Monday, July 6, 2009

Civilization Planning?

When we think of cities in antiquity, we don’t hesitate to think of them in association with their respective civilizations. After all, the words civic and civilization share the same root word in Latin, civitas. Similarly, we can now say that we live in a globalized civilization largely structured on what author Jeb Brugmann refers to in his new book Welcome to the Urban Revolution as the global City.

However, in our focus as planners on addressing concerns with current development projects and other local issues we might be forgiven for sometimes losing touch with this larger picture: that the city is still the focal point and driver for those processes we refer to as civilization.

I was reminded of these connections last week when I attended the 39th annual conference of the InternationalSociety for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC) in Kalamazoo Michigan. The Society was foundedin 1961 by a group of historians including the famed Arnold J. Toynbee. It is ahighly interdisciplinary organization that

is committed to the notion that complex, civilizational problems need diverse, multidisciplinary analyses. Initially the members of the Society came from history, anthropology, and sociology; now, the Society includes such disciplines as philosophy, psychology, comparative religions, economics, political theory, literary criticism and textual analysis, art history, comparative government, comparative literature, science and technology, linguistics, archaeology, architecture, geography, biology, physics and ethnohistory.

(While urban planning isn’t on this list,the society once included amongst its prominent members the late CorinneLathrop Gilb, former Planning Director for the City of Detroit).

The theme of the conference was Civilizations and Cultures in a Time of Change and Crisis and it did not disappoint. The Society’s President Dr. Andrew Targowsky gave a keynote address setting out in deeply unsettling terms the environmental and social challenges facing our global civilization. We have, he argued, managed to avoid a “Malthusian Trap” through the use of technological efficiencies, but are now facing what he calls a “Business Growth Trap” as the very forces which allowed the global population to escape its former limitations now threatens our global ecosystems with collapse.

Not all papers dealt with this unfolding crisis directly, but many nonetheless made explicit the connections between cities and civilization. One of these focused on the contrasting views on cities held by two of the leading scholars of civilization, Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee. Spengler saw in the emerging megalopolitan society all the deleterious forces of secular modernism, including a deterioration of traditions and values and the ruination of rural life. Toynbee by contrast was as dismissive of rural life as Spengler was of the metropolis. Can the crisis of the modern metropolis be resolved by the preservation of more traditional values?

This theme was taken up in another paper discussing German conservative thought in the transition from the 19th to the 20th Centuries: a rejection of city life and the industrial revolution and a yearning for the continuity of a “volkish” rootedness in nature. In the same session another paper argued that, far from rejecting cities, we need to recognize that they are going to be essential in our development of a sustainable global civilization. Further, the leaders of this transition will be true “global cities” – outward- and forward-looking cities where immigrants and diversity are not only welcomed but integrated into all levels of society.

This is but a small sample of the papers. I also presented a paper on planning and crisis (excerpted on my blog here and here). Overall I was impressed with the multiplicity of viewpoints and the attention paid by the scholars present to resolving some of the most pressing issues of our time.

The ISCSC experience made me wonder to what extent we as planners might be able to also adopt this larger picture: that we aren’t just planning cities, we are contributing to the planning of a civilization, so as to ensure that it has a future. In this light, the call for papers for the 2010 ISCSC conference at Bringham Young University -- Civilizational Futures -- looks to be of particular interest to city planners.

See you in Provo?

By Michael Dudley

(This post originally appeared on the Planetizen urban planning news site, June 12th 2009)

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