The Metropolis and Mental Life / The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap

In Metropolis and the Mental Life Georg Simmel becomes one of the first academics to examine the conditions of the modern city, claiming that the city produces conditions of behavior unfathomable to those in the country.  He states that while this freedom is liberating it is also a production of artificial and over stimulating conditions that separate the city dweller from his fellow man.  Writing a century later, David Harvey in The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap argues that New Urbanism’s attempts to reclaim the decaying American city makes the, false, assumption that architects can shape the built environment in order to affect social change.

Simmel structure’s his analysis by introducing the primary element of the city as the plurality of stimuli.  He claims that from this gratification of the senses, brought on by urban buzz, humans are fundamentally changed.  This sets up the psychological blazé attitude where the differences between things go unnoticed.  In this inability or refusal to recognize things as being unique or out of place everything is reduced to the quantitative value based on the money economy.  Because quality has been reduced to a number value consumers lose touch with the producers of goods, people they would know personally in the country.  Ultimately, Simmel says, in the mass accumulation of bodies and objects people become numb to their surroundings and in order to achieve a sense of their humanity, in a world that lacks it in their personal daily interactions, their personality expands.  Actions that would be closely monitored or persecuted in a small town go unnoticed in the city providing the metropolitans a freedom unachievable in the country.  Simmel’s entire argument is structured around the connection of all the elements of a city relying on one another. The money economy, overstimulation, specialization of profession and personal freedom all rely on and are born of the other conditions.  Without clocks in the city businesses crumble, goods aren’t produced in mass quantity, stimulation declines and people begin to revert back to the country mentality.

Harvey’s argument against New Urbanism is made by referencing various authors and using historical precedents to show their claims as baseless.  The ultimate idea that he concerns himself with is that architecture can affect social problems in a positive way.  Harvey says people who urn for communities either don’t truly know what it is they want, don’t know how to construct it, wont choose it when presented with it or don’t understand the negative ramifications of a realized community.  Each of these claims are supported with an author’s account or an example of people saying they want New Urbanism but acting unknowingly against it.  For example, Harvey says that when communities are made they create exclusions and separate people into small ethic or socioeconomic groups which exclude others, a reality that’s never addressed by New Urbanists.  Other issues glossed over include the idea that in created communities we lose the need for cars to travel long distances, understating Americans’ love affair with the automobile.  By presenting a pessimistic view of the issues Harvey tries to discredit the New Urbanism movement.

Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” [1903], On Individuality and Social Forms (Chi- cago: University of Chicago Press, 1971): 324-39.
David Harvey, “The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap: On Social Problems and the False Hope of Design,” in William S. Saunders, ed, Sprawl and Suburbia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005): 21-26.

About mhgoblue

Architecture Undergrad University of Michigan

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