Pleasures & Costs of Urbanity

Pleasures & Costs of Urbanity

The shape and character of public space is a central issue in city planning, and it has often been central, too, in political thought, especially on the left. Radical intellectuals live in cities, think of themselves as city people, imagine the good society as a large and splendid city. Socialist and republican politics alike require public spaces in which a common life can be enacted—and such spaces are available only in cities.

Curiously, the city figured more significantly in the social criticism of the 1950s and early ’60s than in the activist politics that came later. Civil rights and Vietnam, race and war overwhelmed our speculations about urbanity and its physical requirements. Paul and Percival Goodman’s Communitas (cloth 1947, paper 1960) and Jane Jacobs’s Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961) were much noticed and talked about when they were published and republished, but the talk faltered after only a few years. When Rayner Banham’s exuberant defense of Los Angeles appeared in 1971, there was no equal exuberance displayed in defense of other cities and alternative urban styles. The left had, or thought it had, more urgent issues. (How long has it been since Dissent carried an article on city planning?) Yet thinking about public space and its uses might have helped us, say, to think about racial integration. Thinking about government centers, medical centers, and housing projects might have deepened our understanding of the welfare state and its discontents. Thinking about freeways, shopping malls, and suburban homes might have led us to anticipate Reaganite politics.

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Lima