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  • Foreword:Whence Urban Conservation, Via Lewis Mumford
  • Randall Mason (bio)

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Lewis Mumford’s pencil sketch of Edinburgh, from September 1925, collects images of the city’s urban structure and architectural aspect. Visualizing cities—making and using images—contributed centrally to Mumford’s masterful narratives about urban evolution. (Lewis Mumford Papers, Kislak Center for Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania)

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The city is both a physical utility for collective living and a symbol of those collective purposes and unanimities that arise under such favoring circumstance. With language itself, it remains man’s [sic] greatest work of art.

Lewis Mumford, “What is a City?”(1937)1

Lewis Mumford, the towering urban intellectual of the twentieth century, rarely got things wrong. His magisterial histories and trenchant criticism mapped out the evolution of cities and urban culture as functions of changing technology, the need to forge human relationships with nature, and the art and science of designing settlements and buildings. While deeply informed by history, Mumford’s urban analysis and critique very much engaged his contemporary city—or, more to his point, the regions in which we live and that are centered on cities. In this, Mumford mirrored the pragmatic challenge for the field of urban conservation, the subject of this issue of Change Over Time: cultivating a deep knowledge and appreciation of urban histories, and applying these notions to rework (not just critique) the urban present. Giving the urban past relevance in contemporary design, development, and planning is a project shared by Mumford and urban conservationists alike.

Of Mumford’s many time-honored insights, though, the one quoted above has always struck me as misbegotten—the city as humankind’s greatest work of art. The comparison sparks insight and provocation, to be sure. The design of cites indeed requires that we think of them as whole works, not just component pieces in the hands of individual designers. But what’s revealed by the art metaphor—the role of artifice, cities’ beautiful complexities, the rich and enduring human achievement they represent—obscures an important truth germane to urban conservation: the contradiction between conservation theories attached to artworks versus urban theories, in light of the social, cultural, and spatial complexities of urban change and consequent conservation tropes of repair, regeneration, renewal, etc.

Mumford meant to assert the cultural values of urbanism, and how that cultural value is deposited vertically (through time), not only horizontally (in explosions of investment, rebuilding, or design), and protecting and cultivating this is the signal contribution of urban conservation. So the city is not an object, but rather a place always in the making. [End Page 3] As an object of conservation thinking, the city is less a work of art than a place, a home (oikos) and a process, a phenomenon unfolding but never unfolded. Or, in terms of contemporary theory, a cultural landscape, a network, or a system. How these different framings of “city” conflict and combine—this is the conceptual challenge underlying such a radically integrative discourse as urban conservation.

All of which is to say that the foundational theory and practice of the conservation field, emanating from art and architectural theory, doesn’t serve as well as a basis for urban conservation. It draws our attention to the critical notion that urban conservation is a distinctly different practice, complex in sufficiently different ways from traditional historic preservation, object conservation, and architectural conservation to occasion some deliberate rethinking.

Channeling Urbanization

Urban conservation is the most urgent and least coherent area of contemporary conservation practice. But it is really not a cognate field or even subfield of practice. Debates about urban conservation are often ad hoc, unsupported by cogent theorization, and therefore open to attack. Practices of urban conservation take shape against the backdrop of urbanization processes—more specifically, those of modernity.

Urbanization rightly dominates our understanding of human settlements. Whether fast-growing or in senescence, cities’ quality of life is both reflected and enabled by the character and performance of human-made environments. To replay the oft-cited statistics: as of 2010, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities; by 2050 it will be two...


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