Reading cities: Why Kevin Lynch is still important

Many of you out there are formally trained in urban planning. I’m not. I’ve got three credentials: I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico; I love cities; and I read Image of the City.

I consider the first thing a credential because I grew up in an auto-dependent world. Albuquerque taught me to appreciate the cool shade of a tall building, the importance of a patch of grass with some benches, and the camaraderie and friendship that can come from a bus ride.

Love of cities. Is that a credential? I guess it’s part of my urbanist creed. I think cities speak to deep human needs. That’s enough on that, for now.

Third, Kevin Lynch. Lynch had been dead for more than a decade when I was in the architecture section of a book store somewhere in Vancouver, BC and I found a book about Kevin Lynch. Not a book by Kevin Lynch but about him. That should tell you a lot about me, because I am often first drawn to thinkers or writers not by their work but by their lives. I saw this picture and I was in love with the idea of Kevin Lynch.

That’s Lynch on the far left there. These are some of the Taliesin Fellows clustered around Frank Lloyd Wright. Had I not picked up the book about Lynch I wouldn’t have taken the further step of digging into Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright and into the work of Lynch.

Somewhere in the meager section of planning books near where I found the book about Lynch was also a book called Image of the City. I picked it up and I was intrigued: this guy knew what he was talking about. And I liked the look and feel of the book:

I liked the sketches in the margin. I liked the maps of Boston and Los Angeles. But what did the book say?

To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in a modern city . . . let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well being . . .

An ordered environment . . .  gives the individual a possibility of choice and a starting point for the acquisition of further information. A clear image of the surroundings is thus a useful basis for individual growth.

Common memories of the “hometown” were often the first and easiest points of contact between lonely soldiers during the war.

Maybe these aren’t the best pieces to quote. But they were the ones that struck me there in the bookstore as true and then stuck with me through the years. Cities can help “individual growth!” What a powerful concept.

I knew immediately what Lynch was talking about. Albuquerque, at least my neighborhood, was illegible. In fact, Albuquerque appeared to me the way a passage might appear to a dyslexic. A jumble of symbols. Blink. Blink. No, still can’t make it out.

But there were patches of meaning there, places where there was something to “read.”

Albuquerque -- Central and Carlisle, Nob Hill Neighborhood

Albuquerque -- Central and Carlisle, Nob Hill Neighborhood

Not much, I know. But these were the places where we, as teenagers, wanted to be. Amidst the oceans of right of way, and irrigation trenches, and flatness there were “edges,” places where one crossed from highway into something. Perhaps one might even call it a “node.” And I can’t understate the importance of those little towers on the right at the Nob Hill Shopping Center. I’m not kidding. And even using google maps, virtually driving down Central, my heart beats a little slower crossing Carlisle.

Lynch spoke to me that day in the bookstore. I bought Image of the City in every sense of that word.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a world equally divided at the horizon between sky and sand that I feel a deep attraction to verticality. Height is important. Look at those little tower thingies.

You don’t need a planning degree to get that those are really important. When everything is flat and spread out, going up creates instant meaning, instant placeness. That verticality was something to cling to, something to seek, something to read. And look at those little storefronts on the other side of the street.

I mean that’s a place. Something is going on behind those windows. The idea of many stories and many windows reminds me of a piece of a Tale of Two Cities.

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all.

More people, more clusters of buildings and windows, means more stories. More drama. More life. More death. More beginnings. More endings. There is more to read in a densely populated city.

Compare the little buildings in Nob Hill to a Google street view taken right near where I grew up.

I. Can't. Breath. Gasp. Claustrophobia. Setting. In.

I feel a panic attack coming on when I look at this image. Oh. My. God. Was it really that bad? No wonder I need therapy.

All this is in my head, right? Childhood trauma grafted onto the physical environment. Had I grown up in Manhattan, I’d be living in the desert. I fell in love with Seattle because of it’s low ceilinged skies, and crushing greenery. And I hate gaping right of ways, and endless parking lots, and shopping malls. And I love some density. The opposite of my dry, sprawling homeland.

It’s all about me, right? My reaction to my past shapes what I want in my built environment. This is true. It’s why zoning and land use are so emotional and it’s exactly what Lynch found when he studied the built environment. Lynch knew that we feel cities. Cities weave themselves into our hearts and souls. Even if we hate them. Even if we fear them. Cities are concentric circles, soaking up and radiating human energy, drawing us in and pushing us out.

Kandinsky Composition VIII 1923

Kevin Lynch -- Map of Boston 1958

It may be that Lynch is passé. I have no idea. I don’t care. I think what he did with the term “legibility” is really important, and I think we spend way too much time worrying about buildings and we’ve lost the focus on reading place. How does a place read? Is a place legible? What story does it tell? How can we edit it to make it better, more inclusive, more relevant? Cities are text.

If a place tells the right story it doesn’t matter who made the most money, how much the units go for, what the zoning is, or how much the parking is. OK maybe that’s a bit too reductionist on my part.

Lynch’s work in mapping the way cities feel and trying to get at how we might willfully do what we know somehow works captures my intuitions about land use and planning. It’s why I suggested earlier this month that design and planning might not matter as much as how we feel about a place. We can try to outsmart ourselves but I don’t think it always works. Put more people together and place happens, not the opposite way around.

What triggered this Lynchapalooza was my discovery of a trove of background documents and maps archived at MIT. These documents form the basis of Image of the City. I kept thinking about how to share this stuff and then I got going on this post. What I should be doing is working on describing chapter 23.51A and B which concerns public schools in residential zones.

I’ll get to that in a minute.

But next up a post of the words of Lynch himself, which come from the notes based on the research that created Image of the City.

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5 Responses to Reading cities: Why Kevin Lynch is still important

  1. Pingback: Chapter 23.53 Requirements for Streets, Alleys, and Easements | Seattle's Land Use Code

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  3. Pingback: Plan for Change: Kevin Lynch’s Morning with a Cab Dispatcher - Seattle Transit Blog

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