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The Nature of Cities

, 328 pages

9 halftones, 3 line drawings

March 2014



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The Nature of Cities

Ecological Visions and the American Urban Professions, 1920–1960

In the early twentieth century, America was transformed from a predominantly agricultural nation to one whose population resided mostly in cities. Yet rural areas continued to hold favored status in the country’s political life.

For prominent figures in the social sciences, city planning, and real estate who were anxious about the future of cities, this obsession with the agrarian past inspired a new campaign for urban reform. They called for ongoing programs of natural resource management to be extended to maintain and improve cities.

Jennifer S. Light finds a new understanding of the history of urban renewal in the United States in the rise and fall of the American conservation movement. The professionals Light examines came to view America’s urban landscapes as ecological communities requiring scientific management on par with forests and farms. The Nature of Cities brings together environmental and urban history to reveal how, over four decades, this ecological vision shaped the development of cities around the nation.

Jennifer S. Light is a professor at the School of Communication and the Departments of History and Sociology at Northwestern University and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Policy Research. She is the author of From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"Of interest to scholars and students of urban history, planning, geography, and sociology, as well as urban studies more generally... Highly recommended."

"A fascinating and suggestive account of the influence of ecology and natural-resource management on academic urbanists, city planners, and real-estate professionals."

"Light’s excavation of the intellectual terrain, on which so much of mid-20th-century urban policy rested, significantly contributes to our understanding of planning’s evolution in this critical period following the profession’s foundational years."

"An outstanding history of how ecological concerns have shaped urban development around the country."

"Light does a wonderful job of tracking the migration of people and ideas to the nation's capital, demonstrating how these shaped the National Resources Planning Board's agenda and actions, and detailing how urban management became national policy from FDR to LBJ."

"This engaging and well-written work challenges the notion that cities were seen as 'unnatural' places during the early years of the twentieth century, when the United States was transitioning from an agrarian to an urban society and the professions of social science, urban planning, and real estate were being developed... To understand that policies that led to the bulldozing of neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal" in the 1960s and 1970s had their origins in theories first espoused in the opening decades of the twentieth century relating to forest and field resource management reminds us that there may well be unintended consequences for seemingly benign theories, models, and approaches promoted today."

"Light explores how ecological ideas such as 'climax,' 'blight,' and 'conservation' transferred from the natural sciences to the emerging fields of urban sociology, geography, and economics during the 1920s and were eventually adopted by urban professionals during the 1930s and 1940s. Most importantly, she argues that these ideas—which saw cities as closed ecological communities that, like farms and forests, could be managed scientifically—significantly shaped local and national urban-renewal policy in postwar America... This book makes an important contribution to the study of twentieth century American cities."

"A model for anyone looking to reveal the complex ways that scientific thinking plays into the emergence of an entire field of social planning."

"An interesting, erudite, and important book. It describes the evolution of the urban professions (academic social scientists, real estate professionals, and urban planners) from 1920 to 1960 and combines prodigious scholarship with a strong thesis, and very deftly explores the relationship between the local and the national—a great contribution."

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