“Past is more than prologue: how today’s urban reformers should learn from history
Historian Daniel London argues that today’s civil leaders could learn a lot from previous generations of social workers who had very similar ideas—and implemented them—especially the urban reformers of the late 19th century such as Chicago settlement worker and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams.
Daniel London. October 16, 2012.
The challenges of an urbanised planet seem unprecedented. Never have cities been bigger, slums more extensive, traffic more congested. Never have we been faced with problems so potentially catastrophic, like global warming and nuclear terrorism. While urbanists around the world are rising to these challenges with a sense of momentum and even optimism, they too stress novelty and innovation when presenting their ‘silo-breaking’ research and ‘category-busting’ pitches. All this is well and good, but who says that relevant, cutting edge ideas can’t come from the past too?
LEARNING FROM ANOTHER ‘URBAN AGE
We need to discard a view of time in which yesterday is merely prologue to today, and history is nothing more than an account of ‘how we got here’. Ideas and practices, like people, can be born well before their time, and can be plucked by succeeding generations for fresh consideration and comparison. In this vein, historians can play a vital role in the formulation of our urban agenda by excavating a ‘usable past’.
Take the urban reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was an ‘urban age’ for the industrial North Atlantic in the same way that today is for the globe. By 1900 Europe’s urban population had grown sixfold from what it had been a hundred years earlier, and several Northern European countries had become the first in the world to be inhabited primarily by city-dwellers. America, only five per cent urban in 1795, was 35 per cent urban by 1890, and topped the 50 per cent mark in 1920. With this growth came all the metropolitan ills with which we are all so familiar. The inequity and despair we see in the shack settlements of the developing world were previously experienced in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, the rookeries of London’s East End, and the rental barracks of Wedding, Berlin.
More relevant for today was the familiar ethos of experimentation, collaboration, and civic engagement with which reformers and activists tackled these challenges. The settlement movement sought to open ‘settlement houses’ — community spaces where the rich and poor could be brought together into closer community through charity, social programmes and education, such as Toynbee Hall in the East End suburb of Whitechapel, which inspired others including Hull House in Chicago, opened by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Their vision of community empowerment stressed democratic deliberation and bottom-up cooperation, a language paralleled today by those who would upgrade slums in a non-destructive manner.
Well before the term ‘government 2.0’ came into parlance reformers on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to foster active citizenship through public art and innovative local government initiatives. Council-owned museums, direct elections of mayors, social centres for community debates, and municipal home-rule were just some of the developments that made the turn-of-the-century city, in the words of Ohio Senator and reformer Frederick C. Howe, ‘an experiment station, offering new experiences to the world.’ Tactical urbanists of today can learn from the playground movement of the early 1900s, which appropriated under-utilised spaces and lots to serve neighbourhood needs. Furthermore, all these ideas and practices were shared via national and international networks of urban reformers. Sound familiar?
The means and ends of turn-of-the-century urban reformers parallel our own in numerous ways, offering practices and ideas to learn from and compare with our own efforts. The same questions we ask of practices transmitted to us across space can be applied to those transmitted across time as well. How effective was it? What were the unintended consequences? How would it work in our own context? For example, how effective were progressive reformers in increasing civic engagement through public art? If so, why; if not, why not? And if we hope to avoid their failures, are we guilty of some of their same mistaken assumptions and practices that led to them?”
Via: The Global Urbanist