How Tidy Is Your Town? (Urban Patterns in Search of a Theory)
A pop quiz gets one’s attention, we can even like the experience if it’s not graded. Here is one for you: Can you match my collected urban shapes (they are map-like plans, below, on the left side) to their corresponding labels (right side)? After you give it a try, scroll to later in this essay for the answer key.
Take a look at the third set down
The quiz’s third set down is one view of my hometown neighborhood (in Roseville, Minnesota). I got the idea to make this from Armelle Caron, a French artist (b. 1967) whose work has bounced around Twitter recently. A subset of her work is simple but remarkable in concept and process: take a plan of a city, deconstruct it into all of its components (mostly blocks), extract each as a closed shape, and compare all shapes by rows according to size and silhouette-shape similarities. Paris is below.
Date of her work is at or after 2005. More of her work is here. Frank Jacobs fashioned astute descriptions (in English) of Caron’s work in an illustrated web essay here.
Caron’s approach was creative, not scientific. If one goes back in time – and looks on the other side of the aisle – scientist Charles Darwin famously studied, wrote about, and illustrated finch heads (below right) while on his voyage on the HMS Beagle. Other researchers since have sorted finch profiles even more analytically (below left – wow!).
In more recent times, the American Kennel Club recognized how dog breeds fall within broad classes or groups, created silhouettes of them at one scale, and then informally sorted them (below). Results are not quite as visually compelling as Caron’s, but you get the idea. (Image credit: Richard Wurman, Walker Art Center, and MIT Press.)
Lastly, an artist named Gordon Matta-Clark had a most unusual go at it, an image of one of his efforts is below. His life and work is a beautifully complex narrative, he had spent years finding – then purchasing – property scraps of the city of New York, small, unused, and unwanted ones! See my endnotes for details.
Names for this: tidy towns, geographic gestalt, civic shapes?
I didn’t even know what to call these sorts. Ms. Caron has a clever French phrase for them, villes rangées, “tidy towns.” Perhaps it is a parlor game in search of a name – “Geographic Gestalt”? I did ask myself: why stop with just blocks or parcels? So I collected together four other sets that became my quiz. They are from my city but they are at different, smaller scales, i.e., they each cover wider areas of the city than do parcels. They visualize the civic shapes that are derived from local census blocks, curbside recycling districts, micro-subwatershed components, and voting precincts. I figured they deserved a “tidy sort” as well, so that's what was done. The answer key from our pop quiz is below, with a very brief caption for each set.
All sets seem intrinsically interesting. In order to pack them all into the one big illustration above, I had to forego a more scientific display, one that would have shown them – perhaps more factually – at the same scale.
There are some factual attributes of the shapes that I sorted, for example, the numbers of my collected shapes (per set) range from single to triple digits. The smallest number was six, recycling districts, the largest was 140, the Caron-style parcels per neighborhood. The slicing and dicing of these urban shapes seem derived from the functionality of their intended purpose. But all the sorts end up dependent on intuition, thus they are a kind of mix of functional facts (logic) and artistic feelings (aesthetics).
A linear geometry to the shape outlines or contours predominates, I noticed organic forms only appear among the micro-watershed set. In advance of finding the datafiles to map them I encountered another – more proper – cover term for them: sewersheds. Sewersheds are not that natural, i.e. they are engineered, thus their boundaries are often a mix of straightline and organic contours.
As I was pondering the “functionality of purpose” of my shapes sets that was mentioned earlier, it occurred to me to retrieve my notes from graduate school coursework in urban geography. With French artist Ms. Caron in the back of my mind, I happened upon the "long lot" shapes of French Canada...
From my notes: "After 1627, land was arranged there in long narrow strips, known in French as seigneuries, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. As parents deeded their land to offspring, each lot was subdivided in order to maintain access to the river, thus long lots became longer." These radical ratios got me thinking that there was something similar at work in my collected sets, what a design mentor of mine referred to as visual bias. If and when the orientation of a shape’s axis is not squarish. i.e., it is not of a ratio of 1:1, it is judged to have bias towards a rectangular ratio. So, do some city shape sets favor one axis? If they were towns in Quebec, the response, due to the geosocial heritage of "New France," would be absolutely! The answer for Roseville is that all sets do seem biased towards one orientation, though property parcels are less so. If one goes back to take another look at Ms. Caron’s blocks of Paris that city's blocks are in fact also visually biased. It is hard to say without more research, but the whole world of urban shapes might well be, on average, more oblong in orientation than square. Interesting factoid: being a design teacher, I recall learning from my readings of art scholar Rudolf Arnheim that the ratios of paintings in your favorite museum are also biased towards one dimension, on average 4:5 (or 5:4).
Context and scale
One could also present the unsorted views of shapes from which these sets started, and contrast the before with the after, like Caron did. Simple contrast can often add aesthetic drama. Below is a view of the micro-watersheds properly nested within their original urban context, all layers together...
Another view, a transitional one, might be to slightly "explode" a set in order to call attention to their individual shapes, the shapes being pure and yet to be sorted...
One of the features attributable to a map is that it has uniform scale. It made sense to take a look at scale, but comparisons offering such proper uniformity do get complex when one tries to look at all five sets with one common scale. What I ended up with was simpler: compare two sets of civic shapes in ascending and/or descending sizes at the same scale...
Of interest are extremes. Notice how the smallest shapes (in the center, dfferent colors but spatially paired) are very roughly equal in size, as are the largest shapes (they are each at the left and right ends of the continuum). Just chance? – probably. If one goes in and adds color (like I did, using USGS map-legend denotations, blue for water, red for urbanity), it starts moving towards art, though admittedly of an abstract flavor.
I close with three questions: can you imagine still more avenues to explore/visualize pertaining to this topic? Are there new and different ways of displaying and discerning patterns, possibly using more dynamic tools or methods? Lastly, can you join me in collecting and sharing city shapes?
More? – Perhaps, let’s brainstorm: ponds and lakes, soils (by dominant types), rain garden shapes, jogging paths, cross-country ski outings, and cycling paths. You the reader will have more to add. Different? – Again, perhaps: we could layer it all, push it as art, and animate it? Layers: maybe put them all atop one another in Google Earth and create a fly-through? Art: speaking of cycling paths, Baltimore artist Michael J. Wallace has been riding his bike in the southeast part of his city using GPS to guide him in making shapes on the landscapes as his form of artistry. He has nicknamed the effort virtual geoglyphy...
Animation: imagine Ms. Caron’s artwork – or my watersheds and census blocks – rising up from a map, softly exploding, and sorting themselves! Today’s world of dynamic datagraphics and geovisualization is full of such of examples. Share? – Sure: but mind you, whether it is science or art, this is all very inductive. The patterns described here are still in search of a theory. I have started posting some examples to my board at Pinterest, titled Unanticipated Cartography. I am not the first to do this kind of thing. For six years Frank Jacobs (mentioned earlier) has posted over 500 “cartographic curiosities” to his website, more than a few of which qualify as "inductively urban."
I invite you to please add a posting below (in the Post New Comment box) of interesting civic shapes you find (or perhaps, like Mr. Wallace, you make) then sort. (It could be that you post them as your own civic curiosities onto your blog.) I can then, if you are agreeable, enter them into to my Pinterest board and share.
Here is a short reading list with books (and one web url) whose entries deal with, at least in part, the subject of urban patterns.
Alexander, Christopher 1977 A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press, New York (NY).
Cabinet magazine, Queens Museum of Art, and White Columns 2009 Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates, http://cabinetmagazine.org/events/oddlots.php Last accessed May 30, 2012.
Halprin, Lawrence 1969 The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, Braziller, New York (NY).
Lynch, Kevin 1980 Managing the Sense of a Region, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).
McHarg, Ian 1968 Ecology, for the Evolution of Planning and Design, excerpt republished in Dirt, 2012, Penn Design and MIT Press, Philadelphia (PA).
Takeyama, Minoru (ed.) 1984. Tokyo Urban Language, PROCESS: Architecture, 49 (July).
Wurman, Richard 1974 Cities: Comparison of Form and Scale, Models of 50 significant towns and cities to the scale of 1:43,200 or 1”=3,600’, Joshua Press, Philadelphia (PA).
Wurman, Richard 1972 Man-Made Philadelphia: A Guide to Its Physical and Cultural Environment, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).
Wurman, Richard 1971 Making the City Observable, Design Quarterly 80, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (MN) and MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).
Acknowledgement: editing by Brendan J. Byrne
Sustainable Cities Collective