The Organic City: Urban Definition and Neighborhood Organization 1880—1920

October 30, 2020
The Organic City: Urban Definition and Neighborhood Organization 1880—1920

During the late nineteenth century rapid social and economicchanges negated the prevailing conception of the city as a uniformwhole. Confronted with this disparity between the old urbandefinition and the new city of the late nineteenth century, socialthinkers searched for a new concept that would correspond moreclosely to the divided urban community around them. Borrowing ananalogy from natural history, these thinkers conceived of the cityas an organism composed of interdependent neighborhoods and soughtto translate this concept into ways of dealing with thedislocations and problems in urban life.In this new study of American urban history Patricia Melvintraces the growth of the idea of the organic city and thedeveloping emphasis on the neighborhood as the basic urban unit. Anearly expression of the idea was the settlement house movement, butthe most effective application of the idea, Melvin shows, was thesocial unit organization scheme worked out by Wilbur C. Phillips.As a social planner and organizer, Phillips first tried hisapproach in New York, then in Milwaukee, and finally in Cincinnati.Although initially successful in dealing with specific issues,Phillips's efforts eventually foundered on friction among ethnicgroups and on the opposition of city politicians. Finally, in the1920s the whole concept of the organic city was supplanted by a newview of the city based not upon a cooperative but upon acompetitive model.The Organic City contributes new understanding to an importantperiod of American urban history. Moreover, it shows clearly howimportant is the role of concepts in shaping the perception ofsocial realities and the attempts to deal with them.