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Louis Wirth and Urban Ecology

Louis Wirth and Urban Ecology

Author: Paul Hannan

Recognize the contributions of Louis Wirth andĀ Georg Simmel to the understanding of urban ecology.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain City; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology, Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on Louis Wirth and urban ecology. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today, we're going to look at urban ecology and Wirth's contribution to this field. So what is urban ecology?

Well, generally speaking, ecology is when we're looking at how humans interact with the environment. Well, urban ecology is looking at specifically how humans interact within the urban environment. This is a relatively new branch of sociology, and it's becoming increasingly more important. The percentage of the population that lives in urban environments, lives in cities is increasing and continues to increase. And the way that we live in cities really changes the way that we as humans interact with each other, and it changes the structures of society.

Well, of course, sociologists love this and they are studying this. And we're going to look at where it really came out of it, and Wirth being one of the first people to really delve into this approach.

So Louis Wirth, again, he's a sociologist. He's from America. He actually was a major part of the University of Chicago and their movement, and they were one of the first ones to not only have a sociology department, but also look at the urban environment very specifically. And what he really did is he looked at the underlying elements of cities and urbanization. So he wanted to say-- he wanted to find what really made city life what it was, and then how did city life affect individuals and society as a whole.

Now, before we get into his pluses and minuses of some of what he found within urban society, let's first look at how Wirth defined a city.

So Wirth said a city is any relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals. So a city has to be large. A city has to be dense. It has to be permanent, and it has to be heterogeneous. So means that there's a wide variety of people that live there. It's not homogeneous. Not everyone is very similar living in this area.

So Wirth looked, and he's studied this definition of city and saw a couple different things. And he really saw some aspects he was really critical of urban life, and then he also saw some things that he saw as really positive coming out of urban life.

So let's tackle the negative first, so look on the right side of your screen there. Wirth found that city life really has negatively affected humans in a couple different ways. Humans that live in cities are much more impersonal. The connection and emphasis and value of the family declines when you live in cities.

There's also less social solidarity, so less of this feeling of community when you live in a city. You're much more likely to become isolated and feel isolated, and you're also much more susceptible to mass movements.

So that doesn't sound like city life is very good. We're making human society less personal. We're making the family less valuable. We're decreasing community. We're becoming more isolated, and we're susceptible to these big movements in society. That does not sound good.

Well, Wirth also found these positive aspects. So if you look on the left side of your screen there, you'll see these here.

So the positive forces, the positive aspects, Wirth found that city life really increased your tolerance. In city life, there's a respect and a thriving scientific community. And there's way more freedoms when you are part of city life. Invention and that spirit of invention thrives in cities. And yes, we're susceptible to mass movements, but that might actually be good for society. It's not necessarily just bad.

And Wirth kind of saw the city as at the same time being this glowing, shining sun of light that gives hope for human society. But it also gives this giant black hole that is ruining society, and the city life is really a battle between these two forces.

But before I leave you, I just want to give you three of Wirth's influences. So the first one is Marx, and that's from Karl Marx. And Wirth really liked that idea of alienation.

So Marx had argued that the capitalist system, it really forces individual workers to become alienated and feel powerless. And it's really this emotional state of powerlessness coming from capitalism. Well, Wirth really looked at that alienation and he thought that was interesting in how city life can cause some of that, but he didn't buy into the fact that everything came as a critique of capitalism.

Now, Simmel is another person worth was influenced by, and he is a German. And you can think of him as the person who was the precursor to urban sociology. So urban sociology didn't actually exist when he was around, but he was kind of the one that started that ball rolling.

And this German here, when he was looking at the urban environment, he was looking at a couple of different things. But what he's most famous for is this idea of a blase attitude. And the blase attitude is saying that the city life is so hectic and so crazy and there's so many things going on that individuals that live in that in that environment are forced to develop a blase attitude.

And a blase attitude is when you kind of are desensitized and you take a step back and you don't overreact to situations. It's similar to a carefree attitude, but it has a little bit more of a negative connotation than carefree does.

Now, Park is someone that Wirth actually worked with at the University of Chicago. And Park did extensive study of cities. And he did a lot of studies actually by just walking around the streets and getting a feel for communities, and he really recognized the powers of neighborhoods. And you can imagine these two working side by side, really developing this view of looking at the urban world and this urban ecology.

Park is most famous, though, really, for seeing the city like it's this-- like a city is nature. So for all the concrete and the cars and the noise and all these things that don't seem anything like nature, it actually acts a lot like an ecosystem out in nature. It actually acts a lot like an individual organism out in nature.

So today's take away message, we looked at urban ecology. And that's the study of human interactions within the urban environment. And then we looked at some of the work of Louis Wirth, and he was an American sociologist who studied cities and urbanization.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon.

Terms to Know
Urban Ecology

The study of human interactions with, and within, an urban environment.

People to Know
Louis Wirth

American sociologist from the Chicago school of urban qualitative researchers who studied city life.