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  • The Environmental Conditions of Agency:John Dewey and Jane Jacobs on Diversity and the Modern Urban Landscape

In this article, I examine the formative relation between individuals and their environment to consider more specifically how urban environments support individual agency. I draw on John Dewey's account, in Individualism, Old and New (1930), of the transformation of American society through rapid industrialization, the rise of corporate culture, and their effects on individual psychology. Dewey's analysis demonstrates the role of environmental conditions in motivating and sustaining individual development and thus draws on his earlier work in Democracy and Education (1916), in which he identifies environmental features of democratic societies—namely, diversity and openness to change—as crucial for individual growth and well-being. Drawing on Jane Jacobs's monumental work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), I show how urban environments enact the democratic ideals Dewey identifies. Following Dewey's and Jacobs's accounts, I argue that the psychological health of city inhabitants—and, correspondingly, the vitality of the cities where they live—depends on their dynamic relation to an environment that values diversity and offers opportunities for growth. It is only in the context of such a relation—that is, as embedded in and supported by an environment that reflects their own possibilities—that individuals can realize agency.


John Dewey, individualism, environment, urban life, diversity

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The rapid industrialization of the nineteenth century transformed conditions of life in the Western world. It made possible an unprecedented scale of production that demanded new forms of labor and continuous innovation and populated the landscape with evidence of technological prowess. These dramatic changes affected how individuals conceived of themselves and their capabilities. On the one hand, they augmented the power of the individual in relation to the world: scientific discoveries and technological innovations brought natural forces under human control and increased individual productivity. On the other hand, however, they diminished the significance of particular individuals within the world: with the use of machines, workers became effectively indistinguishable, interchangeable, not unlike the products they made. In addition, unprecedented industrial productivity contributed to the creation of unprecedented corporate wealth and the establishment of powerful economic players that dwarfed the efforts of individuals. Thus, even as the world increasingly reflected human innovation, it also, in an important sense, became less responsive to and accommodating of individuals.

In Individualism, Old and New (1930), American philosopher John Dewey analyzes the effect of the changes brought about by rapid industrialization on individual psychology. He focuses on contemporary American society, which he (1984, 45–49) characterizes as dominated by a "money culture" that has replaced the social institutions that formerly served as sources of value in individuals' lives. Because this "money culture" is necessarily impersonal, individuals, according to Dewey's analysis, are "lost" within it, lacking guidance and a robust social context that could give their lives direction and meaning.

Dewey's analysis of twentieth-century American culture and its effect on individual psychology is grounded in a compelling philosophical account of the role of the environment in supporting and continually sustaining individual development and well-being. More specifically, Dewey contends that individuals are not independent actors in a world that responds and conforms to their will but are dependent upon environmental conditions for the growth and reinforcement of their capabilities. On this point, we can see how Dewey's work in Individualism, Old and New draws on central insights in Democracy and Education (1916), in which he (1980, 89–92) argues that diverse environments that remain open to continual change provide the best conditions for individual growth and well-being. His analysis in this earlier text illuminates challenges to [End Page 264] individual psychology in an increasingly corporate society, which tends toward homogenization and is effectively unresponsive to individual efforts advocating change.

In this article, I examine the relationship Dewey describes between individuals and their environment, focusing in particular on environmental features he identifies as crucial for psychological health and, more specifically, individual development and agency. I apply his insights to an analysis of urban environments in order to consider how concrete features of city life support individual agency. In the first section of the article, I draw on Dewey's account of the transformation of American society in Individualism, Old and New to show how, in the context of "old individualism," individuals relied on stable social institutions that lent them support and, in turn, the appearance of self-sufficiency and independence. In the second section, I consider how the rise of corporate culture transforms the conditions of social life, affecting, in turn, the conditions of individual agency. I focus on Dewey's analysis in Democracy and Education of two characteristic features of democratic societies—namely, (1) their principled commitment to diversity and (2) their openness to change—that establish an environment that both cultivates individual development and motivates social progress. In the third and final section of the essay, I evaluate the distinctive social environment of cities through the lens of Jane Jacobs's monumental work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which considers conditions of urban vitality and decay in major American cities in the mid-twentieth century. I focus in particular on Jacobs's analysis of the importance of diversity for the life of the city, not only as it is reflected in the social environment of the city—that is, the kinds of people who inhabit it—but also as it is reflected in the concrete features of the urban landscape that support or hinder various forms of human living. Jacobs's attention to the role of diversity and to the conditions of change in healthy city life points to the concrete ways in which urban environments maintain or effectively undermine the democratic ideals Dewey identifies as crucial for the development of social consciousness and individual agency. Following Dewey's and Jacobs's accounts, I argue that the psychological health of city inhabitants—and, correspondingly, the vitality of the cities where they live—depends on their dynamic relation to an environment that values diversity and offers opportunities for growth. It is only in the context of such a relation—that is, as embedded in and supported by an environment that reflects their own possibilities—that individuals can realize agency. [End Page 265]

1. The Social Moorings of Individualism

As the title suggests, Dewey's focus in Individualism, Old and New is on American individualism and, in particular, its role in the public imagination and its effect on contemporary social and political life. One of the most compelling images of America's distinctive "rugged individualism"—and one that Dewey (see, e.g., 1984, 45, 58, 80, 85) frequently cites throughout the text—is that of the "pioneer," a figure that embodies independence, self-sufficiency, and hardy resilience. Dewey notes the indebtedness of this figure to the liberal political tradition that emphasizes natural rights and protection against infringement of these rights by others and by government authority.1 According to the "older individualism" that emerged out of this tradition, individuals freed from restrictions and motivated by self-interest generate social advances, improving not only their own lot but the greater community as well (Dewey 1984, 78).2 Dewey (1984, 79) claims that this narrative took on "romantic" overtones in the context of the nineteenth-century American frontier, where the efforts of individuals shaped the developing national identity, literally and morally. The pioneer made the frontier inhabitable not only for himself but for other settlers as well and, ultimately, for future generations.

Because such social advances were necessary for individual survival, however—for example, in clearing land, constructing shelter, and establishing necessary services—the distinctly American "rugged individualism" of the pioneer was not merely the natural descendant of the established liberal philosophical tradition; it was also, Dewey (1984, 85) argues, a coherent response to the circumstances of the American wilderness. Dewey's emphasis on the conditions that inform and support American individualism highlights the latter's historical and geographic situation.3 His analysis suggests that the enterprise and vitality celebrated in the figure of the pioneer were in no small part a response to the hardship of life on the frontier and, correspondingly, so too was the American individualism embodied in this prototype. Consequently, the pioneer is out of place once the frontier has been settled. In more general terms, differing conditions demand—or, more precisely, are able to support—differing forms of individualism. Thus, Dewey (1984, 86) argues that as conditions change, new forms of individualism should supersede the old, outdated ones.

Dewey contends that recognizing the extent to which particular conditions inform (and transform) individualism entails further recognizing [End Page 266] that individuals themselves do not exist apart from—and thus cannot be understood apart from—the social realities that contributed to their development and that continually sustain their sense of self and their sense of the worlds they inhabit. Thus, associations with others play a fundamental role in shaping individual disposition. Dewey (1984, 80–81) argues that, as individuals, we do not have merely external relations to these associations. Rather, they tell us who we are, and in effect, we see ourselves and the world through them. The social groups with whom individuals are most intimately associated—first and foremost, our families, but also our friends, our professional communities, the religious organizations we belong to, and, more broadly, the political communities we inhabit—provide us with the terms according to which our lives are meaningful and constitute the very roots of our identities.

Even more significant, however, in the context of Dewey's analysis of contemporary American society, is his insight that in securing personal identity, associations provide individuals with a sense of psychological well-being and, in turn, a sense of their active and creative capacities. He writes that "assured and integrated individuality is the product of definite social relationships and publicly acknowledged functions" (1984, 67). Dewey's remark points to the way in which social groups not only give meaning to the worlds we inhabit; they also serve as the ground of our actions as agents within those worlds. They do so by providing individuals with a coherent sense of their capabilities in relation to the social communities in which they developed. For example, it is as a daughter, as a postal worker, as a Muslim, that I interpret my possible courses of action within the world. Dewey's analysis further suggests that individuals are psychologically well integrated insofar as the possibilities afforded by their embeddedness within social relationships are clearly articulated and do not conflict with each other. In other words, stable, coherent social relationships create stable individuals (Dewey 1987, 66). Moreover, this stability is reinforced by the "public acknowledgment" of individual capability: individuals find their identities and projects accommodated by and reflected within the broader society. To return to the example focused on in the above discussion, while the pioneer prototype of "rugged individualism" was, as Dewey points out, an important benefactor of a developing society, formative social relations gave his actions meaning and, in doing so, were critically supportive of the individuality expressed in them. His actions were a coherent part of the broader social context of the American frontier, within [End Page 267] which they had familial, religious, and national significance. Thus, we can see that even in the dramatic example of independence and self-sufficiency embodied in the pioneer, individual initiative and, ultimately, agency are grounded in social support systems, both formal and informal. Individuals are not self-contained and self-driven units of agency; rather, they derive their agency from stable yet multiple points of reference and support. In sum, Dewey argues that the individual—the celebrated singular unit of individualism—necessarily reflects formative social relations that inform her character and her capabilities and that, in effect, serve as the foundation for her psychological health and, correspondingly, her sense of agency. In the following section, I consider in more detail the nature of social conditions supportive of individual development to determine more specifically how the "corporate culture" Dewey identifies in Individualism, Old and New threatens the development and maintenance of a healthy individualism.

2. The Development of Individual Agency

Dewey observed a dramatic change in the situation of Americans in the early twentieth century, which he characterizes as a shift "from an earlier pioneer individualism to a condition of dominant corporateness" (1984, 58). In this section of the essay, I consider specifically how a predominantly corporate culture affects the development of healthy, integrated individuals. My aim in doing so, however, is not to provide grounds for criticizing corporate culture but to elucidate in more detail significant features of the social environment.4 To do so, I supplement Dewey's analysis in Individualism, Old and New with his discussion of human development in Democracy and Education, focusing in particular on two features of the social environment he identifies as critical to individual growth and well-being, namely, (1) its diversity and (2) its openness to change.

Dewey's analysis of how a society shaped by rapid industrialization affects the individuals upon whom its large-scale productivity depends echoes Karl Marx's (1994) account of "alienation" in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Like Marx, Dewey discusses the situation of workers who lack control over one of the dominant activities of their lives. Their work is mindless and repetitive, and it gives little indication—and, correspondingly, requires no understanding—of its significance within the overarching economic system. For individuals engaged in this type of work, [End Page 268] its meaning is reduced to the strictly economic terms of their paycheck (see Dewey 1984, 104).5

However, Dewey is not only, or even primarily, concerned with individuals' relation to their work but, rather, with how this relation reflects what he identifies as a defining feature of an increasingly corporate society. In this sense, factory workers' relation to the acquisitions and mergers, trade deals, investors, and analyses of potential markets—all of which inform and define the context for their labor but, from their perspective, have no apparent presence in their daily activities—is emblematic of individuals' relation to the newly emerging social conditions of their lives (Dewey 1984, 58–59). Unlike the associations that formerly served as anchors of meaning in individuals' experience—families, religious organizations, social institutions, and even small, local businesses—and, as such, reflected distinct possibilities for individual engagement, the corporatism that dominates American culture is, in an important sense, anonymous: large corporations function as impersonal forces that address an impersonal public. They fail to reflect the initiative and efforts of individuals, and, in turn, they fail to offer clearly defined opportunities for creative expression and individual engagement. Moreover, Dewey argues that even though an industrialized society is characterized by a basic division between those subject to and those in control of the dominant economic forces, the latter, seemingly more powerful group is similarly deprived of opportunities to exercise individual agency. Dewey (1984, 67) argues that their exclusive focus on private gain, rather than on the social consequences of their actions, effectively undermines even ostensibly powerful individuals' potential for developing a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Thus, those in apparent positions of power are no less "lost" in this new social reality.

In describing individuals as "submerged" by impersonal forces and as "lost" without a sense of the context and, in turn, the meaning of their actions, Dewey emphasizes a fundamental lack of correspondence between individuals and their environment. While his discussion of the corporatization of American culture in Individualism, Old and New points to its deficiencies and their effect on individual psychology, it nonetheless indicates the critical function of the environment in individual experience, which Dewey discusses in more specific detail in Democracy and Education. This text articulates his philosophy of education, which is premised on an insightful account of the nature of human development that he presents in the first few chapters. There Dewey describes the environment as not [End Page 269] merely an external setting for individual action but, rather, as constitutive of it. He writes: "The words 'environment,' 'medium' denote something more than surroundings which encompass an individual. They denote the specific continuity of the surroundings with his own native tendencies. … In brief, the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being" (1980, 15). As Dewey argues in this passage, it is with and through the environment that individuals develop a defined sense of their possibilities. Indeed, while it is perhaps more common to consider individuals as existing in environments, one could say, following Dewey, that environments exist in individuals as the beliefs, inclinations, and behaviors that animate their experience. Correspondingly, the continued efficacy of their beliefs, inclinations, and behaviors—in short, the continued efficacy of their capabilities—is a function of the relationship between individuals and their environment, rather than a power that could be attributed to the individual alone. More specifically, it is in the alignment between developed capabilities and the routes of possibility offered by the environment that individuals realize agency.

Because of their formative significance, Dewey emphasizes the importance in education of attending to and implementing environmental conditions in which individuals' capabilities can be developed and through which they can be continually deployed. Specifically, he (1980, 18) advocates for an educational environment in which individuals actively participate as stakeholders, such that they recognize themselves as implicated in its success and failure. His emphasis on the importance of individuals recognizing themselves as stakeholders in the environment underscores the latter's necessarily social dimension. Indeed, to draw on one of Dewey's (1980, 15) examples, the environment of the arctic explorer is not merely the geographic area surrounding the north pole but also, as the discussion of social groups in section I suggests, the professional and scientific communities of which he is a part. It is by engaging in what Dewey refers to as the "social medium"—that is, the activities of the social group, and their concomitant expectations, tendencies, and demands—that individuals take on its "emotional attitude," identifying with its beliefs and ends. As a result, Dewey (1980, 15–20) contends, the social environment plays an educational role in the individual's experience, even when education is not the explicit aim of the group.

Dewey (1980, 89–92) identifies two features of a group's social life according to which its quality and worth—and, in turn, the quality and [End Page 270] worth of the education it provides its members—may be measured: (1) the number and variety of shared interests within the group and (2) the potential for and the robustness of the group's interaction with other groups. The significance of the first feature is that, as Dewey points out, common interests provide opportunities for interaction among and communication between group members. As noted above, such opportunities encourage individuals to assume the "emotional attitude" of the group. However, they also help them develop social consciousness, that is, an awareness of how their actions affect others within the context of the shared undertaking. Dewey notes that this is possible only when the shared undertakings are themselves diverse, thus permitting exposure to different members of the group and also to different aspects of even the same members in different contexts. If a group of individuals participates in the same kind of activities, those activities—even though they are shared, and as such cultivate and support group identity—serve only to reinforce individuals' (perhaps limited) understanding of themselves and others. Take, for example, a child who grows up in a family of dedicated athletes. It is likely that any athletic inclinations she has will be encouraged and developed, perhaps to the detriment of other inclinations. Moreover, beyond explicitly teaching her how to play certain sports, the family establishes a social environment in which sports and athleticism are valued as especially important, such that in order for the child to take part in the life of the group, she must share those values.6 In this way, the social environment shapes individuals' understanding of reality and informs all their subsequent estimations of what they encounter in it (Dewey 1980, 21–22). Thus, while the child in the athletic family may grow up to hate sports, her relation to this one value as the relevant point of focus ultimately limits her field of possibilities and, in turn, her sense of herself and others as it is articulated within the social environment established by her family.

In contrast to endorsing a single value as most important, a social group that engages in a variety of shared undertakings allows for the expression and appreciation of a variety of individual experiences and abilities. According to Dewey, encountering diversity within one's social environment is educationally important because it entails "challenge to thought" (1980, 90). Such challenges—perhaps not only in ways of thinking but also in interests, styles of behavior, and aesthetic taste—attest to a stimulating social environment, but they also bring into relief how an individual's actions compare to, contrast with, and bear on the actions of other [End Page 271] members of the group. Though such challenges are foreign to one's own way of doing things, and perhaps even perplexing, they nevertheless present to individuals possibilities lived by other individuals. In sum, according to the first feature Dewey identifies, an educationally beneficial social environment is one in which it is possible for individuals to encounter diverse perspectives within the context of shared interests and projects, motivating awareness of the social ramifications of their actions.

Similarly, social groups themselves develop a critical perspective on their defining interests and practices by interacting with other social groups, which, Dewey contends, opens them to the possibility of "reorganization and progress through wider relationships" (1980, 91). Because exposure to other social groups motivates progress, Dewey identifies the potential for interaction as the second feature according to which the quality and worth of a group's social life may be measured. By contrast, isolated social environments risk "rigidity" and a categorical avoidance of difference and change (Dewey 1980, 92).

Note that both measures of the quality and worth of social life point to the role of diversity in cultivating individual growth and motivating social progress. Dewey's analysis is attentive to how encountering others' perspectives and ways of living enriches individual experience and, in effect, opens social life to reflective examination and the possibility of transformation. His conclusion, based on his consideration of forms of social organization in light of these two measures, is that democratic societies ensure the best education for their constitutive members. A democratic society accommodates diversity and, in principle, remains open to, as Dewey puts it, "its continuous readjustment through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse" (1980, 92). In other words, it both maintains diversity and promotes its creation through social contact.

Dewey's emphasis in Democracy and Education on the necessary relationship between the activities of individuals and the environment in which they exist further illuminates his analysis, in Individualism, Old and New, of the deficiencies of an increasingly corporate society. This reading of Democracy and Education suggests that individuals are "lost" in such an environment not only because they fail to see opportunities for engagement and expression but, more specifically, because they fail to see how their individual existence is implicated in the impersonal forces that dominate this environment. In short, they fail to see themselves as "stakeholders" capable of taking part in and making meaningful and productive [End Page 272] contributions to their environment. A further consequence of this failure is that individuals cannot develop an appreciation for their relation to the social environment and, more specifically, for the effects their actions have on others. Insofar as a predominantly corporate society fails to reflect individual efforts and opportunities, it is, in effect, homogeneous. Its impersonality precludes multiple and diverse expressions of individuality, which, we have seen, are necessary to individual growth. As a result, it is a limited and limiting social environment.

Dewey's work in both Individualism, Old and New and Democracy and Education points to the crucial role of the environment in developing and supporting individual capabilities and, ultimately, individual agency. Both texts suggest that in order for individuals to realize their agency, they must be able to see themselves in their social environment—in the individual efforts it reflects and in the opportunities for engagement it offers them—and they must also be able to see alternative versions of themselves—in diverse expressions of individuality that challenge what is familiar to them. In the following section, I will draw on Dewey's account of individualism and, specifically, his analysis of the intimate relation between individuals and their environment, to consider how, and to what extent, cities support individual agency.

3. Layers in the Urban Landscape

The landscape of the modern city—itself a distinctive product of industrialization—illustrates the tension identified at the outset of this essay between human potential and the industrialized world: cities are concrete testaments to the seemingly infinite variety of human activities that take place within them but, as such, may overwhelm or obscure individual possibilities. Spy films play with this contrast between the city as a rich source of individual opportunities and as a mass of unintelligible activity, often highlighting the former in the nascent potential, for the intrepid individual, in the apparent chaos of the urban landscape. Protagonists traverse the uneven topography of building rooftops; devise paths through narrow alleys, elevated train tracks, and subterranean tunnels; and wend their way through impossibly thick crowds. While such scenes showcase the ingenuity of the film's hero, they also put on display the magnitude of the city in terms of individual human possibility. [End Page 273]

Spy films do not capture the everyday reality of city life for most people, which includes a narrower field of possibilities circumscribed by habitual professional, domestic, and leisure activities. Nevertheless, they provide a compelling image of what the cumulative sum of this reality involves, namely, the layers of activity that course through any given urban landscape and that simultaneously reflect and obscure individual opportunities. While urban environments contain more numerous and more diverse expressions of individuality than their suburban and rural counterparts, they are also, as such, potentially alienating: without a firm sense of their "place" in the city—or, more precisely, without a firm sense of their relation to their surrounding social reality—individuals may feel lost in such an environment. In this section of the essay, I draw on Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities to consider this ambiguous relationship between individuals and the urban landscape. Like Dewey, Jacobs attends to the environmental conditions of vibrant individual existence and their relation to democratic society.7 I present here Jacobs's analysis of concrete features of urban environments that are necessary for healthy city life. I further consider how Jacobs's account might anticipate and answer criticisms of modern urban life as alienating. Finally, following Jacobs's observations, I consider how cities reflect the environmental conditions Dewey identifies as critical for the development of individual agency.

Jacobs's aim in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is to identify the features of cities and, in turn, the principles of city planning that foster and support healthy urban life. Her method for pursuing this aim is close attention to and detailed description of "the most ordinary scenes and events" (1992, 13), and thus the measure of any principle she identifies is its coherence with individual experience in and of the city.8 Indeed, as her opening focus on "the uses of sidewalks" (1992, 29) indicates, Jacobs is most concerned with how cities are lived at street level, from the perspectives of the people who inhabit and pass through them. From this perspective, she offers an initial observation that informs much of her subsequent analysis, namely, that living in a city entails being surrounded by strangers. Jacobs argues that this consequence of the fact of population density serves a number of important functions in city life, not least of which is providing an element of interest and diversion. Indeed, strangers are essential to the appeal of sidewalk scenes: people are drawn to sit on their stoops, to occupy benches in the midst of busy streets, and to fill otherwise aesthetically unappealing concrete plazas because those [End Page 274] spots afford the best views of passersby. As Jacobs succinctly puts it, "The sight of people attracts still other people. … A lively street has both its users and pure watchers" (1992, 37). More specifically, I would argue that what attracts the passing interest of the "pure watchers" is the variety of human activity that takes place on a busy city street. Onlookers watch and interpret actions they themselves are not (and perhaps would not be) engaged in. Strangers inspire in onlookers a casual curiosity, and their omnipresence in a city allows inhabitants and visitors alike brief glimpses into alternative ways of living.

According to Jacobs's (1992, 30) analysis, healthy urban environments are distinguished by residents and visitors alike feeling safe among the strangers who surround them. However, she emphasizes that a sense of security is not primarily a function of formal initiatives but, rather, is made possible by concrete features of the streets themselves that determine how and when they are used. Specifically, commercial enterprises mixed with other public places and private residences supply a steady and varied stream of street traffic, as well as a more fixed population—of storekeepers, business owners, residents, and so on—that has a stake in the community (Jacobs 1992, 36–37). The more rooted residents serve as what Jacobs refers to as "the natural proprietors of the street" (1992, 35), who have a vested interest in the health and vibrancy of their neighborhood, as well as a casual, onlookers' interest in the changing groups of users who occupy the street.9

Thus, Jacobs (1992, 70) argues, the same features of a city block—namely, those stemming from the diversity of activities that take place there—contribute to both its liveliness and its safety. Moreover, they serve a further, critical function in city life: they allow individuals a basic sense of privacy, an ability to lead their lives in close proximity to others and yet maintain control over how much of their lives they share with others. Indeed, the number and diversity of people on a sidewalk, coupled with the superficial nature of onlookers' access to them, afford a degree of privacy that would be impossible in a small town. Just as the people who catch my eye are strangers to me, so I am a stranger to them, and I can easily remain so. Jacobs emphasizes that this ability to maintain control over how and to what extent individuals reveal themselves to others is "one of the attributes of cities that is precious to most city people" and is supported by a well-defined "line between the city public world and the world of privacy" (1992, 58, 62). While it may seem paradoxical to refer to the existence of [End Page 275] such a "line" on a busy sidewalk, it is apparent to anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in a city: in common urban scenes such as the crowded street or subway platform, a busy café or bar, or a park lawn covered with picnickers, individuals and groups may remain fairly isolated from each other, even when they are inches apart. Seemingly by tacit agreement, strangers in close proximity rarely interfere in each other's private worlds. Furthermore, this line distinguishing public from more private worlds not only characterizes spaces filled with strangers; it also functions in urban places where people have varying degrees of familiarity with each other, such as in apartment buildings and on residential blocks, in laundromats and corner stores, at dog parks and neighborhood coffee shops. In these urban places, even though proprietors, employees, regulars, and residents are familiar with each other, there is a mutual respect of privacy that forestalls intrusive interventions.10 In short, city inhabitants share with each other the liveliness of the urban landscape, which allows them to determine for themselves how much, beyond this public sphere, they share with each other.

Jacobs's analysis illuminates distinctive features of the social environment of the city, emphasizing the critical role of diversity in promoting a healthy distinction between the public and private spheres, in ensuring safety, and in making cities appealing and interesting places to be. Indeed, diversity is essential to what she refers to as "the art form of the city …, an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole" (1992, 50). Her impressionistic description points to the important consequences this kind of social environment has for city inhabitants, who not only participate in the "ballet" but, further, appreciate it as such. City streets encompass activities that are, more or less, always on display, and as a result, even as individuals take part in their particular projects—working, shopping, commuting, or people-watching—they do so in the midst of other layers of activity, inevitably encountering the concerns and capabilities of others. As Dewey's analysis of the social environment suggests, this kind of exposure to the diverse perspectives of others—within the context of the shared experience of city life—helps individuals develop an awareness of how their actions affect others. However, it also helps them develop an appreciation for this shared experience and for the diversity that makes it possible. Jacobs's analogy to a ballet is especially apt on this point: attention to distance, and to difference, preserves [End Page 276] the distinct form of each dancer's shape. In other words, the diverse social environment of cities cultivates respect for the autonomous existence of others.11

Perhaps one of the most important insights of Jacobs's work in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is that the diversity of cities is a function of their material environment. This point is apparent in her analysis of "sidewalk safety," considered briefly above: an assortment of building uses encourages a steady and diverse mix of sidewalk occupants. However, still more basic material features of the urban landscape, such as the length of city blocks and visual variation in architecture, can affect how individuals engage with it (see Jacobs 1992, 178–86, 226–27). Indeed, the aesthetic appeal of cities is often characterized by an amalgamation of new and older buildings that informs variation in size, use, and architectural style (Jacobs 1992, 194–95, 228). Jacobs (1992, 188) further argues that older buildings serve the important function of supporting the smaller enterprises that contribute to the diverse layers of human activity in a city: unlike large, corporate establishments, smaller, individual-owned businesses cannot afford the costs of new construction and thus tend to occupy older buildings with lower rental costs. Thus, older buildings provide material support for urban diversity, accommodating residents' interests and tastes and, in doing so, reflecting the various forms of life that are at home in the city.

The important function of older buildings highlights the fact that while cities often serve as economic centers and, as such, host large commercial enterprises, they are also home to what Jacobs (1992, 146–47) refers to as the "small," that is, the particular and often idiosyncratic interests and tastes that are more likely sustained in densely populated cities. However, the "small" is especially vulnerable to change, as trends emerge and fade. While large chain stores are capable of funding new construction or expensive moves to reach new customers, smaller enterprises are dependent on the financial stability of the proprietors and the sustained interests of the people who patronize them. Inevitably, changes in either affect the city landscape and its inhabitants. Jacobs (see 1992, 293–94) is attentive to the necessary relation between change and diversity in cities: change may answer developing diversity, and it can also generate diversity. However, she emphasizes the significance of gradual change, and she (1992, 291–95) is especially critical of how certain forms of investment in cities produce "cataclysmic changes" that have damaging effects on neighborhoods and [End Page 277] their residents. Large-scale, rapid development transforms not only the look of a neighborhood but also, as the consideration of older buildings suggests, the forms of life the neighborhood can support. By contrast, gradual change is consistent with the temporality of individual routines—and brief diversions from routine—that animates city life.12 It thus transforms the urban landscape in a way that corresponds with individual capabilities and needs.

Jacobs focuses on the different forms of change in urban environments to highlight how much-needed financial investment can damage and even destroy neighborhoods. However, her discussion of this point also draws attention to a more general, ambivalent feature of cities, namely, the immense scale of their workings relative to the lives of individual inhabitants. To some extent, cities always necessarily exceed—"out-scale"—individuals. Indeed, this is what makes them exciting. However, the number and variety of interests they host and the rates at which they change may also be overwhelming. Even the gradual change Jacobs advocates may be alienating, if it seems to take place apart from the interests and needs of residents. Moreover, the city's apparent indifference to individuals may be felt not only with respect to a changing material environment but also in the interpersonal relations that take place within it. As noted above, the population density of the city ensures a degree of individual privacy and anonymity. Visitors and new city residents from smaller towns, where physical proximity often leads to—and may even require—some form of more personalized interaction, may experience this feature of city life as alienating. They may find the social environment of the city unresponsive to their individual presence. Indeed, urban places that are characterized by constantly changing groups of people, and that are exclusively focused on anonymous transactional exchanges—such as train stations and large commercial districts—can be especially inhospitable.13 But even the more mundane aspects of urban life require a degree of anonymity and superficiality due to the sheer number of people the average city inhabitant encounters and the demand for efficiency in satisfying daily needs.14 However, while the overwhelming scale of the city and the impersonal nature of its social environment may be, to some extent, unavoidable features of urban life, these observations underscore the significance of Jacobs's emphasis on the role of environmental features in mitigating alienating effects. For example, a variety of mixed uses ensure that cities remain open to diverse possibilities for interaction. Moreover, the rooted presence of "stakeholders" not [End Page 278] only provides a sense of security but also gives urban places a noticeable identity—one that, importantly, reflects their inhabitants and the individual possibilities available to them. These environmental features address the potential for alienation by recognizing the fundamental relation between the city and its inhabitants and fostering its healthy dynamism. In short, Jacobs's analysis emphasizes that cities are not inherently alienating places. Rather, their vitality and the quality of the experience of their inhabitants depend on the environmental support of diversity and the responsiveness to interests and needs this diversity gives rise to.

Jacobs's emphasis on the importance of older buildings and her attention to the consequences of change point to the significance of the material conditions of the urban landscape to its diversity and, in turn, to the quality of experience it affords its inhabitants. Though, as her analysis suggests, healthy cities must be continuously receptive to novelty and to their own re-visioning, transformations should take place gradually, or in other words, according to a human scale, in order to sustain the diversity that is essential to their vitality. This insight echoes Dewey's two criteria for a healthy social environment—its diverse constituent interests and its openness to change—and further illuminates their interdependence. Moreover, it provides further insight into why individuals effectively lose a sense of themselves and their possibilities in an increasingly corporate—and thus homogeneous and impersonal—social environment. Thus, following Dewey and Jacobs, we can see that cities are healthy social environments to the extent that individuals can see themselves in them, both in the small enterprises that satisfy a diversity of interests and tastes and even in the strangers who offer glimpses of alternative forms of life in the same city landscape. To modify one of Jacobs's central claims: "The point of cities [as healthy social environments] is multiplicity of choice" (1992, 340)—choice that reflects and sustains diversity and, in turn, maximizes and enriches individual possibilities.

4. Conclusion

Following Dewey's and Jacobs's accounts, I have emphasized the significance of (1) diversity and (2) openness to change that accommodates this diversity to the vitality of urban environments and the psychological health of their inhabitants. However, city inhabitants may not appreciate the [End Page 279] conditions of diversity that make possible the features of urban life that they enjoy and benefit from, and consequently, they may endorse policies that effectively undermine these features. This possibility illuminates the continuity between the pioneer that figures in the American imagination of "rugged" individualism and contemporary city inhabitants. Like the pioneer, city inhabitants may take their self-sufficiency at face value and fail to recognize the conditions of their agency and accomplishments. This failure has especially damaging psychological and social consequences in a world in which traditional forms of association are increasingly tenuous and individual agency is seemingly dwarfed by corporate dominance. This precarious situation—which Dewey identifies in Individualism, Old and New, and which is arguably even more developed in our contemporary situation—motivates his call for a "new individualism" that is aware of and responsive to the social conditions from which it derives its powers.

I have shown how Dewey's analysis of individualism in Individualism, Old and New draws on his account of the fundamental relation between individual capability and environment in Democracy and Education, where he further argues that democratic societies, in their accommodation of diversity, provide the best conditions for individual growth and well-being. Jacobs's central claim in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—that healthy cities are founded on and continually generate diversity—is consistent with Dewey's analysis and highlights the democratic potential of urban environments. The promise and variety of opportunities in healthy urban landscapes, in which individuals can see their own possibilities for engagement, rival the imaginative appeal of the open frontier and support the development of a "new individualism" that rightly recognizes the environmental conditions of agency.

Whitney Howell
La Salle University


1. Dewey also notes its indebtedness to medieval religion, with its concern for the fate of the individual soul. See Dewey 1984, 77–78. See Di Mascio 2012, 2–5, for a detailed account of the historical antecedents informing American individualism. Dewey further examines the historical development of individualism in Liberalism and Social Action (1935), where he gives an interesting account of how industrialization transformed this earlier version of individualism by magnifying exponentially the productive capacity of individual effort. Dewey contends that, as a result, liberal concern shifted from the protection [End Page 280] of individual property to the protection of individual productivity by means of the lifting of legal restrictions on economic activity, thereby creating a new "economic individualism." See Dewey 1987, 8–9.

2. Dewey discusses Adam Smith's role in the economic turn of "older individualism" in Liberalism and Social Action. See Dewey 1987, 9–10.

3. Indeed, Dewey criticizes contemporary proponents of individualism for missing this point and, in maintaining an "outdated" version of individualism, for risking complicity with political organizations that serve to undermine the ends those proponents seek. See Dewey 1984, 80; 1987, 27–28.

4. This is not to say that there are not good reasons for criticizing a predominantly corporate culture on the basis of Dewey's analysis. However, Dewey himself restrains from engaging in explicit criticism and focuses instead on demonstrating the need for developing policies that protect the social interest in light of the tendency of corporate forces to disregard it or actively work against it. On this point, see Dewey 1984, especially his remarks at the end of chapter 3, "The United States, Incorporated," 64–65, and chapter 6, "Capitalistic or Public Socialism?" 90–98.

5. See also Dewey's discussion of the importance of "diversity of stimulation" in Democracy and Education (which I discuss in more detail later in this section). There, he writes that "the tendency to reduce such things as efficiency of activity and scientific management to purely technical externals is evidence of the one-sided stimulation of thought given to those in control of industry—those who supply its aims. Because of their lack of all-round and well-balanced social interest, there is not sufficient stimulus for attention to the human factors and relationships in industry" (1980, 91).

6. See discussion of a similar example in Dewey 1980, 20.

7. It is for this reason—namely, their similar attentiveness to the intimate relation between individual existence and environmental conditions, and their advocacy of diversity within democratic society—that I turn to Jacobs's account of cities to evaluate their environmental features in light of Dewey's ideas. However, Dewey's work had a more direct influence on earlier sociological studies of urban life that developed out of the Chicago school in the 1920s and 1930s. For an account of how pragmatism in general, and Dewey's ideas in particular, influenced the Chicago school, see Joas 1993, 18–39. Joas argues that the progressive aim to preserve "the democratic ideals of the self-government of local communities" in the face of the changing conditions of American society (1993, 28)—specifically, the rise of corporations and a stronger federal government—motivated the Chicago school's interest in how those ideals could be put into practice in new urban communities. As a result, Joas writes, "the principal themes of the Chicago School were therefore the problems of the modern city, especially of Chicago itself" (1993, 28). Probably the most famous example of the work produced by the Chicago school during this time is Louis [End Page 281] Wirth's essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life" (1938), which endeavors to give a sociological definition of the city and to characterize the types of social relations it accommodates. While the work of Wirth and his contemporaries in the Chicago school, along with the rich body of social science literature on urban ecology that has been produced since that time, is relevant to my analysis of urban environments, it is ultimately secondary to my focus on Dewey's philosophical account of the environmental conditions of individual development and agency. For a helpful summary of sociological approaches to space and locality developed by the Chicago school with reference to their indebtedness to pragmatism, see Merriman 2015. See also Bridge 2014 for an interesting analysis of how the insights of pragmatism could benefit current work in urban studies. Focusing primarily on Dewey's work, Bridge considers the commonalities between Marxism and pragmatism and further argues that the philosophical commitments of the latter provide helpful interventions in urban studies where contemporary Marxist critical theory has fallen short. Specifically, Bridge (2014, 1655) highlights Dewey's emphasis on the democratic possibilities in everyday urban activities. For an interesting discussion of Jacobs's interest in the strengths and susceptibilities of democratic societies, see Rich 2016.

8. David Seamon characterizes Jacobs's work in this text as a "phenomenology of the city and urban place," emphasizing her close attention to the lived reality of city life and her insistence that planning policy must be grounded in this lived reality. See Seamon 2012.

9. Renowned urban sociologist William Whyte also notices that providing security is often an ancillary function of a person who has a different primary reason for being a regular on the street. He emphasizes that when people are invested in their particular roles in a place—as a doorman, for example—they take a "proprietary pleasure" in tending to that place, such that an official security presence is often unnecessary. He refers to these "natural proprietors" as informal "mayors." See Whyte 1980, 64.

10. As Jacobs writes, "It is possible … to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships" (1992, 62).

11. In Multicultural Dynamics and the Ends of History: Exploring Kant, Hegel, and Marx, Réal Fillion argues that the casual coexistence of difference in a multicultural context has significant implications for human development. He contends that the "intermingling and quotidian interaction" that takes place in multicultural spaces such as city streets is critical for demarcating and bringing into contact diverse "groupings" of people (2008, 70). This demarcation and contact contribute to what Fillion refers to as a "dynamics of recognition" (2008, 71), in which people see and recognize forms of life enacted by others as [End Page 282] unfamiliar to their own and yet also as familiar to those who are engaged in them. Similar to Dewey's claim that a diverse social environment stimulates growth, Fillion argues that encountering these "unfamiliar familiarities" in a multicultural context illuminates the specificity of one's own familiar way of life and, in turn, motivates one to engage in the "self-transcending critique" that is necessary to human development (2008, 76). See especially Fillion 2008, chapter 3, "Mutual Recognition and the Challenge of Unfamiliar Familiarities," 69–86.

12. In his article "'Taking a Line for a Walk': Walking as Aesthetic Practice," Raymond Lucas (2016, 176) draws on Augé's distinction between "non-places" and "places" to highlight the latter's accommodation of temporal variation throughout days, weeks, months, and seasons. The forms of "cataclysmic change" that Jacobs is concerned with not only disrupt the routines that inform these temporal variations but also often threaten the distinctive, historical identity of the city places that support them.

13. These aspects of city life fit anthropologist Marc Augé's (1995, 77–78) description of "non-places," which, in their exclusive focus on transient interactions, lack the identifying features of "places" and cater to a similarly anonymous public. Insofar as nonplaces are the characteristic product of supermodernity, according to Augé's analysis, they are not distinctive to urban life but pervade aspects of suburban and even rural life as well. See esp. Augé 1995, 75–115.

14. Sociologist Louis Wirth makes this observation in his classic essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life" (1938, 11–12) in describing the "segmentalization" of roles in urban relations. He notes that while the emphasis on utility and efficiency in urban social relations informs their impersonal and superficial character, it also "make[s] intelligible … the sophistication and the rationality generally ascribed to city-dwellers," insofar as they are free from the "emotional controls" characteristic of relations of dependency (1938, 12) and they are more likely than their rural and suburban counterparts to overlook personal features in their focus on transactional roles.


Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. New York: Verso Books.
Bridge, Gary. 2014. "On Marxism, Pragmatism, and Critical Urban Studies." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (5): 1644–59. Dewey, John. [1916] 1980. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 9: 1916, edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. [End Page 283]
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Di Mascio, Patrick. 2012. "Dewey's Democratic Individualism." E-rea 9 (2), March 15. Accessed June 21, 2016,; DOI:10.4000/erea.2558.
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Marx, Karl. 1994. "Alienated Labor." In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by Lawrence H. Simon, 58–68. New York: Hackett.
Merriman, Ben. 2015. "Three Conceptions of Spatial Locality in Chicago School Sociology (and Their Significance Today)." American Sociologist 46 (2): 269–87.
Rich, Nathaniel. 2016. "The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs." The Atlantic, November 2016. Accessed June 29, 2017,
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