The End of Urban-ism

Lucas van Leyden_Lot and his daughters
Anti-urbanism since the Book of Genesis: Detail from ‘Lot and his Daughters,’ by Lucas van Leyden, 1520


“The separation of town and country is thoroughly injudicious.”
– Spiro Kostoff, The City Shaped

Trump is hardly a ‘demagogue’ as some have feared. Real authoritarians, regardless of their heinous crimes against humanity, have had singular, albeit twisted social theories on what they believe the world should be. Trump on the other hand has claimed himself to be an ‘evolved’ Democrat flip-flopping between moderately liberal to beyond conservative viewpoints that are even too extreme for his party base. Rather than a man with a vision therefore, he is but a figurehead for a much deeper and disparaging social issue: the myth that polarizes our understanding of ‘urban’ versus ‘rural.’ As a much-too-real reality-TV host, he is now fanning the flames of a vast discontented population, giving voice to decades of simmering restlessness. Meanwhile his campaign rhetoric was mainly a kind of mirror-of-narcissus: He reflected in catch phrases what almost half of America wanted to hear and the rowdy cheers in turn fed his hungry and insecure ego. By being the ‘outsider’ to the ‘party elites,’ he was merely putting into code words the deepening divide between city and countryside, pitting the two against each other under the guise of the common ‘working man.’

But as the architectural historian Spiro Kostoff states in his multi-pronged definition on what is urban, ‘Cities are places that are intimately engaged with their countryside.’ He then delves into a myriad of historical examples where the ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ dilemma becomes all too central. What came first? In the United States, townships actually formed before farms drove westerly expansion. On the other hand Roman towns could not exist without the centuriated lands that surrounded them. In ancient China, the Taoist ideal of rural existence mismatched the Confucian view that the function of the city was to administer and civilize the countryside. Despite the recent data from the past election, we can go back to how one of the U.S.’s Founding Fathers perversely planted this rhetorical tension between urban and rural: Seemingly borrowing the doomsday language from the inherently anti-urban Sodom and Gomorrah allegory from the Book of Genesis, Thomas Jefferson claimed, “The mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body… A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”

Today we are still haunted by this rhetorical divide. Because the underlying engine of cities is inherently wealth accumulation (with some like Trump ironically flaunting their gilded spoils), massive inequality between urban and rural have formed in all aspects of life, from education to access to food and health benefits. Even 20 years ago when I was visiting Appalachian communities from the privilege of Jefferson’s academic enclave, the University of Virginia, I saw alarming poverty that had become a way of life for entire marginalized communities. Today these inequalities are being further tried by the increasingly international flow and subsequent storage of capital in the form of urban real estate – the ‘Globalism,’ that Trump curses as the force depleting American jobs is paradoxically the mechanism he and others continue to exploit to amplify the now absurd disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Today however, the level of interdependency is not only between urban and rural, but across national boundaries where the entire world is now a single economic and ecological interior as cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk states.

As architects, we too are guilty of creating aloof divisiveness: Architecture has somehow now become synonymous with ‘urbanism’ where schools (like my graduate alma mater, the Harvard GSD) practically base their entire curriculum on the topic. Terms such as ‘landscape urbanism,’ and ‘infrastructural urbanism,’ are the mantras that will supposedly prepare us for the imminent global urbanization occurring at an unprecedented pace. In this regard, architecture’s underlying rhetoric, albeit less in-your-face than Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables,’ still pits urban as better than rural instead of intertwined with it. In our limited world vision (and I too am guilty as charged), the city always has the promise of utopian progress, but those that can’t adhere to its embedded liberal agendas won’t be admitted into our ‘voluntary prison.’ We therefore cloak our optimism in talkitecture that is meant to intellectualize and insulate our naïve arguments to make them sound somehow superior. Semantically the differences we have put forth are stark: we have claimed terms like ‘Radical’ as urbanism’s panacea while Trump has incited his rural base with the fear of ‘Radical Islam.’ The ‘hybridity’ that we tout as central to our urbanist ideals is being met by xenophobic chants of ‘Build the Wall.’

It is a certain fact that societies are dependent on a diversification of skills, knowledge, and cultures, but perhaps we are at that painful point in history where we must now politicize this diversity in order to move forward. There is no turning back from Globalization 2.0, and in fits and starts we must overcome the negative backlash of nationalism converging with populism that is beginning to emerge again in so many parts of the world. But instead of the insulation of urbanism, today our spheres are shifting and sometimes nested boundaries that are still yet to be defined. Instead of cities, we are now dealing with entire regions – the Northeast Corridor for instance forms a megalopolis that spans all forms of small towns and big cities between Boston and D.C. On the opposite spectrum, the urban ‘Sharing Economy’ made popular through services like AirBnB and Uber, borrows from and idealizes the trust that can be found in small rural communities where different levels of goods and information exchange have continued to be the glue between like-minded people.

Just as all ‘isms’ have transitioned to other forms of reality or altogether abandoned as shallow trends, I am now throwing urban-ism to the sidelines in search of a better term that is both more inclusive and at the same time more specific to actual relationships between city and countryside. I am not sure what that word or phrase is, but I invite any good evolutions. The bottom line is that in wielding this necessary interdependency for the greater good, we must follow the logic set forth by Kostoff that abandons the semantics of ‘rural’ versus ‘urban.’ The politicization of diversity has to detach itself from the geopolitics of us versus them.

[These are introductory, in-progress thoughts on the end of the ‘ism’ in ‘urbanism.’ Any comments, critiques, suggestions, and debates are welcome. More projections to follow.]