The Planetary City

The city also has a valuable role in the metaindustrial era

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 45
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

A CITY of consciousness. It is an idea which has been budding through centuries, and now – through Auroville, Arcosanti, Experimental Cities, Stelle, and others – has started to unfold: to build a city out of the flowering of a new consciousness, out of what might be described as a group- soul rather than a group-ego, that would harmoniously relate the planet’s possibilities of wilderness and urbanity, agriculture and human culture, revolution and evolution, centralization and decentralization, science and spirituality, industry and ecology, technology and craftship, abundance and economy, locality and globality, work and play, education and life expression, diversity and unity, solitude and intimacy – rounding these to a microcosmic expression of the earth in one city that couId eventualIy re- seed itself in the most diverse localities throughout the globe so that these cities and their wildernesses might become islands, the islands articulate nations, nations form continents and the world become whole. (I’m sorry if this sentence seemed a bit much, but soon I settle down and go easy.)

The very theme of IN CONTEXT’s first issue implies this might be done by villages and communities. My question is, do we truly believe they would be sufficient?

I am convinced the two great poles of challenge and catastrophe in our time are, physically, ecology; spiritually, groups. For both, a conscious city is the instrument, while villages and communities are the equally crucial aids.

In ecology, the catastrophic possibility is obvious (comparing it to the nuclear war threat, if we go on doing just what we are doing now with arms we’re sure to have more of them in storage for a heavier threat, and if we go on doing just what we’re doing now to the ecology we’re sure to join the increasing number of vanishing species). The challenge requires a new city because no planetary village or community, no matter how successfully it deals with the ecology, is likely to convince our mainstream culture the solution is transferable. One can hear people saying, "Oh, they’re that group of superidealists in some weird community in the country. But our problems in Seattle/San Francisco/Vancouver/Chicago/New York are much more complicated and difficult than theirs in that village." Such people would find it much more compelling when faced with the ecological triumph of a city populated with, say, 100,000 persons. And in order to manage such a triumph soon enough, we need to begin now.

For groups, the catastrophe would be the blowout of the human race’s potential without a collective realization to take us through the "world problematique" which group egoism everywhere feeds. Turn this over and the challenge is just that: to realize in a group the consciousness our finest individuals have developed where the qualities of condition-dissolving love, integrating knowledge, and calming power are all natural expressions.

This challenge needs a new city as its working material, a city with its great diversity of life styles, of spiritualities and religions, of cultures and sub-cultures, commerce, education, art. With a rural or suburban community or village the tendency, as we have noticed in a great many present and past attempts, is to nurture the subtle gloss of a group-ego within the naturally more viscous boundaries produced by a smaller gathering of people who are more drawn into themselves. There is less "interruption", and more intra-group similarity, less likelihood of fundamental criticism, more likelihood of a single leader and cultish tinges. And because everyone’s hopes are on one small stage, contrasted to the multifaceted venture of a city, it’s easy to slip into extreme means to achieve what may become a more and more desperate end. The history of utopias is full of this, with the "new society" often turning out to become a worse version, in miniature, of the society it intended to save. In a forming city, even in the early stages, that viscosity is easily kept open and flexible by the variety of forces and people attracted to the project. Yet if the group-soul has strength, it could absorb all these entries at the periphery and in the process provide a coherence and centrality for the free and stable growth of the city’s new consciousness.

In doing this by beginning a new city, the tremendous pioneering work of consciousness and ecology could be freely explored, grounded, and adapted as things emerged without having to simultaneously work through the inertia of all the old structures and systems of an existing city – physical and otherwise. The old patterns of consciousness which people would bring into the project would provide them with all the working through they would need!

There is a further aspect of the challenge of groups. In a way it’s the most striking and liberating of all: it is why a group realization is the next step of us evolving humans and why we can resolve all of our major problems with, but not without, it.

We have, of course, for thousands of years tried to solve these problems through the realization by, example of, action through, and formation of groups around great individuals . . . from Lao-Tse to Jesus Christ to Swami Such- a-Banana. My gratitude goes endlessly to these persons, whose work will continue to sustain us far into the future. In the same breath we all know that they, and those of us here and there that have been moved by their inspiration into a greater life flow, are not enough. But we don’t often discuss why.

I feel the why is because those collectivities which have developed or created our major problems – national governments, unions, gangs, special interest associations, churches, military organizations, legislative lobbies, school administrations, secret orders, political parties, and on and on (we are all involved) – such groups cannot be truly changed by an individual but must be changed by a transformed group. Group "chemistry" is far more complicated than individual chemistry, and the heart of a group needs to be spoken to by the heart of another group’s being. The effectiveness is accomplished in that band of resonances which groups share. When a group begins to serve selflessly, love endlessly, act in the calm of a great power, and express itself with an integral knowledge in each communication and gesture and activity day by month by year, it penetrates like an arrow into the soul of every collectivity in the world, as an invasion of health might undo every wrinkle in the body of the earth.

It’s difficult to balance between the extremes of grandiose inflation of one’s possibilities and narrow-viewed ignorance of one’s full context, don’t you think? Let’s back off from the grandiose and face two obstacles that we so often feel separate us from the future of a city: inappropriately large size and congestion, crime, unnaturality and so on.

Size. An interesting thing happens to the number of people needed to make up and support a fully diverse city when these people are conscious; that is, not "just" a market population living there in order to support the area’s economy. Rather, if these people are, often as a result of inner individual work, developed personalities whose interests, activities and capabilities are not shaped by the homogenizing influence of mass advertising and what passes for discussions in most magazines and on most television, but are shaped by the smithy of their own internal processes, then in such a situation the diversity, stimulation, exchange of ideas, art forms, practicalities and goods which take a margin of 7.5 million people to accomplish in New York would be capable of manifestation, I feel, by about 100,000 persons in a city of consciousness.

Does 100,000 sound like a lot? For those of you familiar with Eugene, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin – both highly regarded as vibrant and livable – each is populated by more than that. Eugene, with 105,000 people impressed me in a recent visit as very comfortable. Although Eugene is remarkably conscious as cities go, a city of equal size with the flowering of awareness we are discussing would offer almost infinitely more diversity and richness of interplay.

On congestion, crime, unnaturality, I can’t help plead that you get acquainted, if you’re not, with Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (described in the Strategies & Resources section). Writing out of her very intelligent experience living in our great cities, she shows where and how such problems have already been solved in those streets themselves (when kept from the desks of impractical urban theorists and your everyday government agency). Although another article would be needed to adequately describe her insights, you can have a wonderful time with this iconoclast of urban studies, confirming our discussion in her own clear and practical tongue. And another extraordinary title in the bibliography, The Village As Solar Ecology, reveals in some detail how not only villages, but cities also, can now be built as large ecosystems far beyond the bindings of our present downtown unnaturality.

Looking more deeply into the nature of cities, where has humanity anywhere lived for long without them, unless we feel the only way to absorb the wisdom of the gentle Tasadays and other rare Stone Age exceptions among us is to become Stone Age ourselves? Scholars in this field even believe that civilization (the word itself comes from the root civil/citizen/city) would not have been possible without the rise of universities, libraries theater districts, museums, archives, and market centers – those containers of cultivated life that only cities create.

Imagine yourself, in this moment, without the influence of such education, without most books, cinema, or any collected records of our past beyond that of family and neighborhood village, bereft of any substantial theater and its repertoire of Shakespeare, Goethe, and on and on. Suppose you’re a mechanic or a gardener, interior decorator or librarian: how would you select supplies, tools, and get state-of-the-art news of the trade without concentrated centers (in cities) of such shop and store diversity? Even though some of this could be purchased in a community, its distribution would depend on such an urban locus. The expectation that communities and micro- electronic media can substitute for the physical density of a city fails to sense that the character of an opulently unpredictable process of exchange thrives on people in direct human contact, to which a terminal display screen is richly irrelevant. I won’t hesitate to suggest, again, that a glance through the amazingly current 1961 work of Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, gives the warmth of flesh tones to this point. Urban influence is like the cultural ocean of air we breathe, out of which all planetary villages and communities will take their bearings.

But do we want such bearings to be taken from the present urban culture of Seattle, Chicago, New York . . . or a new one growing out of a new consciousness? Out of an ecological ignorance and destruction, or knowledge and sustenance? A stratified and power- oriented politics or a cooperative and service-oriented one? A competitive, exploitive, and entropic economics or a mutually supportive, contributory, and flourishing one?

Of course our exploration of a city is only beginning. Asking to be discussed are such questions as: what is the process by which the group-soul might develop? And the city? And just what is the group-soul? How would a city of about 100,000 population, densely concentrated and diverse at its heart, be able to sustain and nourish the environment ecologically instead of burdening and violating it? How, in its niche, would it relate to and be supportive of the equally important communities and villages, in their niches, in the developing Pacific Northwest vision? And then there is the whole range of political and economic and educational processes, to mention a few, which we would have the opportunity of creating on a new basis – a microcosm of a new world based on a new consciousness that we feel is now, atom by cell by dream by glance by word by gesture, slowly trying to emerge.

Although I would like the time and space now to offer a start on these questions, I feel this exploration will find its way of continuing, in the pages of IN CONTEXT and correspondence and conversations, and in the beginning of work. The idea, the feeling, the work of building a city of dawn has certainly come to me, and it may be, to you.

Ronald Jorgensen has spent time living at Auroville in India and now lives in Kirkland, Washington. His annotated bibliography is in the Strategies & Resources section.

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