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Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region: The Politics of Planning

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Introduction I. Developing a Sense of Place 1. "The Old Order and the New" 2. Defining Regionalism 3. Community and Place 4. Organicism and Planning II. Undertaking a Vision 5. "Regions--to Live In" 6. Regional Planning as "Exploration" 7. "Dinosaur Cities" 8. Planned Decentralization: The Road Not Taken 9. The RPNY and the "Ideology of Power" 10. Place and Polity in the "Neotechnic" Era Conclusion: The Relevance of Ecological Regionalism
Lewis Mumford and the ecological region: the politics of planning. By MARK LUCCARELLI.
New York: Guilford Press, 1995. x, 230p. Bibliogr., ind. 23cm. (Critical Perspectives.) ISBN
1 57230 001 9. £19.95.
The late Lewis Mumford (1895-1992) remains a challenging subject for biographers. Mumford
wrote copiously during the course of a long career and tackled subjects that ranged across the
sciences and humanities. Above all, he saw things holistically. For some, that breadth has
presented an open invitation, freely appropriating Mumford's work to support writings about
almost any chosen subject or viewpoint. By contrast, relatively few texts manage to unpick the
individual strands of his thought without losing sight of the intellectual frameworks which gave
them meaning.
Mark Luccarelli's Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region, however, successfully
achieves that task. Its contents, divided chronologically into three parts, trace the development
and continuing pertinence of Mumford's ecologically-informed thinking on regionalism. The
first part sketches the origins of his vision of America as a republic of regions `whose
geographic diversity was consonant with the American ideal of decentralized democracy' (p.2).
Mumford neither rejected the city nor demanded the abandonment of technology, but advocated
harnessing new technologies, especially electricity and the car, to restructure metropolitan
regions. The creation of regions based on more compact and integrated communities could help
to change society's relationship with nature and might promote cultural revival through
revivifying the American civic tradition of democratic participation.
The second section examines Mumford's attempts to promote this vision through the
Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), which he helped establish in 1923. Faced
with the inertia of public authorities towards metropolitan growth and the spread of suburbia, the
RPAA campaigned for managed decentralisation, planned `regional cities', and regional
planning. Although associated with some landmark development schemes, notably at Sunnyside
and Radburn, the RPAA failed to convince the American public and policy-makers about the
value of planned decentralisation and regional planning.
The final section struggles to maintain continuity when tackling issues dating from 1930
onwards. It opens with an analysis of the debate between Mumford and Thomas Adams over
the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (1931), with Mumford refining ideas later
found in perhaps his finest book, The Culture of Cities (1938). The author then examines
Mumford's critique of postwar planning practice, providing an incisive review of his dispute
with Jane Jacobs over the latter's attack on visionary planning and analysis of the nature of city
life. The conclusion searches for the contemporary relevance of Mumford's regionalism,
claiming that it resonates with present-day concerns over urban ecological balance and
environmental survival.
Taken overall, this is a carefully-crafted and eminently readable book. Admittedly, it
proceeds within its own frame of reference. Luccarelli's grounding is in American studies and
planning history and these supply the supporting sources cited. Geographers, for example,
might blanche at a discussion of natural regions that contains no mention of geographical
literature. There is also little discussion of related environmental issues that might supply added
context to Mumford's thought. Yet, at the core of this book lies meticulous research and
well-substantiated historical argument. It provides an important addition to our understanding of
the work of one of the twentieth century's most significant urbanists.
JOHN R. GOLD
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