How I Study Cities

study collage

I’ve been studying cities for over 25 years. I love cities.  I went to China in the mid 1980s and was able to see their traditional city planning – long before China went capitalist.  I’ve been to Japan twice and was amazed at the urban duality there:  absolutely shockingly  jarring modernism intertwined completely with the ancient and the revered.  I’ve been to Europe 19 times and am deeply in love with medieval towns.  And I’ve visited cities across the North America, nearly 100 at last count.

In all this, I’ve learned much about cities and how they work and what makes the great.

I have developed a program that I use to decode a city and which I teach to others.  I consider it a very practical way to delve into a place.

Here are 7 essential things to do when studying a city:

1.  Understand where you are.  You must know the historic, economic, physical and social context of a place or else it simply won’t make any sense.

2.  See what’s happening.  What land uses are visible?  (clues: signs, smells, trucks, people carrying briefcases or kids in backpacks or a person with a bag of groceries- people walking dogs meaning residences are nearby.  Ideally one sees each of these in the same scene meaning land uses are wonderfully mixed) Where are people going?  How are they using space? What kinds of transportation is being used?

3.  Gauge physical things.  What are the distances between buildings? How tall are they?  What is the size of open space? What are the ground elevations? How tall are the trees?

4.  Look ahead.  Perhaps my favorite. What kinds of street pictures are revealed?  This is the key distinction between an industrial era city and a medieval one:  one has great street pictures and one doesn’t.  You know which.

I like nothing better than walking Medieval cities while studying the pictures formed by street scenes.  This comes from my appreciation for Unwin’s book “Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs.”

Nothing in city planning literature has been more important but so little understood, and thus used.  I think planners consider his advice to be a relic or a history rather than a guide for today.  I’ve heard it dismissed as outdated site-planning, as if site planning isn’t the MOST important component in all of planning or that lessons from 1000 years of city building are worthless. That’s a shame.

You can read it online here. Or better yet buy a copy.

There is a very specific set of typologies in this.  Street pictures can be terminated, partially terminated, deflected, open, etc.  I’ll dive into this in much more detail.

5.  What is in the picture? What constitutes the view? Buildings, amenities, street furniture, vegetation, etc.

6.  Look down.  What forms the ground plane? What kinds of infrastructure, drainage? How do the buildings meet the ground plane?

7. Use your senses.  What textures, colors, smells, sounds surround you?

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