by Tommy Manuel
Cities are _____. Cities are organic. They are like plants. Cities are like ecosystem. Cities are jungles. Cities are like bacterial colonies. Cities are fortresses against the perils of nature. Cities are machines, engines of culture and progress. Cities are like libraries, or like a living museum. Cities are amusement parks, and on and on. The ability to describe a city, or some aspect of it, really knows no boundary.
A recent comparison of the city I found is to that of a battlesuit (as if we really need any war references to frame the development of our cities). More to my liking is this study conducted by Mark Changizi, a neurobiology expert and assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer, which suggests cities are organized like human brains.
Ever since I started my formal urban planning education way back in 2004, I’ve encountered as many metaphors and similes to describe cities as there are, well, cities. This way of understanding these places of uncertainty – strange, I’m sure coming from an architect/planner – allows us to draw associations from other systems and entities to perhaps consider how our cities may be improved in ways that better suit our needs and desires. It is the uncertainty inherent in our cities that allows for such a broad comparison of their constituent parts, as well as their totality.
The power to visualize the city as something that it is not, but exhibits some likeness to a characteristic or process of an unrelated system or entity is an essential tool in testing ideas, new or old, for how we organize, create, use, maintain, regenerate, and ultimately define our built environment. This act of defining becomes even more complex considering that cities are already the result of layers upon layers of previous experimentation, some successful and others less so.
Framing our cities in this way, how are we to proceed? Well, there are certainly as many strategies for that as there are metaphors of the city, and it’s not as simple as starting over as the modernists would have had us believe.
There’s a Johnny Cash song (written by Wayne Kemp) that offers a compelling metaphor for cities, which I’ve written about before, here. In One Piece at a Time (1976), Cash describes a Cadillac built from parts slowly acquired over many years working in the factory. As the car’s design changed over the course of those years (1949 to 1973), so too did the corresponding components that gave the car its overall form. As a result, Cash’s Cadillac was a hybrid of all those disparate components, modified and assembled into a unique identity.
Cities are bit different though, and they can never be fully described by any one metaphor or simile. Instead, we need all of them. Like Cash’s Cadillac, cities can be conceptualized by many comparisons that are modified, tested, and assembled over time. Cities like this will not look exactly like the utopian dream machines on the drawing boards, but more like the ever-adapting psychobilly assemblages they really are.
So, what different, cobbled-together ways is your city like?