2011: A Land Use (and light rail) Odyssey

In the interests of cleansing our palates before we undertake the next course in the great Roosevelt rezone debate, I thought I’d offer another sample from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s online collection of papers from the great Kevin Lynch, Perceptual Form of the City. What follows is an excerpt from an early draft of the seminal Image of the City, which I wrote about a while ago.

In this warm up to his larger discussion of cities Lynch stops to think about some of the more primal elements of spatial orientation. Part of what I value in Lynch is statements like this: “The importance of a coherent image of the environment, both for practical orientation reasons and also for the very emotional survival of the individual, has been clearly shown.”

Lynch connects our experience of the built environment around us to our very survival. What our neighborhood looks like and feels like is linked to our survival and changing it can arouse our most basic instincts. Lynch introduces compelling phrases in this connection like “emotional survival.” If I could, I’d ask Lynch to go into that formulation in more depth. He does, throughout his writing, expand in various ways that idea. But this idea, that the space around us is linked to our very survival, is why land use issues are so emotional.


The vital nature of the structuring and identifying of the environment is notable even among animals, and one biologist has best impelled to say: “The cardinal function of visual systems is the regulation of motion, and visual sense organs are primarily concerned with spatial orientation … sense organs of vision develop only in animals capable of motion”. Although color, shape, motion and even polarization of light may be primary orientation cues for most animals, yet many other sensations are used: smell, sound, touch, kinesthesia, sense of gravity, perhaps Coriolis force and magnetic field. These techniques of orientation, from the fight of a tern from pole to pole, to the path- finding of a limpet over the micro-topography of a rock, are described and their importance underscored in an extensive literature.

Despite a few remaining puzzles, it now seems unlikely that there is any mystic “instinct” of way-finding. Rather is there a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the exterior environment. This organization is fundamental to the efficient and very survival of many forms of free-moving life.

Experimental psychologists have also studied this ability in man, if rather sketchily and under limited laboratory conditions. The importance of a coherent image of the environment, both for practical orientation reasons and also for the very emotional survival of the individual, has been clearly shown. (References). Another paper, previously prepared, discussed the role of the environmental image among primitive peoples, and furnishes an interesting background for this study.

It would be equally instructive to trace the importance of this quality today, and to some extent our studies have attempted to do that. A good source lies in the descriptions of cities in literature, where the phenomenon is under the eye of a trained observer. (Quote Proust and Gill).

I also think that one of the best films ever made is 2001: A Space Odyssey. In it, the hapless viewer is given the full span of human existence from our origins in the African veldt to travel into outer space and then into the freaky mystical beyond. The opening minutes of the film portrays what the first land use battle must have been like. Our ancestors begin fighting over a water hole and things go down hill from there.

Land use battles in 30 million BCE could get pretty ugly

Lynch’s scholarship hones in on this element of how we use space. We have a primal connection with what happens in our neighborhoods. It’s no surprise, especially when one considers how other mammals behave when their space is challenged. Therefore, changing the built environment is a risky venture. It taps some of our deepest and most ancient instincts of protection and fear.

Gavel down: These days most blows in land use battles are only rhetorical

Today the battles can be no less fierce but they usually involve language rather than physical interaction. For some reason, in our region, light rail has stirred some of these deep passions and raised them to a fevered pitch. It’s easy to understand why when reading Image of the City or watching the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately I can’t embed the battle over the water hole in the film due to copyright protections. But I can embed something just as good.

Or this, where the fun starts about at the 4:30 mark:

This discussion gets intense. Harsh words are thrown around. One has to have a pretty strong constitution to keep engaged. But, as the movie teaches us, we’ve been doing this for a long time. And Lynch points out how deeply connected we are to our built environment, depending on it for our emotional survival. It isn’t easy to make changes in our surroundings and when we do something primal gets stirred up. But we are engaged in a larger struggle for survival. Our planet is getting exhausted and our behavior has impacted the climate. Change is going to have to happen.

We can argue all day about density around light rail. The fact is that when people all live close to each other and to the things they need, transportation becomes easier. More people and businesses around light rail stations means light rail can truly connect us to each other. If we don’t aggregate demand for transit, and we build free highways, and subsidize gasoline, why would anyone use light rail. Cheap highways and fossil fuel: it’s called social engineering. As long as we are engineering, why not engineer something more sustainable.

Height, bulk, and scale: will density bring out our best or our worst

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