Does Scale Matter?
The Country-City Debate in the History of Industrial Societies


Heleni Porfyriou (National Research Council of Italy, CNR-ISPC, Italy)

Rosemary Wakeman (Fordham University, New York - USA)


Nineteenth century industrialization and consequent urbanization generated profound criticism by the end of the century. Decentralizing settlement appeared as the solution, especially with the emergence of Ebenezer Howard’s well known Garden City. The Garden City movement -- with its two world famous experiments of Letchworth and Welwyn -- and the contemporaneous spread of the Garden City ideal across the UK and Europe as well as the United States and globally was only the first effort at dispersal. The spell of planned settlements diffused across the landscape was taken up by a variety of regionalist approaches from Soviet disurbanists to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City. By the mid-twentieth century, the myth of motorization and suburbanization did little but foster extensive sprawl.

These debates about city and country, about centralization versus decentralization continued throughout the twentieth century. The New Town movement was the most cohesive example of planned settlements in a dispersed regional pattern. The most well-known examples are Abercrombie’s plan for Greater London and Delouvrier’s schema for the Paris region. Elaborate projects for new towns appeared across the globe- in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This movement toward dispersal was matched by the countervailing reengagement with the central city in all its forms. The movement for recentralization was brought on by the destruction of the Second World War, by slum clearance programs, as well as by the architectural avant-garde around CIAM and its offshoots. Dense settlement in the structures of modernism stood in stark contrast to scattered population nodes.

Since the late twentieth century, the design of cities and the long-running rivalry between centralization and decentralization have been imbued with new concerns- environmental sustainability and cities’ resilience to global warming and climate change. Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Buon Governo” and his integrated view of urban and rural landscape no longer has efficacy, nor does the juxtaposition of country and city. These older imaginaries have been replaced by perceptions of the urban-rural divide. The vast scale of global urbanization in the new millennium has intensified this opposition and led to strategies for synthesis, such as the “rural-urban linkages” promoted in China. The Covid pandemic has intensified the theoretical stance for one or the other vision of settlement and calls for innovative policies between the camps. Where do we stand, and where can we go, which of these settlement visions offer options?

The aim of this thematic node is to follow this historical excursus and identify how our recent urban history can provide a better understanding of our present condition. Central to our investigation is Raymond Williams’ cultural materialism* and a critical approach to the global “country vs city” debate since the emergence of industrialization. The different conceptualizations -- such as “urbanists vs dis-urbanists” in the first quarter of the twentieth century, “re-centralization-decentralization”, around mid-20th century, and “rural-urban”, in more recent decades -- will represent the file rouge on which seminar cycles will be organised. Other research foci will be identified through the socio-economic questions, design criteria, ideological paradigms, and the emergence of new terms that followed the above-mentioned conceptual changes.

* R. Williams, Culture and Society, UK 1958, USA 1960.


8 October 2021

  • Fabiano Lemes de Oliveira (Milan Polytechnic – Italy), Carla Brisotto (University of Florida – USA), Rethinking urban-rural relationships: perspectives from planning history

  • Victoria Jane Marshall (National University of Singapore, Singapore), A particular “kind of urban”: Periurban Kolkata, West Bengal

  • Mzo Sirayi (Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria – South Africa), Giulio Verdini (University of Westminster, London – UK), Beyond the rural-urban divide through culture: cases from China and South Africa