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Lewis Mumford was a humanistic intellectual, social and urban historian, urban planner, and journalist. Born on October 19, 1895, in Flushing, New York, he went on to take undergraduate courses in various subjects that interested him but never actually completed a university degree, being forced to abandon formal education after a diagnosis of tuberculosis. By the time of his death in Amenia, New York, on January 26, 1990, he had established himself and his school of thought, which examined urban morphology and city culture and experience in systematic terms-the city as a human environment and a living thing in its own right.
He began writing commentaries for numerous publications, among them The Dial. In 1919 he became an associate editor of that magazine, and the next year Mumford moved to London to work as acting editor of The Sociological Review, organ of the Sociological Society. While in England, he became acquainted with the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, including the garden city, and met the protagonists of the town planning movement. From 1931 to 1963, he became a critic on architecture for The New Yorker, writing the column “The Sky Line,” which was a platform to disseminate his views of urban and social processes.
He was very influenced by the work of Patrick Geddes, a biologist who produced innovative ideas in urban planning and the shaping of modern city that considered the social implications and the ecological integration of the city in the environment. Mumford corresponded extensively with Geddes and adopted the regional survey as a method to explore the city and understand its processes.
Mumford reflected on the shaping of the urban civilization and the role of technological changetechnics, in his words-in social processes. He adopted a historical perspective, with natural resources and kinds of energy key factors. From an early optimistic vision, which considered the favorable contribution of technology to improving environmental, social, and economic conditions, he evolved to a rather distrustful perspective on uncontrolled technology and some contemporary urban plans.
In Technics and Civilization (1934) Mumford divides the history of technology into three phases: eotechnics, paleotechnics, and neotechnics, each with different resources and energy and identifiable transformations in nature and cities. Technology is not always the same; when armonic and in balance with human nature it is polytechnic, and when disharmonic it is monotechnic. He also introduced the concept of megamachine, designating the large hierarchical political organizations that handle humans as simple components. His more pessimistic view of technology was reflected in the double volume The Myth of the Machine I: Technics and Human Development (1967) and The Myth of the Machine II: The Pentagon of Power (1970).
Mumford called for mobilization against the totalitarian threat in Europe and supported the intervention of the United States; however, after the death of his son Geddes in the conflict he became less optimistic. He wrote and spoke out against atomic weapons and fought United States participation in Vietnam.
In The Culture of Cities (1938) Mumford examines the character of a city and writes a history of urbanism. He contributed to the revival of the concept of regionalism with his ecological perspective, recognizing the region as a space integrated with the city. He critically observed the process of suburbanization, proposing recentralization-understood as decentralized planning of small, dispersed, well connected centers, with a low housing and population density, and interspersed green areas-following the principle of bringing the city into the country and the parks into the city. He was awarded the National Book Award in 1962 for The City in History (1961), essentially an updating of The Culture of Cities.
In 1939, the American Institute of Planners produced the film The City, commissioning Lewis Mumford to write the commentary and Aaron Copland to create the musical score. The film is a synthesis of Mumford’s vision, displaying the contrast between the effects of urban congestion and life in new planned garden cities such as Redburn, New Jersey, or Greenbelt, Maryland, and portraying the challenges of the modern city.
- Thomas P. Hughes and Agatha C. Hughes, , Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual (Oxford University Press, 1990);
- Donald L. Miller, e, The Lewis Mumford Reader (Pantheon Books, 1986);
- Donald L. Miller, Lewis Mumford: A Life (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989);
- Frank G. Novak, , Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence (Routledge, 1995);
- Rosalind H. Williams, “Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization,” Technology and Culture (v.43, 2002).