“Good City Form”
13 November 2007 |
Kevin Lynch, 1992 (eighth printing)
a short bio
Lynch, who spent his career at MIT, taught us how to read cities and to understand how they are used and perceived. His hope was to build a theory of city form that derived from this observation; Good City Form, which he completed at the end of his career, is the result. It is a great synthesis, and in its attempt to understand cities as sacred, as machines, as organisms, he allows us to see how we ascribe meaning to the city’s built environment.
Lynch is a patient, caring writer who doesn’t disparage; instead he methodically studies the scene and then attempting to only use the tools of observation he passes judgment. Here he considers the idea that cities are organisms:
It is the view that is most prevalent among planning professionals today, and the enthusiasm for this outlook is spreading daily among lay citizens. If I end by being critical of this view, I must also admit to a long attachment, and to some regret that the world may not be so.
In Song of the City, I call the city an organism and assign it pulse, body, soul, and seed. My point in crafting the metaphor is to help us understand how we relate to cities and how they change. Lynch agrees with the sensitivity to individual and collective dreams and agrees that “cities change continuously.” However, he demands a rigor of analysis.
The central difficulty is the analogy itself. Cities are not organisms, any more than they are machines, and perhaps even less so. They do not grow or change of themselves, or reproduce or repair themselves. They are not autonomous entities, nor do they run through life cycles, or become infected.
He cautions against the metaphor in part because he thinks it is sloppy and because it “clouds our vision,” but also because it hides the prejudices of planners who would remove “cancerous areas,” separate uses, and dictate optimal, utopian solutions. I am right there with him on that, of course.
From nature instead Lynch wants a holistic view. Here we switch roles and positions. I agree with his concept; a holistic view is always better than a fractured one but disagree on its effect on planning. I believe it leads us to an impossible regionalism and a devaluing of the intense urbanism that we love and value. In forming his theory as a serious normative thinker he considers all; that’s his strength and also his weakness for his theory doesn’t actually project a unifying idea. It makes hierarchies and judgments and hints at what is “good” but doesn’t say it loudly and clearly enough.