The Nature of Cities: Ecological Visions and the American Urban Professions, 1920-1960 (review)
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The Nature of Cities: Ecological Visions and the American Urban Professions, 1920-1960. By Jennifer S. Light. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 310. $60.00 cloth) [End Page 165]

In The Nature of Cities: Ecological Visions and the American Urban Professions, 1920-1960, Jennifer Light explores how ecological ideas such as "climax," "blight," and "conservation" transferred from the natural sciences to the emerging fields of urban sociology, geography, and economics during the 1920s and were eventually adopted by urban professionals during the 1930s and 1940s. Most importantly, she argues that these ideas—which saw cities as closed ecological communities that, like farms and forests, could be managed scientifically—significantly shaped local and national urban-renewal policy in postwar America.

Light spends the first three chapters providing an extensively footnoted account of the development of the field of human ecology and its early applications. During the 1920s, social scientists, particularly at the University of Chicago, were looking for a way to understand the growth and development of cities. With the science of ecology, particularly the ideas of succession and climax developed by Frederic Clements, they found a theory that they believed fit the "urban life cycle." These ideas are most closely associated with Ernest Burgess's zonal model urban development, where he divided the city into a series of concentric circles, with each zone filling certain social and economic functions.

The development of the Chicago school of human ecology during this period is well known, but most scholars have argued that its importance waned after the 1930s. Light challenges this idea, arguing that ecological thinking retained its popularity among urban professionals well into the postwar era. During the New Deal, as the federal government funneled millions of dollars into rural conservation programs, urban advocates used ecological ideas to argue that cities were also important national resources worthy of being "conserved."

Although the government funded only a few pilot projects before World War II, during the immediate postwar decades, Light argues, urban professionals heavily influenced by ecological ideas believed that declining residential neighborhoods could be "conserved" through rehabilitation and zoning and code enforcement. They argued that changing the physical character of certain communities [End Page 166] would stop the spread of "blight" and retard or even reverse the "urban life cycle." This would preserve property values, and, many believed, improve the social and cultural character of neighborhoods. By the early 1960s, the federal government had funded conservation projects in cities around the country. These efforts at conservation are an important, but often overlooked, corollary to the larger renewal projects in postwar central cities.

Light's discussion of the influence of ecological ideas on urban-renewal policy is arguably this book's greatest contribution. Over the past twenty years, numerous scholars have explored how urban-renewal policies were not just about the physical reconstruction of cities, but are an important part of the larger narrative of civil rights activism, political realignment, and economic restructuring that are central to the history of the postwar American metropolis. But much of this work has focused on particular cities, and only examines the period since 1945. Thus, when it comes to urban-renewal policy, these stories have privileged the goals and decisions made by local business and political leaders during the late 1940s and 1950s. By writing a national story that begins in the 1920s, Light provides an important insight into the pool of ideas that local policy makers were borrowing from in the postwar period.

These contributions would make The Nature of Cities most valuable for urban historians and scholars of planning and urban policy. Those interested in the development of scientific ideas and their transfer between disciplines will also find this book interesting. It is less accessible, however, for general readers. Although Light's argument is clearly stated and the book is relatively jargon-free, the writing is tedious, with long complex sentences that confuse the reader. Nevertheless, this book makes an important contribution to the study of twentieth-century American cities. [End Page 167]

Robert Gioielli

Robert Gioielli is currently a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, where...


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