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'.
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.
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?
Historians need to get urban too
Where are the heroes for today's urban reformers? Jane Jacobs is as relevant as ever for contemporary urbanists, but why not move the dial back to Jane Addams as well?
With their deeply contextual knowledge of the past and the primary sources through which it speaks, historials are well-positioned to serve as bridges between different eras of urban reform. But they'll need to learn a few new tricks. Historians in an urban age need a firm grasp on the needs, trends, and vocabulary of contemporary reformers if they are to serve them best. This does not mean that the past shouldn't be understood on its own terms, but historians should nonetheless be able to translate their work for contemporary concerns. They will need to find up-to-date ways of communicating this research to new audiences, moving beyond the monograph to embrace new digital and social techniques of information dissemination. Both of these can be served through collaboration, both across borders and across fields.
Luckily, historians are being increasingly pushed and pulled into these kinds of pursuits. In their 2011 essay 'No more Plan B: a very modest proposal for graduate programs in history', Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman made the case for historians to move outside the academy to find new applications for historical knowledge (as well as new job prospects). Programmes in digital history and public history, such as the Roy Rosenzweig Center at George Mason University, are proliferating. Organisations like BLDG BLOK are fostering communication between historians, policy makers and ICT groups. And at TEDxDUMBO last weekend Liz McEnaney, who teaches architectural history at Columbia University, gave an eloquent talk on how history can be a resource for communities trying to envision their future, such as fading Hudson River towns consciously recreating their former vibrancy by restoring historic downtowns and theatres.
Popular historians Eric Hobsbawm and Howard Zinn were beloved by activists not only because they wrote well and insightfully, but because they presented models, ideas, and heroes — from primitive rebels to international workers unionists — whose accomplishments could be analysed and improved upon. Where are the heroes for today's urban reformers? Jane Jacobs, perhaps the example that springs to mind immediately, is as relevant as ever for contemporary urbanists, but why not move the dial back to Jane Addams as well? We will need all the help we can get if we are to realisse the potential of our urban age, and there is a world of relevant individuals, models, and ideas that can hep us do this. Only a lack of communication between disciplines prevents us from doing so.
And so I ask of urban reformers: how can historians, and history, help you in your undertakings. Of historians I ask: how can your research feed into conversations about urbanism today. Let's create a public space for and around these conversations, and move our insights on the past and the present towards building a better future — which even us historians will have to live in some day.