General Normative on Urban Form

Towers and bridges. Digital art by Myriam B. Mahiques
New York. By Debra Hurd.
Kevin Lynch states that we have no adequate contemporary normative theory about the form of cities. That is right. Codes are based on Zoning classification, but the shape of cities is left to theorists; scientific planners focus on how things change now and how one should maneuver to survive in the present context, but pay no attention to verify if the proposed morphology, -sometimes out of the real conditions- are suitable to a particular time, place or culture. Lynch finds it very difficult to create a connected normative theory. I would add a “general normative theory”, because I think that it can be particularized to some societies. Let us see how he continues with his position and some objections to urban planning.
Tenants of Time. By Tatiana Iliina
Rain City. By Leonid Afremov

“There is dogma and there is opinion, but there is no systematic effort to state general relationships between the form of a place and its value”.

“Objection 1. Physical form plays no significant role in the satisfaction of important human values….One can be miserable in an island paradise and joyful in a slum.”. And he cites some realistic conditions –lack of sun, cold, cramped dwelling space, difficult access, the absence of plants or water- can make us miserable.
“Objection 2. …physical form by itself has no important influence on human satisfaction. Unless you specify the particular social circumstances of the people who occupy a place, you cannot judge the quality of that place. Eskimo (traditional) families live contentedly in quarters whose size would be intolerable to North Americans. A house in poor physical condition, but which you own and which gives you secure social status, has an entirely different meaning than a similar house to which one is forcibly exiled. …..the influences of social and physical form are difficult to disentangle. If one wants to change the quality of a place, it is usually most effective to change physical setting and social institutions together….it is still important to study the effect of varying one feature while holding the other constant, to come to an understanding of the whole… physical patterns have important effects on people, given a set of social patterns, and that an analysis of these physical effects is important to understanding the whole.
Objection 3. Physical patterns may have predictable effects in a single culture….But it is not possible to construct a cross-cultural theory….Each culture has its own norms for city form…
Objection 4. Our physical setting is a direct outcome of the kind of society we live in. Change society first and the environment changes as well. Change environment first and you change nothing”.
I stop at this point to express my own opinion. In my experience, I am more on Amos Rapoport’s posture. Environment is really close to human behavior and of course it has its consequences. I remember a Mexican family who selected to leave in the mountains facing Los Angeles, in a very nice landscape of trees and small standard houses. They said this landscape made them happy, because it reminded them of their native city, Guanajuato. Move them to another location, their feelings would be different. And the same can be applied to a whole social group. But I do agree if you change the society, the environment changes. For instance, in the same Los Angeles area, it is very easy to discover if the neighborhood is Latino, Asian or American, their responses to environment apprehension are different.
“In addition, physical change can sometimes be used to support, or perhaps even to induce, social change. The form of New Delhi supported the dominance of Brittish colonial power and the internal structure of its social hierarchy.
Objection 5. Well, perhaps. But physical form is not critical at the scale of a city or a region”.
Again, I agree with him. In complex systems theory and fractals, usually the self-organization is not the same at critical distances. It means, self similarity is limited to certain zones.
“Objection 6. ..even if there were a demonstrable connection between city form and value, it would be inapplicable, since there is no such thing as the “ public interest”, even within a single culture and a single settlement…The only proper role for a planner is to help clarify the course of that conflict by presenting information on the present form and function of the city, predicting future changes and explaining the impact of various possible actions… in any given culture there are important common values”.
I think participative design is part of the solution! Regarding the “public interest”, since last years, some (maybe not enough) planners have a more human inclination. Take into account Lynch’s words are from the ‘80’s, after all we are making a slow progress.
“Objection 7. Normative theories… commonly understood rules of evaluation may be possible in regard to purely practical objects such as foundation or bridges, but are inappropriate for esthetic forms. The beauty of a great city is a matter of art, not of science..”.
Here, I add that the beauty of the city, though connected to its form, has nothing to do with human comfort and happiness. (Remember the example of the igloo).

Painting of a city, by Mary Papas.

Lynch, Kevin. Good City Form. The MIT Press, Massachusetts, EEUU. 1981


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