Imageable Urban Districts: Iconic Architecture and Jane Jacobs

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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. Continue reading

Paris, China

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In China, unhealthy French culture is often seen as a byword for sophistication. This association means that objects that are seen as embodying French culture may command a price premium. Tianducheng — Paradise City — is a suburb of Hangzhou that has been designed to look similar to Paris.

Tianducheng in relation to Hangzhou's urban core

Tianducheng in relation to Hangzhou’s urban core

Developed since 2007, web the suburb has suffered from poor transport links and the tendency for many wealthy Chinese to buy multiple homes as investments, page and for them to leave them empty rather than rent them out. Here are some of my photos taken in January 2014…

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On a Certain Blindness in Urban Planners: New Urbanism, Romanticism and the future of the Western city

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In his essay ‘resuscitation ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings'” href=”” target=”_blank”>On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’ the American thinker William James  relates a trip across North Carolina in which he passed a series of valleys whose forests settlers had torn down in order to make room for simple log cabins and a patch of land to grow corn on. James was horrified:

“The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, here a sort of ulcer, psychotherapist without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.”

Yet a brief yet revelatory conversation with his driver caused him to see the valleys as the squatters saw them, and caused his attitude to be reversed:

“Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory… The clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.”

We each have our blindnesses to what is valued by others. This post is about a kind of blindness that may be extremely common amongst urban planners and about why very predictable cultural changes mean that blindness has to be overcome.

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Might the ‘Occupy’ Movement Transform Urban Planning?

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The extraordinary success of the occupation of Tahrir Square earlier this year has had an inspirational effect on protests across the world. Between 6 and 8.5 million Spaniards have taken part in the Indignants movement that is centred on the occupation of Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. In New York the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest has inspired over 900 similar occupations in public spaces across Europe, visit web Africa, Asia and North America. It is unclear how long they will last for. However the extraordinary success of the Tahrir Square occupation means that the model of occupations of public spaces will probably be a popular mode of protest for the foreseeable future. Consequently it is likely that a generation of activists will become highly skilled in the logistics of occupying public spaces. They are likely to become versed in the legal ownership of particular public spaces; in the regulations that govern those public spaces; in the land-use of every part of those public spaces, and the utilities that serve them; and as a result of the challenges that result from a group of strangers camping together in a small urban area they are likely to be highly experienced in negotiating how the camp will use the public space. Given the importance of their cause in their lives these decisions are likely to be charged with a great deal of significance. This is likely to lead to a much broader interest in urban planning amongst the movement: “act locally, think globally”. Could this lead to a new era of protest at urban planning decisions? Continue reading

The Post-modern Ideal: Decline and Fall?

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My post on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), page which should be read before this one, physician traced the rise of a new cultural ideal. Contrary to the sociologist Daniel Bell’s predictions, the progressive, technocratic, gratification-delaying and productivity-oriented nature of the workplace did not prove contradictory to the goal-free, ironic, instantly-gratifying play of the consumer culture. Instead of each undermining the other the two formed a symbiotic relationship and a joint ideal comprising a successful career and of full participation in the post-modern consumer culture. This post traces the severe pressures on that ideal over the last generation and suggest that, although many people will continue to live by it, its influence in the broader culture may fall significantly.

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Transit-Oriented Development and its Discontents

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Moments in the sun. Cows outside Chesham on London's Underground commuter railway. © Chris Haile

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is an important trend in how our cities are being built. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, illness TOD “refers to residential and commercial districts located around a transit station or corridor with high quality service, page with good walkability, parking management and other design features that facilitate transit use and maximise overall accessibility.” It’s seen as a way to ameliorate a number of modern social ills, from the ugliness and inefficiency of urban sprawl to dependence on oil to obesity. It’s also something I’ve long supported. However, a gentle walk on fields outside Chesham that would be a prime TOD site on London’s Underground rail network (were anyone insensitive enough to allow development there) provoked thoughts about the cultural significance and value of TOD and, as in my post on Michelangelo’s David, whether or not it represents an ideal that already is passing away. In other words: is TOD culturally sustainable?

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What Michelangelo’s ‘David’ tells us about how to plan a city

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Michelangelo’s David, clinic which for centuries guarded the entrance to Florence’s town hall, urticaria is the world’s greatest work of public art. It is also a flawed work of art. The hands are distortedly large; the neck is as long as the face; the vast triangle between the legs is too empty. Most glaringly, the gigantic statue fails to communicate the essential fact of the biblical giant-killer’s diminutive size.


These flaws are not due to any failures in Michelangelo’s conception or execution, but simply due to David never being designed for such a role in such a position. The statue was designed to be placed on the cathedral’s roofline and thus to be seen from far below, from which distance and distorted perspective the ‘flaws’ would have been necessary compensations; it was also designed to be seen as merely one biblical hero among many. Yet upon its completion the statue’s planned resting place was disregarded, and instead David was seized upon as the unique and perfect symbol of Florence’s independence and ability to defeat its enemies, and this explains its placing beside the city’s seat of government. It is said that following the statue’s installation Florentines spontaneously festooned the statue with pieces of paper praising it as embodying the spirit of Florence.

There lies a story in what drove the Florentines to do this, one which raises questions about the role of public art, and more broadly urban planning, in defining and representing a culture.

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