By Stephyn Quirke
John Kitzhaber based his State of the State speech off of him in 1996. His rival Robert Moses called him an “outspoken revolutionary” for his ability to move public opinion. And in 1943, he was re-imagined as the dangerous villain Ellsworth Toohey in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. According to former mayor and Governor Neil Goldschmidt, his wisdom and foresight made Portland into a better city.
With a single visit in 1938, Lewis Mumford left a footprint in the Pacific Northwest that is still being discussed and debated today.
An early proponent of regional planning and ecologically sensitive development, Mumford was a towering intellectual figure of the left who wrote over 28 books and over a thousand essays and reviews, surveying the history of technology and human development, criticizing everything from highways to televisions – all without completing a college degree.
Mumford grew up in turn of the century Manhattan with his mother, Elvina Baron. He initially dreamed of becoming an electrical engineer, and attended New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. There he was exposed to many socialist ideas for the first time, and discovered he had better talents as a writer than an engineer.
Following these ideas through the works of people like Peter Kropotkin and Patrick Geddes, he eventually landed a job as an editor with the magazine The Dial, working alongside famous 20th century intellectuals like Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey.
After being urged by the Northwest Regional Council to guide their regional development plans using the ideas he developed in The Story of Utopias and The Culture of Cities, Mumford made a two week tour of the Northwest in 1938 delivering lectures on regional planning, and was immediately commissioned to follow up on these thoughts by writing a memorandum on the region’s prospects.
This memo would be the last of Mumford’s direct engagement with the Northwest, despite the considerable influence his ideas still hold in the region’s political culture.
In 1940 he cancelled his commencement speech at Reed College, saying his interests in planning and architecture felt hopelessly myopic under the risk of a global fascist takeover.
Then he published Men Must Act in 1939 and Faith For Living in 1940, doing his best to rally the U.S. to enter the war against fascism and resist the culture of militarism he saw enveloping the world. His son, Geddes, was killed in action in 1944.
Ironically, the man Portland chose to lead its development after World War II was none other than Robert Moses – the man who saw Lewis Mumford as his most dangerous and persistent critic.
Moses was famous for preaching the gospel of the highway and the efficiency of the “engineered city” – a stark contrast to Mumford’s life-centering “garden city” which most Portland residents identify with today.
Writing in The Story of Utopias, Mumford summed up his views this way “…unless our reformers concern themselves with the ultimate values of men, with what constitutes a good life, they are bound to pander to such immediate faiths and superstitions as the National State, Efficiency, or the White Man’s Burden.”
One of the subjects that worried Mumford the most was the irrational faith in material and technological progress that accompanies environmental disasters and authoritarian politics – a faith he identified in his last major work as “The Myth of the Machine”.
During his 1938 visit to Portland, Mumford wrote privately about “the Great Douglas firs” and the “snow swept crest of Mt. Hood”, while describing the timber-mining of those forests as a “massacre”.
In a passage characteristic of his style in Faith for Living, he wrote that the destruction he saw could not be explained by simple greed, as it included an element of exhibition, and “nothing testifies to power like the ability to destroy”.
In the 1960s, changes in Portland’s political culture began moving residents and civic leaders away from the mechanistic planning of figures like Robert Moses, and a new style of decentralized activism sprung up to stop harmful developments in the city.
During this time the Neighborhood Association movement was gaining serious influence, leading the city council to create an official Office of Neighborhood Associations in 1974 (now called the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), institutionalizing a kind of neighborhood control over city affairs that Mumford had called for as a planner.
Grassroots activists would turn toward his ideas again when they shut down the I-205 link on 52nd Ave, and when they fought to stop the Mt. Hood Freeway. Through the Columbia Region Association of Governments, former mayor and Governor Neil Goldschmidt successfully diverted funds from the Mt. Hood Freeway into the eastside MAX line, which was completed in 1986.
The state of the environment was one of the biggest tensions that arose in this period. Former governor Tom McCall produced Pollution in Paradise as a news anchor in 1962, and was elected governor four years later. Under his leadership the state passed comprehensive planning goals in SB 10 and SB 100, establishing the Urban Growth Boundary that continues to protect both the wild and farm land.
Oregon’s Metro government, which manages the boundary, is still the only elected regional government in the United States.
In his original speech to the Portland City Club in 1938, Mumford spoke about the failure to protect the regional environment, “Have you enough intelligence, imagination, and cooperation among you to make the best use of these opportunities?”
Five decades after his challenge to the City Club, Portland had experienced numerous battles over water pollution, highways, and urban sprawl, and was in the middle of its biggest battle over the fate of its regional forests – including the one surrounding Mt. Hood that supplied its drinking water.
In 1993, the federal government intervened and called for a regional conference in Portland to negotiate with timber interests, eventually crafting the Northwest Forest Plan.
The current tendency towards city congestion, and the rapidly rising rents that have led to an official State of Emergency for housing and the houseless, is a dynamic that Mumford also analyzed.
In The Culture of Cities, congestion and rising rents is attributed to a failure of decentralized democratic control over city government. In the absence of such control, Mumford wrote, centralized political and economic networks conspire to drive up prices indefinitely, pushing massive developments that attract new markets in a central area but make no effort to meet social needs.
Mumford’s life-long meditation was whether our society could overcome the historic momentum of authoritarianism, and whether our natural environment would survive the modern world’s thoughtless use of technology – two questions he saw as deeply related, and which still drive debates here in the Pacific Northwest.
With the continued challenge of recovering spotted owls and endangered salmon, the challenge of intelligent living with the environment is still an urgent one.
With the new threat of climate change, debates about fossil fuels have become fundamental to any conversation about environmental preservation, urban planning, and democratic control over the conditions of life.
At the urging of local activists and regional Native American tribes, the City of Portland recently approved a policy to ban the export of fossil fuels through the city. This policy will likely go a long way towards re-establishing Portland as a place that takes long-term planning seriously, and that puts the needs of humanity above the blind application of powerful technology.
Note: This article used source material from the work of R. Bruce Stephenson, as well as Martha J. Bianco, former professor of the School of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU.
Ted Kaye, the unofficial archivist of the Portland City Club, also deserves appreciation for sharing documents related to Mumford’s visit to the City Club.