Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On Wirth, "Urbanism as a Way of Life"

I’m not sure I realized, when I started reading this, that the article was from 1938. In any case, it is interesting to see how this conception of the “urban” has (and hasn’t) changed in the past 70 years.
Wirth begins with a warning not to pay too much attention to population, density or form of government when trying to determine what constitutes an “urban” environment. Although each of these is a factor, Wirth cautions that none by itself is sufficient to describe the many ways in which urban environments differ from their rural counterparts. People living in a small town near an urban center, for example, might exhibit more similarities to their urban neighbors than to small-town folks from farther away. (As an aside, I note that the Census Bureau at the time categorized a community of 2,500 or more to be “urban” – and that I learned while editing a law journal article this summer that the Census Bureau still uses that same number to distinguish urban from rural.)
In a nutshell, Wirth says that the state of being urban is not just these disjointed things, but “that cumulative accentuation of the characteristics distinctive of the mode of life which is associated with the growth of cities” – the disassociation from land and place that comes with a society where fewer people own land and more pay rent; the economic specialization that results from an economy in which one no longer does everything for oneself, but does a single thing over and over and over again; the demographic heterogeneity that is so rarely found in rural places.
Wirth also addresses the ways in which the characteristically “urban” lifestyle affects communication. At the individual level, a larger population means people have less connection with their immediate surroundings, such as the people in their neighborhood. Unable to communicate one-on-one, “it becomes necessary to communicate through indirect mediums and to articulate individual interests by a process of delegation.” Individuals have a harder time knowing their place in the grand scheme of the city, which makes it harder for them to analyze complex issues.
Although some of Wirth’s language is clearly outdated (one sign of heterogeneity in his cities was the presence of more “Negroes”), and his statistics seem almost quaint (a world population of 1.8 billion, with about 70 percent living in urban environments), his description of the landscape and of how to think about it still resonates.

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