Let’s recognize reality…

June 3, 2009

big_sprawl

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Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.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:

cities_taschen

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

17582-01

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?

Advertisements