Have we lost our connection with the city? Urban design principles established some 50 years ago are revisited and are even appreciated by a four year old.
By Eli Gescheit
In 1960 Kevin Lynch released his magnum opus, “The Image of the City”. It used case studies of three American cities, Boston, New Jersey and Los Angeles, to establish innovative urban design principles still being used in 2012.
The study involved deploying researchers to these cities to assess how they recognised various physical city features. These features were mapped out and categorised into five key elements, and are considered the building blocks for cities, namely; path, edge, node, district and landmark. The map above is an example of the research.
In Lynch’s research he places a considerable emphasis on defining the image of the city through embracing the various elements; “To heighten the imageability of the urban environment is to facilitate it’s visual identification and structuring.”
Sense of place is essential for a city to be regarded as a successful urban environment. If you were travelling in an unknown city and you were lost, a sense of anxiety may overcome you. However, if you were familiar with the surrounding area and it’s landmarks and paths, you are likely to feel more secure and find the correct route.
Well before GPS was thought of, Lynch offered the example of a taxi cab dispatcher who had a thorough knowledge of the city streets and addresses, although was unable to describe the actual buildings. This example is just one way a particular profession has an understanding of the city, but can be a limited appreciation.
A childhood experience
When I drive my four year old son to preschool he recognises key elements in the urban environment, similar to those established by Lynch. Along our journey he sometimes recognises the following elements;
- Sydney Harbour Tunnel (pathway)
- Sydney Football Stadium in Moore Park (landmark)
- Fire Station (landmark)
- A steep hill leading up to his school (edge)
It is fairly remarkable that even a four year old child can recognise Lynch’s 50 year old urban design principles!
Repairing the past for the future
At a function around two years ago I had the privilege to meet Frank Lowy, Chairman and founder of Westfield, shopping centre giant. I found the guts to introduce myself to him and ask him for some advice being a young and enthusiastic urban planner.
Lowy told me the purpose of urban planners is similar to a revolution. They have the responsibility to fixup what previous generations messed up. This sage advice came from an 80 year old man who defined the shopping experience for Australia.
The standardisation of NSW Local Environmental Plans (LEPs) is a classic example of how our generation is now required to correct the mistakes from the past. The creation of hundreds of different types of zones and definitions across all Councils over the past 30 years was clearly a recipe for disaster. Now all Councils are required to update their LEPs to reflect a uniform standard.
Masterplanning for new communities is not the only type of development that employ Lynch’s five elements. Lynch eloquently resolved that established cities need to be strategically planned; “We are continuously engaged in the attempt to organise our surroundings, to structure and identify them. Various environments are more or less amenable to such treatment. When reshaping cities it should be possible to give them a form which facilitates these organising efforts rather than frustrates them”.
Urban design 101
I recall the first urban design studio in my first year of university. The classroom was located on the top floor of a 5 or 6 storey university building and the lecturer asked the class to position their chairs in front of the large floor to ceiling windows facing out. He asked us to look outside and name a key feature in the urban environment that caught our eyes. One class member identified a flag pole, one a large tree and another noticed a large apartment building.
The purpose of the exercise was to identify key landmarks, similar to Lynch’s principles for city images.
A strategic future
Is it too late for established cities like Sydney to implement Lynch’s urban design principles? Have we lost our connection with the city? Or can it be re-established through a new robust planning system?
The answer lies with the strategic framework built upon by the Sydney Metro Strategy. The strategy incorporates the general elements such as major centres (nodes) and major thoroughfares (paths). A more detailed strategic analysis is found in the various subregional strategies, which contain future directions for local councils. Government investment in preparing these plans was surely not for the sake of designing colorful maps and high quality reports. How often are these strategic documents utilised in the preparation of DAs?
Strategic planning is earmarked to be one of the major changes in the overhaul of the NSW planning system. Perhaps all DAs should address how the development successfully contributes to achieving the strategic objectives of the subregional strategies. Currently Section 79C of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act requires applicants to address a range of urban issues such as environmental, economic and social. Surely strategic planning should also be incorporated in this mandatory and useful checklist.