ABSTRACT

In this article, I examine the formative relation between individuals and their environment to consider more specifically how urban environments support individual agency. I draw on John Dewey's account, in Individualism, Old and New (1930), of the transformation of American society through rapid industrialization, the rise of corporate culture, and their effects on individual psychology. Dewey's analysis demonstrates the role of environmental conditions in motivating and sustaining individual development and thus draws on his earlier work in Democracy and Education (1916), in which he identifies environmental features of democratic societies—namely, diversity and openness to change—as crucial for individual growth and well-being. Drawing on Jane Jacobs's monumental work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), I show how urban environments enact the democratic ideals Dewey identifies. Following Dewey's and Jacobs's accounts, I argue that the psychological health of city inhabitants—and, correspondingly, the vitality of the cities where they live—depends on their dynamic relation to an environment that values diversity and offers opportunities for growth. It is only in the context of such a relation—that is, as embedded in and supported by an environment that reflects their own possibilities—that individuals can realize agency.

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