How cities, old and new, can plan for the long term.
Today’s generation of urban planners are often influenced by the work of the late MIT professor Kevin Lynch, who, in his seminal 1960 book, The Image of the City, described the way human perceptions of the city—the way people orient themselves and navigate within a physical space—should affect city design.
Lynch wrote about how the individual structural elements of a city—including paths, boundaries, districts, intersections, and landmarks—interact to create a whole, harmonious (or depending on the city, not-so-harmonious) environment for daily living.
These structural elements can vary widely by city. As we discussed in a previous post, a city’s age, history, and culture influence its layout and infrastructure.
The way city-dwellers and tourists navigate cramped city streets in old town centers differs markedly from those traveling wide-open avenues designed for heavy traffic, and the positioning of landmarks substantially changes the flow of pedestrians through streets.
“The recent water main break in Los Angeles shows how old systems can fail in catastrophic fashion. ”
Though Lynch focused on Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City in The Image of the City, his idea of structural interplay can apply to any urban space.
For instance, New Yorkers may see buildings from different eras all on the same block (like the Bridge Street Café, originally built in 1794, among the newer commercial structures of the South Street Seaport).
On the other hand, residents of St. Petersburg can walk a greater distance without seeing much variance among buildings in that city, many of which were built out according to a single plan.
The way the architecture in both cities interacts with the water that surrounds it, the streets that direct vehicle and pedestrian traffic among it, and landmarks alongside it determine the way inhabitants live in, work in, and perceive a city.
Responding to Growth
The interplay of these elements will also contribute to how cities age, evolve and respond to growth. Older cities with cramped spaces may face more challenges in building out infrastructure for increased density.
A recent report from the Center for an Urban Future details New York City’s infrastructure vulnerabilities, including water mains made out of outdated materials and bridges and roads in substantial distress—repairs made more challenging by the city’s population density, geography, and age.
The recent water main catastrophe in Los Angeles, which caused serious damage to the campus of UCLA, is the most recent example of how old systems can fail in catastrophic fashion.
Meanwhile, cities that began to expand more recently, like Abu Dhabi, face different challenges, like developing a large-scale master plan for rapid growth that requires major investment (see this report from The National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi, for more on where resources are being allocated).
Regardless of the size, age, and density of their city, planners need to put substantial time and resources into its continued maintenance and improvement. But that task will differ in every urban space depending on the way its unique elements come together. No one size will fit all.
Click here to read the first article in this series, The Future Belongs to Cities — But They Will Face Challenges.
Click here to read the second article in this series, Sustainability as a Platform for City Growth.