Let’s recognize reality…


Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City, is an investigation of how inhabitants of urban areas form an image in their minds of the city, and the implications of this for ‘urban design.’  The book is a classic, endlessly cited.  I have been thinking a lot lately about cities and urban sprawl, and I am wondering if our image of the city isn’t a big part of the problem when we start diagnosing and ranting about urban ills of today.

Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.  A true believer in the Lynch point of view, at least as I understood it as a student long ago, would say that people today have no clear idea of the cities in which they live because the urban form has spread, “metastisized,” sprawled, bled all over, etc. etc. the surronding area and that cities have no form, are formless, today.  Of course, everything has a form.  Maybe not the one you like…  The conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in everywhere-ville today.

To see the Ur-source of western city images, you could hardly do better than this book,which I heartily recommend:


click link

Cities of the World – the complete color plates from 1572 – 1617 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.  This was, perhaps, the golden age of city form, or at least of idealized versions of it committed to paper.  Looking through this book is a dizzying experience for anyone who is interested in urban history and European architectural tourism!  The plates are positively awe inspiring in their beauty.  They convey a powerful, nostalgic, and completely inappropriate way of looking at cities of today.  But who cares!

Here are some good cities!

urbino page_xl_braun_hogenberg_10_0809181220_id_138632

cambrayfull braun_hogenberg_III_2_b


They all are so clearly demarcated from the surrounding country.  They give such a clear sense of their structure and ordering principles.  Their enclosure by walls or moats makes them look like biological cells, prompting all sorts of fertile notions about urban growth, organic growth, sustainability, city-nature, etc.  Of course, this was a picture book.  Did the cities ever look quite like this?  To a great extent, yes, but any unsightly details such as squatters or gypsies, industrial outbuildings crowded up against the edge, and the like, were removed.

new-jerusalem-tapestryThis IS the image of the city we carry with us, at least those of us who have been properly educated, as I was.  The image has many sources, not the least of which are religious, as shown here in this scene from 14th century tapestry in which John views the Celestial Jerusalem.  Of course, there’s also Homer, in which the walls of Troy are for viewing the fighting going on in the plain below.

In his wonderful book, Sprawl:  A Compact History, (clever, that compact bit) Robert Bruegmann challenges a lot of these notions.  Sprawl, suburbs and suburbanization, development, edge-cities, exurbanity, and all that are the antithesis of the city.  Or so we think.  He argues, convincingly, and on the contrary, that there has always been sprawl, but that it was always the preserve of the economic and power elite.  Today, sprawl, or low-density urban living, has been democratized.  In his book, he doesn’t really evaluate sprawl as good or bad, except to say that it clearly has many good consequences and many that are not good.  This neutral approach infuriates some people who seem to feel that not declaring war on sprawl at the outset puts him in league with the devil, or at least with the Republicans.  Bruegmann feels that sprawl, and the cities with which it forms urban systems is too complex to yield to simple analyses:  first we must understand the history and nature of what we are ranting about.  Over and over again he marshals facts and logic to challenge, and sometimes demolish the pretensions of the anti-sprawl contingent, and a few of my preconceptions fell by the wayside in the process.

As I read through his book, it seemed to me that sprawl and global warming have much in common as causes – indeed many would join them in some way – in that they have a religious significance for many people.  To investigate scientifically is to violate sacred taboos.

Perhaps my favorite moment in reading was when he remarked on the monumental lack of curiosity regarding the reality of modern city life present in the writing of Lewis Mumford, a veritable god to me in my younger days.  Well, I still like Mummy’s prose – readers of this blog will be familiar with my weakness for apocalyptic cultural and political  critiques – but the fact is, he’s right.  I wonder, did Mumford ever speak to someone who liked living in the suburbs?

10 Responses to Let’s recognize reality…

  1. troutsky says:

    Perhaps the problem is that everybody “likes” suburban exile just as they like prozac. Everything is pleasant, the water gleaming in the pool, the ice tinkling in the cocktail, the blue light of the TV flickering endlessly.

  2. lichanos says:

    Troutsky, this is a very snobby comment. Why don’t you rethink it, eh?

  3. Man of Roma says:

    We don’t have much this type of suburbia here, sprawled on a vast territory, with one-family houses, as you can have in the United States. Life in your ‘suburban exile’ can be pleasant, even if prozac-like, as troutsky says.

    An idea of it I had watching ‘Desperate Housewives’ together with my daughters lol.

    As for Rome, Mussolini and especially post-war administration built the ‘borgate’ (external separate districts) with huge buildings inhabited by hundreds of families in order to keep poor people away from the city. Now they have been engulfed by Rome. Horrible as they are (no prozac life there) they’ve though become humane thanks to the left administration. No riots like in the banlieues of France. They exhibit the old ways of the Rome of the 50s, with a sort of dolce vita (certainly inferior to the original model) and yet decent.

  4. lichanos says:

    You guys should take some prozac before using it as an adjective! It’s not Soma!!

    You may not have much Americano-Suburbia in Rome yet, but it’s sure not all like the beauty of the ancient core, is it? I recall driving through a lot of pretty low-density (compared to the center) apartment neighborhoods that didn’t look too exciting. I didn’t notice tall towers, but then, I might have missed them on the way to and from the airport. Is that the area you mean?

    I would like to visit them next time. That’s how MOST Romans live, isn’t it?

  5. troutsky says:

    I use the adjective symbolically,generally,as a universal metaphor for Soma, sorry if I offended. My point is that community, the commons, is totally annihilated in suburbia and so democracy is hollowed and formalized. Individualism colonizes the consciousness. Rome belongs to Romans but the San Fernando valley?

  6. Man of Roma says:

    I don’t think Lichanos was offended. He was probably joking. Soma, the perfect drug, symbol of oblivion of consciousness … wonder if Rome really belongs to the Romans. Yes and no.

    Of course the outskirts of Rome are sometimes horrible, though not always. And the historical core is huge (the big area encircled by the walls built by emperor Aurelianus): Rome was a very big town already at the times of the empire.

    Low-density apartment neighbourhoods? Not many unfortunately, high-density ones being more the rule here.

    That’s how MOST Romans live, isn’t it?
    Yes, but as I said the nice part is bigger than one might think.

  7. lichanos says:

    MofR: You only increases my admiration for your hometown, and my desire to revisit it.

    Re. Prozac, I’m just tired of hearing people use it as a tag for mindless oblivion. It’s helped a lot of people. Also, it often indicates a very simple, and ridiculous notion of how the human mind works.

    Fukuyama, The-End-of-History Neo-con, now probably an Obama fan after GW messed up in Iraq, once wondered, would Napoleon have invaded Russia if he’d had Prozac? Uh, would it have been a bad thing if he had not invaded?

    Re. suburbia…Troutsky, have you ever lived in a suburb? I don’t say you have to like it, or think it’s heaven, but saying that community is “totally annihilated” is absolutely absurd and untrue.

    “Individualism colonizes the consciousness..?” What does THAT mean? Would you like to return to the pre-individuated era of human civilization, as hunter gatherers, perhaps?

  8. Man of Roma says:

    Lichanos, I found the prozac metaphor interesting because we don’t use it here so much. Hence I thought you were joking.

  9. troutsky says:

    I was raised in suburbia. I felt it engendered a shallow, self-absorbed perspective, but iv’e been wrong before. I have written a lot about the fetish of individual-ISM , as an ideology of me-ness. Different from individualistic. And a little hunter-gathering might actually go a long way!

  10. lichanos says:

    Troutsky – I felt the same way about my suburban upbringing, but now, I’m not sure that suburbia was much of a cause…more a physical expression of some cultural forces…and maybe not one that was quite as bad as that 18 year old boy thought.

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