commerce and help build the primary and secondary generators of diversity without which cities cannot survive, or remain healthy. A selective policy favouring trucks over cars is needed. For instance, some entire streets might be blocked to all traffic except local and trucks. In general, though this is a city-wide problem, requiring measures such as permitting use of ramps off crosstown expressways to be used by trucks only, thus forcing local traffic off expressways and encouraging through traffic only, except for trucks.

Many possibilities for direct action would open once a campaign could begin. Each instance of direct action would help advertise through the publicity received the general campaign. Although I have separated out the traffic problems as the focus of the campaign, this is only because it tends to be the most dramatic, ubiquitous, and obvious, of all the cities’ problems. In reality, the educational campaign would include an attack on all the many phases of city “unbuilding”. Direct action, as it might be applied to proposals for expressways which “eviscerate the city”, or slum clearance projects which only solidify all the factors (class segregation, single type dwellings, separation of residence and business, etc.) which created the slums in the first place, could include all the many techniques of nonviolence to dramatise the problem, and strengthen the spirit of resistance. Such techniques as: refusal to pay local taxes until a fair hearing has been held: mass sit-downs at city hall, or at the location and time of threatened evictions, etc. (Mothers have staged sit-downs in needed playground areas where contractors are supposed to begin demolition for city “renewal” or clearance projects.)

In this respect it is interesting to note the campaign in New York City which just ended in successfully preventing the Lower Manhattan Expressway from becoming a reality. This was reported by the Catholic Worker (February) which participated in the campaign. So far as I know, nonviolent techniques were not used in the campaign, but is it possible that a follow through on the campaign, as suggested in the article, might develop into an over-all approach to community, district, revitilisation, possibly using nonviolent techniques, if appropriate. The very success of this campaign is heartening and important. For in our struggle with the larger problem of war it is important to set out limited objectives, which are possible to attain, and which we see and understand as part of the long-range objectives. Such successes help to build our ranks and give us courage to move ahead. For here, at least some of the people have learned the important lesson “that it is not wise or necessary to let public authority do for them that which they can do for themselves” in the words of Father La Mountain, author of the article. If enough people can learn this lesson of how to solve their own problems, of how to defend themselves, we may well be on the way to nonviolent revolution, the removal of paranoiac fears, and the casting off of the need for violent “defence” on the part of the paternal state. But it is up to the pacifist to understand and articulate this relationship between short-range steps and long range goals.

In relation to the problem of “bank blacklists”, which means the blacklisting of large areas by districts by banks so that mortgage money is uniformily prevented from entering these districts (a process which creates slums in itself) it would be most profitable to study the example of the Back-of-the-Yards district in Chicago. Here, an effective threat of boycott of all the savings banks in the area, was successful in changing the minds of a number of local banks. As a result mortgage money became available and eventually the Back-ol’-the-Yards district was helped to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This single factor may be the most important one in preventing the creation of slums in the first place, and secondly in precipitating the forces which could begin to “unslum” many areas now rapidly decaying.

I wish to make myself very clear on one point. I am not suggesting that a drawn battle line should be set between planners, on the one hand, and local or district actionists on the other. Quite the contrary. This would be completely against the spirit of nonviolence. On the whole, the intentions of planning units and officials are good, and sincerely meant to be in the best interests of the local people. Their proposals must be carefully and sympathetically considered, even if rejected, and whenever possible a close working co-operation should be established between officials and non-official district groups. Strong co-operation and support on issues and planning proposals where agreement can be reached will increase the effectiveness of resistance when resistance is called for. A strong positive reinforces a strong negative and lends power to the whole movement. This is certainly part of the power of nonviolence. In the same way many positive and constructive steps may be taken independently by the neighbourhood and district, once it has begun to “flex it’s muscles”, and gain insight into its needs. For instance, local business and small manufacturing may be encouraged by the civic groups helping to obtain bank financing (where this is difficult), perhaps organising banks into pools, as insurance companies do, to underwrite risks, in the same way new housing or rehabilitation loans might be underwritten. Small neighbourhood public parks or “tot lots” might be planned by the districts and financed by raising money locally, after forming a corporation; not waiting on city action, and thereby using some small, unused and ugly piece of ground (Hyde Park neighbourhood in Chicago has been successful in this respect, especially before “urban renewal”).

On the political level the overall long-range objective would be to persuade planners, officials and citizens of the need to make far-reaching changes in thinking and in political structure, along lines of horizontal districts, rather than the confused vertical structure now almost universal (see Mrs. Jacobs’ chapter on “Governing and Planning Districts”). At the same time that such changes are being made it should be axiomatic that having demonstrated its practicality the nonviolent method would gain immensely in currency, as it has gained in the south (and north) in relationship to race segregation. It would be up to the peace movement as to how clearly such methods would be related to the problems of War and Peace, whether or not a vital connection will be made and the public moved a few more inches towards a nonviolent foreign policy at national level. Several factors are in our favour here and argue for the adoption of this approach simply as a strategy for political peace action, if for no other reasons:

  1.  We would be speaking to the heart of vital issues, on the local and daily level of people’s lives, It is these kind of issues which more often shape political issues and parties;
  2.  It is in the cities, especially in the north, where the peace movement is strongest and best organised for such a large undertaking;
  3.  Few will be against us, except the patricians who want to “wipe up the mess” in the city from their suburban heights (where they plan an alternative—the Bomb—in case other plans are unsuccessful;
  4. The city directly effects every man, woman, and child, especially through city centred mass culture and the struggle with the motor car which is sprawling suburbs spawn;
  5. Further, an attack on revitalising centre cities is also an attack on segregation in all its forms: First, by reversing the flight to the suburbs with their class, race, and religious segregation (winning the legal battle of school desegregation isn’t going to have much value as M. L. King pointed out recently, if at the same time suburb and housing segregation continues to reproduce school segregation in practice); and second by preventing vast areas of the city itself from becoming solidified in class segregation (which tends towards race segregation), and third, by unslumming the ghettoes themselves, developing income and race diversity.

Simultaneously, as a by-product of successfully halting the suburban sprawl, it would succeed in preventing the further devastation of vast areas of vitally needed farmland, and wildlife preserves.

Human beings, and cities, in particular, vitally need wild life and farmland within close proximity to provide, not only the farm products needed, but the sharply contrasting environment as a natural balance to the concentration and intensity of city life. In this fashion country side and city form a polarity increasing the vitality and meaningfulness of each—a mutual symbiosis. What human beings do not need is the pseudo-city found in suburban life with its rather “sentimental desire to toy, rather patronisingly, with some insipid, suburbanised shadow of nature” (Jacobs). Suburban life with its sterilised segregated pattern, free from contact with the noise and smell of industry, means raising children in the atmosphere of a matriarchial society, which in turn breeds its own evils, perhaps out of sheer boredom and ennui, in extremes of adult and teenage sexual debauchery and delinquency (the city may have its brothels but it was the suburb which created “wife swapping” parties). The highest crime rate in cities are areas which were yesterday’s suburbs. The dull, grey areas with their monotonous row, or single-family housing. These are the areas—neither genuinely city or country—which give the most problems, are the most difficult to digest into the complex life of the city itself. Today’s suburbs will be tomorrow’s headaches.

The suburbanised and semi-suburbanised messes we create in this way become despised by their own inhabitants tomorrow. These thin dispersions lack any reasonable degree of innate vitality, staying power, or inherent usefulness as settlements. Few of them, and these only the most expensive as a rule, hold their attraction much longer than a generation; then they begin to decay in the pattern of city grey areas. Thirty years from now we shall have accumulated new problems of blight and decay over acreages so immense that in comparison the present problems of the great cities grey belts will look piddling. Nor, however destructive, is this something which happens accidently or without the use of will. This is exactly what we as a society have willed to happen.” (Jacobs.)

In the late eighteenth century, as Mumford points out, along with the sentimentalist there was a healthy impulse to escape the disease and congestion of the city (“women and children first”), but in the motor car age it has become a rout to avoid facing either the complex problems of the city life or real rural life.

One final point while I am attacking suburbs: Historically, cities, centre cities, do not in general reproduce, biologically, as rapidly as rural or suburban areas it may relate more to simple boredom. At any rate, taken in combination with the tendency of all species to reproduce under threat of extinction (Mumford), suburban life may in large part account for the population explosion” (at least in U.S.A.).

At the same time that the city as a social invention is probably better adapted to our technological civilisation than it was to other less techncally developed civilisations, it is by virtue of the same technology that cities have been able virtually to eliminate their ancient enemy, disease. But most important for the first time in history, thanks also to recent studies in the life sciences, we are growing to a revolutionary understanding of the kind of problem a city is: “organised complexity.” With this new understanding we can now begin to analyse and see how a city really function. This is essentially what Mrs. Jacobs’ book is about. If at the same time we can apply our new understanding of nonviolent techniques as a means to bring new health for cities, real social and political transformations may take place, which, partly as a by-product, will eliminate the threat of war.

If for India with the vast majority of her population in villages, the most pressing need was a constructive programme to revitalise village life, for Western civilisation with the vast majority of its people in cities of 30,000 or more, is not the most pressing need a constructive programme to revitalise cities?

Publication By

Robert Swann

Robert (Bob) Swann was the founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, now the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. In 1974 E. F. Schumacher asked Robert Swann to start a sister organization to his own Intermediate Technology Development Group, but it was not until 1980, when prompted by Resurgence editor Satish Kumar, that Swann organized the E. F. … Continued

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Public Voice for Schumacher Center’s Sustainable Economic Policies
What is a Work of Art in the Age of a $120,000 Art Degree? “Entrepreneurs of the Self” in the New Economy