Urban Code: Understanding the City

Stunning Proof is back after a short hiatus. We are in the early part of Fall Quarter at Portfolio Center and classes are off to a roaring start. I am thrilled to be teaching one of my favorite classes again [two quarters in a row!]: Systems and Information Design.

What makes for a dynamic city? How can cities draw and make the best use of their creative capital? Marshall McLuhan wrote about how globalization would change culture. He envisioned a loss of identity (homogenization) would cause all of us to seek our identities. How can a city retain and project an image that is both truthful to its heritage and relevant in an increasingly global marketplace? What is identity when it comes to the complex living, changing dynamic system such as the city?

Through the course of the quarter, my class and I will be working to answer these questions and create powerful identity systems that have the potential to help solve the problems contemporary cities face. Students are launching into exhaustive research on cities of their choosing. They are looking for the biggest challenges and opportunities facing that city.

Before we start research for the projects, however, students need a good understanding of how cities function and what challenges our cities face in the 21st century. The first two weeks of the quarter are a crash course in understanding cities. We begin the class by reading a terrific little book: Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City by Anne Mikoleit and Morritz Pürckhauer. The students come up with a memorable presentation of the lessons. This quarter, we divided the class into four groups, divided up the lessons accordingly and set off around Atlanta on an Urban Code Scavenger Hunt. We had an hour to capture on camera as many examples of our 100 rules as we could. It was a random Thursday afternoon in Atlanta (complete with the usual traffic jams). We were amazed at how many Urban Code lessons we encountered. Here are our results!

Photomontage by Jacqueline Day

Lessons for Understanding the City: 01 People walk in the sunshine. 04 Safe surroundings increase profits. 08 Salespeople possess analytical knowledge of the district. 10 Familiar chain stores are landmarks. 12 Shops attract other shops. 15 Street vendors complement the surrounding selection of shops. 16 Human traffic complies with shop opening times. 18 People attract people. 19 Places of concentration depend on places of emptiness. 20 Cars can park in niches. 21 Cars park on top of one another. 22 Street vendors follow wrecking balls. 23 Constant grids afford manifold patterns of movement. 25 Buildings outlive uses 26 A block consists of many buildings28 No entrance is the same as any other entrance. 30 Entrances are hurdles. 31 Shops attract pedestrians into the depths of the block. 32 Each building houses a business. 34 Display windows are mirrors. 40 Delivery vans block the streets. 48 Every thirtieth pedestrian has gray hair51 Playgrounds draw children in. 54 Small public squares are busier than large public squares. 55 Crossroads are public squares. 56 People wait at crosswalks. 59 Shops lead people. 60 Shops are new, houses are old. 65 People sit with their back protected. 66 Sitting people observe their environment. 67 Pedestrians lost in thought are not lost. 68 Tourists stand still. Residents pass. 69 When people stand still, groups develop. 70 Groups attract people. 72 Groups walk more slowly than individuals. 73 Nightlife hotspots increase pedestrian traffic. 74 People are afraid of the dark. 75 Many lights illuminate the night. 76 Street cafés lie at the center of events. 79 Narrow streets carry little traffic. 80 Cobblestones tell stories. 81 Local streets are one-way streets. 82 Cars drive down main roads faster than down side streets. 84 Traffic jams tend to bring out aggression. 85 Weeds reduce aggression. 87 People who walk have a destination in mind. 88 Good walkways have a good range of destinations along them. 91 Grocery stores on street corners have an advantage. 94 Traffic lights create traffic noise. 95 People wait for taxis. Taxis wait for people. 98 A neighborhood has borders.

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, it is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
–Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


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