Douglass: humans may not be able to adapt to cities but suburbs could work

Church researcher Harlan Paul Douglass concludes his 1925 work The Suburban Trend with his ideas about human nature and cities:

Human nature, all agree, is capable of a certain measure of adaptive elasticity. Village life, which was its typical form of civilization up to the beginning of the era of steam-driven machinery, little more than a century ago, was not, so far as determined, an undue strain upon it. The city does overstrain human nature, and relief must be looked for in the direction of the village. JUst how far back, then, is it necessary to go? Perhaps no further than the suburbs, and to a different balance between the urban and rural elements in civilization. One cannot prove just where the broken ranks of civilization will hold even if it is possible to rally them again. But it is worth trying along this line. (p.311)

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century in the United States, it is hard to remember how big of a social change the move to large cities is. It changes everything for social relationships. It is still happening in numerous parts of the world as rural life is disrupted by huge flows of people to large cities. And even in the United States and the Western world, in the limited time of recorded human history, this urbanization happened not long ago.
  2. Given #1, it serves as a reminder of how quickly we have adapted to big city and surrounding suburbs life. This is all relatively new yet we take it for granted.
  3. Douglass hints at the work of others like Simmel who were also concerned about whether humans could survive in big cities. Few urbanists would raise such concerns now; instead, cities are often held up as the solution to numerous social problems. Humans are indeed adaptable.
  4. At the same time, Douglass does presciently hint at the appeal of suburbs for many Americans. It may not be cities themselves that are the problem – many Americans left cities for issues such as race, social class, and immigration – but in the decades after this book was published, the suburbs became the home for a plurality of Americans.

 

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