One of the popular sports broadcasts I used to watch as a kid promised interviews with athletes that would bring them to you “up close and personal.” As I was once waiting in line to order coffee at one of my favorite local coffeehouses there were several people ahead of me. I followed the “barista” taking orders, with his dark-framed glasses, reddish beard, and slightly hurried manner. From a distance, in those few minutes I formed an expectation about his personality: Blasé and probably a bit curt; someone who really doesn’t want to be here. But when I came face-to-face with him and placed my order, I could feel his liveliness, warmth, and friendliness. My expectations needed revising.
It’s the same with cities.
From a distance, from an airplane or a photograph, we notice macro features and sweeping patterns that might form our first impressions. Noticing the layout of streets or the pattern of buildings from the air we might say something like “Oh, what an impressive skyline!” or “This place is a dump!”
For instance, New York, London, Paris have distinct skylines. Approaching these cities from the air is thrilling as we spot the Empire State Building dominating Midtown Manhattan, Big Ben and Parliament along the Thames, or the Eiffel Tower standing counterpoint to la Defense. Tokyo’s on the other hand is a different story, but that difference is informative.
Tokyo’s skyline is, at least to me, terribly underwhelming. Heavily bombed and burned during World War II and subject to devastating earthquakes throughout its history, Tokyo has few tall buildings compared to other major cities. Even as you drive in closer along the highway from Narita Airport the architecture for the most part remains boxy and drab. When you actually enter the central city, with the Sumida River winding below, you begin catch glimpses of Tokyo’s vitality if you look between the buildings. But it’s only when you actually walk the streets and public spaces—of Ginza, Shinjuku, and Nagano for example—do you finally experience the real Tokyo; feel what Ken-ichi Sasaki calls the urban “tactility” beneath your feet and through your skin.
But it’s not just Tokyo. I think that that’s also the same way you really get to know London or Paris or any other great city: “Up close and personal.”
Kevin Lynch explained that people form mental images of a city that overlap enough to help its inhabitants coordinate their activities. A tourist in New York City navitgating with a two-dimensional map with street and place names might tell her friend: “I’ll meet you at the southeast corner of 5th Avenue and 8th Street at 1PM.” But in Tokyo relatively few streets have names so finding an address is very different than in New York; while in downtown London, because winding streets change names seemingly every block, locals often measure distances by walking time or by landmarks.
As you spend time in a city and get a feeling for its environs, its inhabitants and their ways, how you navigate changes. Your map becomes a mental one, more detailed in some ways less in others. Experience doesn’t make the map less abstract, but abstract along different dimensions. A New Yorker then might tell her friend: “Let’s meet at the arch at lunch time.” Translation: “Let’s meet under the arch in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village around 1pm.” The image of a city follows our subjective experience of how we actually use public space. Over time people somehow form a mutual image of parts of the city similar enough to be used to coordinate their plans with one another.
One of the common mistakes urban planners make is to assume the process works the opposite way, that you can impose a deliberately constructed pattern onto a cityscape and expect people to adjust their behavior to it in just the way you want them to. Sometimes that works but it doesn’t always work that way, especially with big plans involving large numbers of people, no matter how beautiful or efficient the design may be. To quote Jane Jacobs: “A city cannot be a work of art.”
[In this space I’ll be posting quotes, ideas, and excerpts relating to a book I’m writing (thus far untitled), which I might describe as “What I have learned from the economic and social theory of Jane Jacobs.” My hope is to get thoughtful, informed feedback that will be useful in shaping the book.]