2008: Regions in Symbiosis – BA yr 2 Essay

Regions in Symbiosis

A critical exploration of the relevance in the 21st Century of Lewis Mumford’s regional planning theories from his 1931 essay: ‘Regional Planning’


In his 1931 address on Regional Planning, Lewis Mumford presents his theories on the history and future of regional planning. He puts forward that cities and towns should not be considered separately from the entire region and that the planning for the region should be considered in it’s environmental and geological context as well as socio-economic and political culture. He argues, however that regions should be defined according to their natural geography – not political lines that have been drawn on the map for convenience and practicality.

In defining regional planning, Mumford argues that the region ‘includes cities, villages and permanent rural areas’ as opposed to metropolitan planning which ‘viewed the surrounding countryside as doomed to be swallowed’ in the inevitable urbal sprawl. Looking to the past, and in particular the massive expansion of cities during the industrial age, Mumford states that while this age was good for machines and for money-making, it was not good for humans. These cities produced a level of degradation which ‘mocked any pretensions to progress and enlightenment.’ Health, happiness, culture, recreation, education were afterthoughts in this temporary environment and thus spawned an unstable and nomadic society. On the other hand, regional planning would ‘promote a balanced use of resources and a balanced social life’

Fig. 1: Ebenezer Howard’s Group of Slumless Smokeless Cities (Howard, 1898, p. 38)

Fig 1 Slumless smokeless cities hall 38Mumford’s solution to the problem, echoes Ebenezer Howard’s proposal for a cluster of Garden Cities (fig 1), each interconnected with excellent transport and communication links, and each offering a balanced way of life for it’s citizens. Mumfords addition to this proposal is that each city is a ‘specialist’ centre for an industry – be it education, health, manufacturing etc. His point is that no one city should be the centre of everything – a reality that we see in the typical megalopolis of today.

In this critique of Mumford’s essay, I will consider his theories under three key points:

  1. Bioregionalism v. Political Regionalism
  2. People, Place and Identity
  3. A Solution? Cities and Sustainable Regional Development

In 1931, Mumford’s solution, while perhaps Utopian, had strong precedents (eg. Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City) and he recognised that the continued enthusiastic and widespread adoption of new technologies could further realise this concept of small, interconnected, poly-centric cities. Technology has since advanced even further than Mumford could have imagined and the world is now a very different place. So, we must ask: Is there still an argument for a Mumfordian Regional Plan in the 21st Century?

Bioregionalism v Political Regionalism 

‘the human region existed long before the political state as we know it came into existence’

(Mumford, 1931:238)

“Nature is rarely neat in it’s boundary-making’

(Glasson & Marshall, 2007:10)

Mumford suggests that modern regions would be more sustainable had the administrators of the past taken into account an area’s natural affiliations. Topographical and geological conditions encouraged certain industry which subsequently influenced socio-economic evolution. As Norberg-Schulz observes, natural settlements occur only where nature (through it’s favourable environmental conditions) ‘invites’ man to settle (1979:170)

Glasson & Marshall (2007) define the region using three bases – biophysical (ecological), political and social/economic, and refer to the concept of Bioregionalism – of which Berg & Dasmann (1977:336) state: “A bioregion can be determined initially by use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural sciences. The final boundaries of a bioregion are best described by the people who have long lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living-in-place.” In defining boundary, Norburg-Schulz (1979:13) cites Heidegger: “A boundary is not that at which something stops … it is that from which something begins it’s presencing’

Berg & Dasmann (1977) and Dodge (1981) argue for the redrawing of California’s administrative regions to coincide with it’s bioregions. Fig. 2 illustrates how the current political subdivision of California simply does not correspond with the natural ecologies of its regions (fig. 3). However, while the bioregions in Fig. 3 may account for the quantative scientific criteria of bioregionalism – what about the ‘cultural/phenomenological’ and  ‘spirit presences’? (Dodge, 1981) Can boundaries be drawn around their ‘presencing’? Perhaps these lines need to be fuzzy – as what was culturally relevant 100 years ago, possibly no longer exists today – and future cultures cannot be predicted. So – a degree of flexibility is required when defining bioregions – as the human experience cannot be defined – however, is this politically possible?

Glasson & Marshall (2007) suggest that as planning is an activity conducted at a political level, then this seems an obvious base for boundary making. This has been the case over the last 50 years in the UK (eg: the British county councils) however these political divisions do not always contain the other vital factors that make a successful region – eg varied land use, transport connections, cultural integrity. In addition, national plans drawn up by a centralised government which affect a remote region can further lead to isolation and disconnection. Nonetheless, boundaries are necessary to retain the ‘human scale’ of a place. As Phillips (2003:22) states “… if the configuration is too large and sprawling without defined boundaries, the individual’s sense of belonging to a place or community will be lost.”

fig 2 ca_county_mapFig. 2: California’s Administrative Regions (CSAC, 2007) fig 3 bioregions CaliforniaFig. 3: Bioregions of California(State of California, 2008)

People, Place and Identity

“It would not have been possible to separate the girl herself and her native place”

(Marcel Proust, Rememberance of Things Past,

cited by Mumford, 1931:239)

Mumford argues that ‘one must create an identity, a centre of one’s own, before one can have fruitful intercourse with other personalities’ (1931:239) – of course he is analogising the concept that a region must have it’s own sense of identity deeply rooted in it’s culture and history before it can successfully relate to another strong culture. Even with a strong identity however, a culture can be vulnerable. As Kurokawa (1994:11) states: “For most of the nations of the world, Western society and Western culture have continued to be the ideal and goal. As a result, developing countries have made every effort to approach the ideal that the West represents. Progress has been identified with Westernisation.’

An example of this is the ‘culture of americanisation’ that we witness today around the globe – mainly due to the steady influx of american TV shows, film and music. Abel (2000) remarks that this influence is essentially a substitute for the departed colonial powers – leading to further dis-connection with a regions’s base culture. There is little that can be done to prevent the import of foreign cultural ideas (and to do so could only be termed censorship), therefore it seems the solution is to increase and improve the quality of home grown ideas and inventions as a method of challenging and counteracting the dominance of external influences.

Fig. 4: Comparison of McMillan Plan for Washington D.C. and Griffin’s Canberra Plan (Freestone: 2004:251)

fig 5 canberra plan

Fig. 5: Neighbourhood Values – but whose?

Seaside, Queensland. (Freestone, 2004:259)

fig 4 seaside queensland

Architecturally speaking, Freestone (2004) discusses how American planning theories and practices have been assimilated into the Australian landscape throughout the 20th Century. A prime example is Canberra (1911-12), by Chicago landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin, whose plan is remarkably similar to that of Washington D.C. (fig. 4) More recently, Australian planners are embracing New Urbanism – an american planning manifesto that reacts to the blandness and lack of human scale and community in suburbs – emphasising ‘design and streetscape, livability and walkability, compactness and community’ (Freestone, 2004:256). This was perhaps an inevitable development given the similarity of Australian and American suburbs. Freestone (2004:258) goes on to discuss ‘Seaside’ – a resort town in Queensland with ‘old-fashioned neighbourhood values’, whose architecture is a fusion of the American Seaside and the traditional Queenslander homes’. (fig. 5) However, this type of architecture and planning seems to be based more on misplaced nostalgia and a desire for the old-fashioned neighbourhood values of American culture than on an authentic regional model. As Norberg-Schulz says: ‘To respect the genius loci does not mean to copy old models. It means to determine the identity of the place and to interpret it in ever new ways’ (Norbug-Schulz, 1979:182).

Hegel defines place as the ‘natural type of the locality, which is closely related to the type and character of the people born from this soil. This character is the way peoples appear and find their place in world history’ (Norburg-Schulz, 1979:168). Kisho Kurokawa (1994) calls for a philosophy of symbiosis – a new age where man, the manmade and the natural can dwell in a place in peaceful unison. A physical manifestation of this symbiosis is ambiguity or intermediate space such as can be seen in traditional Japanese architecture (for example, blurred boundaries between public and private, interior and exterior, see fig. 6.). This ambiguity can be related to the ‘fuzzy boundaries’ of Mumford’s bioregions or the polycentric city cluster where no one place dominates over another. All exists in symbiosis.

When harmony exists between man and nature in a place, the genius loci can begin it’s ‘presencing’ and the individual can identify with their place, culture and time.


fig. 6 Japanese veranda 

Fig. 6: Ambiguous Space beneath the eaves between outside and inside, public and private – 19th Century Japanese House, Tokyo  (Itoh, 1972: 52)



A Solution? Cities & Sustainable Development

“the new regional pattern will be a constellation of related cities, separated by parks and permanent agricultural areas, and united for common projects”

(Lewis Mumford, 1931: 242)

“Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together”

(Ebenezer Howard, 1898: 11)

“We must plant trees!”(Le Corbusier, 1929: 79)

Throughout the 20th Century, there have been numerous theories on how to improve our cities and create a more sustainable place. Mumford was himself deeply influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the Garden City – a cluster of small cities surrounding a central city, each within their own permanent agricultural and parkland green belt connected by train and road. (fig. 7) Howard himself looked to the relationship between Adelaide and North Adelaide in Australia as a precedent for his vision (fig 8) and from here we have Letchworth (fig. 9) and Welwyn Garden City  as prototypes for his plan. Howard’s concept sparked interest across the globe and garden cities sprung up in France (Les Lilas, Drancy, Suresnes (fig. 10); in the United States (Radburn, NJ and Greenbelt, Maryland (fig.11 ); and Japan (Den-en Toshi eg. Sakurai, Tamagawadai). (Ward, 1992)

Fig 7Howard’s Garden City (Howard, 1898: 15)


fig 7 EH Garden City pg 15


Fig. 8 

Adelaide and Adelaide North – a precedent for the Garden City Movement

(Howard, 1898:104)

fig 8 EH Adelaide pg 104

Fig. 9 (left): Letchworth Garden City (Hall, 1992: 39)

fig 9 Letchworth hall 39

Fig. 10

Suresnes Garden City, France (Ward, 1992: 62)

fig 10 Suresnes ward 62

Fig. 11 Greenbelt, Maryland, US (Ward, 1992:154)

fig 12 greenbelt ward 154

In pre-Nazi Germany, a number of urban theorists took inspiration from the Garden City movement and applied the schemes to fit their own cultural agenda. One was Eduard von Berlepsh-Valendas’, whose ‘Stadtegruppe’ of 1907 (fig. 12) re-represents Howard’s Social Cities in it’s strictly geometrical form – without any of the social reform overtones (Ward, 1992). Later in 1941, while not directly inspired by the Garden City tradition, Walter Christaller’s Central Space Theory (fig. 13) has certain technical parrallels with Howard’s Social City diagrams. The spatial structuring, hierarchical ordering, polycentric layout and the connection between each of the centres bears resemblence however it’s intended implementation would have transplanted almost 5 million people therefore did not uphold the socialist principles of the garden city movement (Ward, 1992).

 fig 13 Stadtegruppe ward 91  Fig 14 Central Space Theory Ward 98

Fig. 12: Eduard von Berlepsh-Valendas’ Stadtegruppe, 1907                                         (Ward, 1992:91)

Fig. 13: Walter Christaller’s Central Space Theory, 1941                                          (Ward, 1992: 98)

Le Corbusier, in his book ‘Urbanisme’ also advocated the garden city and stressed the importance of an intermediary zone: “Lying between these two organs (the central city and the peripheral garden city), we must require the legal establishment of that absolute necessity, a protective zone which allows of extension, a reserved zone of woods and fields, a fresh air reserve.” (Le Corbusier, 1929: 162) – see fig. 14. The idealogy for his city of tomorrow can be compared to Mumford’s regional plan.

“The basic principles we must follow are these:

1. We must de-congest the centres of our cities.

2. We must augment their density.

3. We must increase the means for getting about.

4. We must increase parks and open spaces.”

(Le Corbusier, 1929:166)

Fig. 14: Le Corbusier’s ‘Contemporary City’ – The great city is in the centre, the industral city (red) is separated as are the small garden cities (yellow) around the periphery. The green shaded area demonstrates the vastness of the ‘protected zone’ (Le Corbusier, 1929:172 – colour and text  added by Suzanne O’Donovan, 2009)

Fig. 14: Le Corbusier’s ‘Contemporary City’ – The great city is in the centre, the industral city (red) is separated as are the small garden cities (yellow) around the periphery. The green shaded area demonstrates the vastness of the ‘protected zone’
(Le Corbusier, 1929:172 – colour and text added by Suzanne O’Donovan, 2009)

Vanderbeek & Irazábal (2007) consider the New Urbanism movement in the US over the last couple of decades as equal in importance to the Garden City movement. It’s neo-traditionalist approach to urban planning encourages community values, as well as socio-economic and environmentally sustainable development. However, while this vision of social harmony is optimistic, new urbanism rejects the much valued individualism that is indulged in the affluent suburbs and essentially ignores the exisiting multiculturalism of the inner city (Vanderbeek & Irazábal, 2007). Could the realisation of the urban village cause those who don’t fit the mould to be outcast? – in other words, a preservation of cultural values at all costs.

fig 17 Eco Media City Phillips 25

Fig. 15: Eco-Media City 2020 by Kisho Kurokawa (Phillips, 2003: 25)

A more sustainable and encouraging form of regional development has been proposed by Kisho Kurokawa through the decentralisation of some industries from Kuala Lumpar. This is Eco-Media City 2020 (fig. 15) which itself is made up of 5 small cities of equal density and importance. Kurokawa’s vision, fuelled by his philosophy of symbiosis, preserves the natural environment and unites man and nature. Of this proposal, Phillips is optimistic: “Globalisation and the takeover of major cities as centres of international business and finance are not inevitable”. (Phillips, 2003:24)

These theorists and practitioners, for the most part, concur with Mumford’s vision of a decentralised regional plan, however their visions realised were not always faithful to the concept –  eg. speculative building on garden city boundaries contradicted the garden city manifesto (Ward, 1992). Now there is condemnation of the garden city as a wasteful use of land and planners are being urged to again increase density in existing cities. The New Urbanism philosophy may provide some pointers, however the potential exclusion of multi- or inter-culturalism makes it an uncomfortable idealogy and it’s neo-traditionalist approach seems a step backwards rather than forwards. On the other hand, Kurokawa’s Eco Media City in 2020, which seems to be most comparable to Mumford’s plan may yet be the first realisation of a bioregion that is in true symbiosis with all of it’s elements.


Lewis Mumford’s Regional Planning presents a strong case for the development of bioregions with clusters of small polycentric urban developments amidst agricultural belts and parklands, however the question posed was – is there still a case for this type of place in the 21st Century?

Given the current economic crisis and impending fuel shortages, it seems there has never been a more relevant time to seriously consider Mumford’s proposals. Globalisation has led to a society that is almost completely dependant on external resources (food, energy) and imaginary resources (credit), and current levels of consumption are unsustainable. This avaricious ‘take-take’ way of life has little benefit for the community, let alone the bioregion – therefore a movement towards a more regional based planning would be a positive one, however instigating the renewal of a more sustainable way of life stands a much greater chance of success with ‘buy-in’ from individuals and communities. To quote Norberg-Schulz: “The man-made place has to know ‘what it wants to be’ relative to the natural environment’ (Norburg-Schulz, 1979:180).

Learning to live in symbiosis within a bioregion will be a major mental shift – but is possible. So – can we envisage a future of small interconnected cities and parks and farms? If mankind as it is now learns to again live in symbiosis with nature – then anything is possible after that.


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Norberg-Schulz, Christian (1979) ‘Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture’, New York: Rizzoli
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Vanderbeek, Michael & Irazábal, Clara (2007), ‘New Urbanism as a New Modernist Movement’, Traditional Dwellings & Settlements Review, Vol 6 (1), pp. 41 – 57
Ward, Stephen (ed) (1992), ‘The Garden City: Past, Present and Future’, London: Chapman & Hall


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