Urbanism as a Way of Life

  • Louis Wirth


Just as the beginning of Western civilization is marked by the permanent settlement of formerly nomadic peoples in the Mediterranean basin, so the beginning of what is distinctively modern in our civilization is best signalized by the growth of great cities. Nowhere has mankind been farther removed from organic nature than under the conditions of life characteristic of great cities. The contemporary world no longer presents a picture of small isolated groups of human beings scattered over a vast territory, as Sumner described primitive society1. The distinctive feature of the mode of living of man in the modern age is his concentration into gigantic aggregations around which cluster lesser centers and from which radiate the ideas and practices that we call civilization.


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  1. 1.
    William Graham Sumner, Folkways (Boston 1906), p. 12.Google Scholar
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    Whereas rural life in the United States has for a long time been a subject of considerable interest on the part of governmental bureaus, the most notable case of a comprehensive report being that submitted by the Country Life Commission to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, it is worthy of note that no equally comprehensive official inquiry into urban life was undertaken until the establishment of the Research Committee on Urbanism of the National Resources Committee. (Cf. Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1937].)Google Scholar
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    See Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, et al., The City (Chicago 1925), esp. chaps. ii and iii; Werner Sombart, „Städtische Siedlung, Stadt“, Handwörterbuch der Soziologie, ed. Alfred Vierkandt (Stuttgart 1931); see also bibliography.Google Scholar
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    The justification for including the term “permanent” in the definition may appear necessary. Our failure to give an extensive justification for this qualifying mark of the urban rests on the obvious fact that unless human settlements take a fairly permanent root in a locality the characteristics of urban life cannot arise, and conversely the living together of large numbers of heterogeneous individuals under dense conditions is not possible without the development of a more or less technological structure.Google Scholar
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    See esp. vii. 4. 4–14. Translated by B. Jowett, from which the following may be quoted: “To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements: for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled.... [A] state when composed of too few is not as a state ought to be, self-sufficing; when of too many, though self-sufficing in all mere necessaries, it is a nation and not a state being almost incapable of constitutional government. For who can be the general of such a vast multitude, or who the herald, unless he have the voice of a Stentor? A state then only begins to exist when it has attained a population sufficient for a good life in the political community; it may indeed somewhat exceed this number. But, as I was saying, there must be a limit. What should be the limit will be easily ascertained by experience. For both governors and governed have duties to perform; the special functions of a governor are to command and to judge. But if the citizens of a state are to judge and to distribute offices according to merit, then they must know each other’s characters; where they do not possess this knowledge, both the election to offices and the decision of lawsuits will go wrong. When the population is very large they are manifestly settled at haphazard, which clearly ought not to be. Besides, in an overpopulous state foreigners and metics will readily acquire the rights of citizens, for who will find them out? Clearly, then, the best limit of the population of a state is the largest number which suffices for the purposes of life, and can be taken in at a single view. Enough concerning the size of a city.”Google Scholar
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    The extent to which the segregation of the population into distinct ecological and cultural areas and the resulting social attitude of tolerance, rationality, and secular mentality are functions of density as distinguished from heterogeneity is difficult to determine. Most likely we are dealing here with phenomena which are consequences of the simultaneous operation of both factors.Google Scholar

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© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 1951

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  • Louis Wirth

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