Imageable Urban Districts: Iconic Architecture and Jane Jacobs

E Pluribus Unum: From many, <a href=

adiposity one. Courtesy of Flickr user Adamcha” src=”” width=”640″ height=”480″ /> E Pluribus Unum: “From many, page one.” Courtesy of Flickr user Adamcha

A district of a city is made up of countless things — many people, story streets, buildings, parks… — and yet a good district has a cohesive identity: out of many, one. How the Many relate to the One is a question that has exercised political thinkers, scientists, religious thinkers, artists… and urban designers. In his influential book ‘The Image of the City’, Kevin Lynch argued that by asking residents of particular places to sketch maps of their areas, the way they thought about their places and the way their place’s constituent parts are related in their minds would be revealed, and by understanding this urban designers could create places that were more satisfying, as people would be able to have a clear and memorable ‘picture’ of how to navigate between all the places of interest to them. In short, more ‘imageable’ places were more satisfying ones.

Unfortunately, when Lynch interviewed his subjects about their mental images of various districts within Boston his interviewees’ responses revealed the sheer difficulty of finding any way to relate the many elements within a district to the district as a whole. “The West End and North End were internally undifferentiated for many people who recognised these regions,” whilst those “most familiar with Boston tended to recognise regions but to rely heavily for organisation and orientation on smaller elements. A few people extremely familiar with Boston were unable to generalise detailed perceptions into districts: conscious of minor differences in all parts of the city, they did not form regional groups of elements.” In other words, the responses existed on a continuum from an undifferentiated One to a completely unintegrated Many, and no-one was able to view any district as a cohesive entity.

Lynch has to half-admit defeat. Initially he said his “analysis limits itself to the effects of physical, perceptible objects. There are other influences on imageability, such as the social meaning of an area, its function, its history or even its name. These will be glossed over, since the objective here is to uncover the role of form itself”. However, with the exception of Beacon Hill he is forced to resort to precisely such things in order to establish the required “thematic unit”.

Mosaic at the Hafez tomb. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic at the Hafez tomb. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even allowing for this, he still does not get very far with his respondents, and discloses that “subjects could pass over a surprising amount of local disagreement with the characteristic features of a region.” So, according to his research, not only is it difficult to establish that an area has a district identity, there is no consensus about what that identity is. Lynch weakly excuses this problem by declaring that “once a thematic unit that contrasts with the rest of the city has been constituted, the degree of internal homogeneity is less significant.” Even many Boston districts that did have a strongly vivid theme such as the market area seemed “confusingly shapeless, both internally and externally… Thus the market district simply floated in most images.” Well, perhaps at that time (1960) Boston and the other cities that he studied, Jersey City and Los Angeles, were just not very imageable cities, in Lynch’s sense. This is not, of course, to say that they are bad cities, and yet Lynch’s work lays down a challenge to urban designers to find ways of creating districts that are imageable, that do relate the district as a whole to its elements in a memorable and satisfying way.

The City as Architectural Icon

Accounts differ as to whether Bilbao was founded by Don Diego López de Haro V around 1300 or by Frank Gehry in 1997. Photo courtesy of Flickr user joansorolla

Accounts differ as to whether Bilbao was founded by Don Diego López de Haro V around 1300 or by Frank Gehry in 1997. Photo courtesy of Flickr user joansorolla.

It is a challenge that has been taken up in recent years in the shape of the fashion for creating new, ‘iconic’ buildings. Iconic buildings create striking images of their host district or cities, and in doing so, become their synecdoches: an individual building represents the identity of a whole district or city, for example that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao represents and defines that city.

‘Iconic’ architecture is often commissioned by cities that wish to transform their image and attract different types of people and investment: the so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’. In order to transform the city’s image the building must of necessity be rather different from the existing urban fabric. Thus the ‘iconic’ building both represents the city whilst not resembling any part of it except itself. It can thus be seen as an attempt to solve the problem of how to unify variety through obliterating the Many in favour of the One.

However, because the ‘iconic’ building’s attempt to transform its surroundings would be impaired if it attempted to relate itself to the old stuff that needs sweeping away, ‘iconic’ architecture tends not to do so, making it harder for residents to mentally connect it with the rest of its host area.  As such, it is surely unsuccessful in Lynch’s terms:such an approach is liable to produce only a striking landmark ‘floating’ in an undifferentiated urban area.

The Pompidou Centre, Paris. Pushing the concept of 'form follows function' to its extremes since 1977. Photo courtesy of Flickr user matman73072

The Pompidou Centre, Paris. Pushing the concept of ‘form follows function’ to its extremes since 1977. Photo courtesy of Flickr user matman73072.

Jane Jacobs’ Approach

At the other extreme is Jane Jacobs’ approach. In her chapter of The Life and Death of Great American Cities on “the uses of city neighbourhoods”, Jacobs systematically attacks conventional theories about ‘what makes a neighbourhood’. She dismisses as naive the idea a neighbourhood might be defined by its hosting of particular “touchstones of the good life” such as schools, parks and clean housing; by dominant industries, institutions or ethnicities. Most fundamentally, she attacks the idea that a neighbourhood can be defined by its provision of certain functions and the population required to support them, declaring that the result of this division of the city into relatively self-contained units would be “the destruction of a city by converting it into a parcel of towns.” Jacobs attack on this idea is so fervent because she believes that it undermines the fundamental purpose of cities. “Isn’t wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? This is indeed the point of cities”, she declares.

City life for Jacobs is an implicit rejection of provincialism, as its residents revel in the ability to pick and choose from the entire city for all their needs and desires, and this mobility is what allows increasing amounts of economic and cultural specialisation: the greater the population with access to a cultural site or a business, the more niche that business can be whilst still retaining sufficient customers to prosper.

A motto from Jane Jacobs. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sam Beebe, Ecotrust.

A motto from Jane Jacobs. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sam Beebe, Ecotrust.

Moreover, this specialisation allows people with niche interests to find each other, exchange ideas and sometimes form “interest communities and pressure groups.” It is fluid access to “the entire neighbourhood of the city” rather than being trapped inside self-contained neighbourhoods that allows this to happen. Jacobs praises a professor as encapsulating “an important truth” when he said that “a city of a million is required to give me, say, the twenty or thirty congenial friends I require!” Jacobs adds “presumably he likes his friends to know what he is talking about.”

Yet this focus on fluidity and movement across an entire city threatens to render the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ meaningless. Jacobs counter-argument is that “even the most urbane citizen does care about the atmosphere of the street and district where he lives, no matter how much choice he has of pursuits outside it; and the common run of city people do depend greatly on their neighbourhoods for the kind of everyday lives they lead.”

“Let us assume (as is often the case) that city neighbours have nothing more fundamental in common than that they share a fragment of geography”, Jacobs continues. “Even so, if they fail at managing that fragment decently, the fragment will fail… This is the problem.”

Fixed and mobile in Greenwich Village. Photo courtesy of Flickr user

Fixity and fluidity in Jacobs’ neighbourhood, Greenwich Village. Photo courtesy of Flickr user

So for Jacobs insofar as concepts of ‘neighbourhoods’ or ‘districts’ have any importance they are political constructs for the purposes of managing a fragment of territory, and their success or failure is determined by how well they do this. In addition, the difference between ‘district’ and neighbourhood’ is simply that the former has if successful the size to take on the city authorities when it needs to. “A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall. Nothing less is to any purpose.” Whilst Jacobs continues “to be sure, fighting city hall is not a district’s only function, or necessarily the most important one”, she later reinforces that a district is simply a political unit: “How big, in absolute terms, must an effective district be? I have given a functional definition of size: big enough to fight city hall, but not so big that street neighbourhoods are unable to draw district attention and to count.” The population size she considers is required for an effective district thus varies dramatically depending on the population of the city as a whole and how organised it is: her estimates range from 30,000 to 200,000. A neighbourhood and a district are simply political units, then, and a successful neighbourhood or district is one that organises well for political aims.

Yet what shared aims do these collections of people who “have nothing more fundamental in common than that they share a fragment of geography” have?  For all diversity’s many virtues, by definition the greater the diversity of an area, the less people will have in common, the less people will think the same thoughts, the less people will value the same values, and the less people will have common interests: in short, the greater the diversity of an area, the more difficult it is for it to be politically organised.


Courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University

Jacobs, as a veteran community activist, is well aware of the difficulties of creating an effective coalition from a disparate collection of residents. She cites an experience in East Harlem in which a meeting was arranged in order that fifty-two organisations from that district might pressure the Mayor and his commissioners. Jacobs stresses the great range of talents, occupations and ethnicities of the organisers of this meeting, and tellingly notes that “it has taken years and skill on the part of half a dozen people to achieve this amount of network, and the process is only starting to reach the stage of being effective.” Years of dedicated work in order to set up a meeting! (And we can infer from her comment about its effectiveness that the organisations weren’t all united in their convictions and proposals.)

However, Jacobs entirely glosses over the problem that diverse people are likely to have diverse views. She admits that “many vital questions in local city life turn out to be controversial”, yet the example she gives could not be more emotive or black-and-white — “the ancient conflict between predator and prey.” For one thing this completely ignores the way people just trying to live their lives in the way that they wish may create significant negative externalities for other people in the community, e.g. an influx of wealthy people coming into the area and by their presence pushing up prices, and surely there can be reasonable differences of opinion amongst people who do not have vested interests in the outcome.

Greenwich Village. Photo courtesy of Flickr user PnP!

Greenwich Village. Photo courtesy of Flickr user PnP!

Jacobs’ solution to the problem of how to politically organise a diverse district is two-fold. One aspect of it is that for Jacobs the population must be relatively stable. As Jacobs’ East Harlem anecdote implies, it may take years for effective political units to form out of diverse populations, so a high degree of population ‘churn’ would mean having to constantly start again as the people who have previously been active in the community move away.

Jacobs recognises that there is a paradox in her thought: “to maintain in a neighbourhood sufficient people who stay put, a city must have the very fluidity and mobility [that justifies speculation] whether neighbourhoods can therefore mean anything significant to cities.”

Jacobs’ answer to this is to argue that if a neighbourhood has sufficient diversity then it can accommodate peoples’ changes in “jobs and the location of their jobs, shift or enlarge their outside friendships and interests, change their family sizes, change their incomes up or down, even change many of their tastes”, so that they don’t have to move. This may be, but I’d suggest it doesn’t help her solve the problem of how to develop cohesive political organisation, as people who go through these kinds of changes are likely to change their views about what they might and might not welcome in their area.

If so, then it is unclear how a long-standing resident who has, say, become disillusioned with a campaign is more advantageous than a newcomer eager to make new friends in the neighbourhood. At least, with the exception that the long-standing resident may be more likely to trust particular people that she has come to know well…

"The Death and Life of Great American Cities", by Jane Jacobs

 And this brings us to the other aspect of Jacobs’ solution as to how to politically organise a diverse district: the role of a small number of community activists. Jacobs views the “crucial stage in the formation of an effective district” as the development of an interweaving set of “working relationships among people, usually leaders, who enlarge their local public life beyond the neighbourhoods of streets and specific organisations or institutions and form relationships with people whose roots and backgrounds are in entirely different constituencies, so to speak.”

Jacobs gives a charming anecdote about a game she played with her sister when they first arrived in New York in which they had to think of two totally different individuals and imagine a chain of known persons through which a message from one could be delivered to the other through word-of-mouth alone. The fun of this game was destroyed for them when they realised that Eleanor Roosevelt knew so many unlikely people that she could be used to connect almost anyone. Jacobs argues that “A city district requires a small quota of its own Mrs. Roosevelts — people who know unlikely people, and therefore eliminate the necessity for long chains of communication (which in real life would not occur again.” Moreover, a district needs “people who have considerable self-confidence, or sufficient concern about local public problems to stand them in the stead of self-confidence.” I hope I’m not being too unfair, but under the guise of an old game and praise of Mrs. Roosevelt Jane Jacobs seems to be basically saying that what a district needs to function well is a sufficient number of Jane Jacobses.

A piano player in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ndinneen

A piano player in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ndinneen

Yet it is surely only Jacobs’ black-and-white conception of right and wrong in urban politics that allows her to believe this, as this approach inevitably will lead to those ‘half a dozen’ individuals wielding great influence in the district and becoming able to get things done that otherwise would not be accomplished, and that individuals with such power would be pure vessels for the collective Will is precisely what she pours scorn on. “Sometimes, to be sure, a neighbourhood to small to function as a district gets the benefit of power through possessing an exceptionally influential citizen or an important institution. But the citizens of such a neighbourhood pay for their ‘free’ gift of power when the day comes that their interests run counter to those of Papa Bigwheel or Papa Institution.” Quite so, Mama Bigwheel…

These networkers, or ‘hop-skip people’, as Jacobs calls them, thus play a crucial part in creating a successful district. So, how many of these people are required, and how do they find each other? Jacobs asserts that “it takes surprisingly few hop-skip people, relative to a whole population, to weld a district into a real Thing. A hundred or so people do it in a population a thousand times their size. But these people must have time to find each other, time to try expedient cooperation — as well as time to have rooted themselves, too, in various smaller neighbourhoods of place or special interest.”

This is strikingly similar to her earlier discussion of ‘the neighbourhood of the entire city’ in which people living in different parts of the city with shared cultural interests find and meet each other, and where a city of a million may be required for someone to find the requisite quota of friends.

Implications of Jacobs’ Philosophy

Given that in her view a district is defined by whether its population is of sufficient size; given that what counts as being of sufficient size is defined by its level of political organisation; given that its level of political organisation is defined by whether it has a sufficient number of ‘hop-skip Mrs. Roosevelts’; and given that a certain population is required for individuals of the same type to find each other, as far as I can make out it seems that for Jane Jacobs the definition of a ‘proper’ district is one with a sufficiently large population to support a level of cultural specialisation that allows a few Jane Jacobses to bond with other Jane Jacobses.

In her attempts to solve the problems of organisation consequent to her championing of diversity, Jacobs ends up effectively declaring that a district is not a real district unless it is organised by a small but sufficient number of People Like Her.

I fear that this conclusion is harsh for a person whose work and character I greatly admire; and yet I can’t see that her attempts to reconcile her passions for diversity and the solidarity of neighbourhood communities lead to anywhere but a somewhat absurd conclusion.


Kevin Lynch laid down a challenge to urban designers everywhere. How do the elements within a district: its paths, its nodes, its landmarks, its edges and its local culture relate to the district that hosts them? Whilst those who commission and design ‘iconic’ architecture and Jane Jacobs can be interpreted as responding to this challenge, both attempts fail.

The ‘iconic architecture’ approach fails because in order for the ‘iconic’ landmark to be extraordinary it must be a complete contrast to its ordinary surroundings, and therefore struggles to relate itself to its surroundings. Jacobs’ approach fails for the opposite problem. Rather than exalting the One at the expense of the Many, she exalts diversity over uniformity, and then cannot find a way to unify this diversity except through an exaltation of one specific and unifying character type.

It is suggested that successful solutions to the problem should probably involve not exalting the One at the expense of the Many, or vice versa, but should find ways in which both the goods of variety and unity can be realised at the expense of neither. This blog will look at two other responses to this problem in subsequent posts.

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