City Form

Is space intelligible, to be read like a language, a dialect of the urban dweller? Is it experiential, an apparition of phenomenology? Both? Is spatial inhabitation cognitive, or instinctual and automatic? Do we think about the space of our environment or are we just immersed in it, swimming in a sea of sensory information which doesn't require translation by our conscious mind? Does it depend upon what type of urban form we occupy, and how and why it came to be?

London taxi drivers grow bigger brains. The hippocampus of the cabbie's brain becomes enlarged in acquiring the "Knowledge" of the trade, a cognitive mapping of London's complex organic street system, far different from the rationalist grid. The form of spatial analysis called Space Syntax was also developed here, on the theory that urban spatial connections are intelligible in ways similar to the syntax of a language.

This relates to mapping, wayfinding, using landmarks to find your place in the city, as Kevin Lynch described in The Image of the City. Space syntax analysis seems to work best for traditional, organic urban settlements, the sort that formed around trade routes and farm to market paths that were created by living creatures in motion, two or four-footed. Land development occurred within the form dictated by these routes. It's as if you took the sidewalk theory of the campus quadrangle - start with the open square, see where people make paths in the sod, and build the sidewalks there - and reversed it. Find the paths, and build the campus around them. Transportation drives development - this is worth repeating many times over.

Except for the exceptions. When land became a market commodity, urban form changed to facilitate the ease of real estate transactions. Land is divided into easily surveyed legal parcels; streets provide access to and legal addresses for the real estate. Transportation is channeled into these real estate access routes. This was done in Manhattan, and across the continent in the Cartesian grids of townships subdivided in square-mile sections, subdivided in turn down to sixteen 40-acre plots, all to turn land into commodity. This was a new way of visualizing space - no longer traversing an unpopulated wilderness in as direct a route as possible towards your destination; instead ticking off the various measures of the grid. The odd thing is this: The rationalist grid leads to mindless navigation. If streets are designed as traffic conveyances for machines, human cognition is not fully engaged, is barely present, secondary. Perhaps this is why you can see so many people walking along with eyes glued to the screen of their handheld digital device - either they're using GPS navigation or they don't need to think about where they are going (although they should be thinking about crossing streets and railroad tracks). Of course, pedestrians are probably doing the same in London and elsewhere; I just haven't had the opportunity to observe it, yet.

Space syntax doesn't work well in analysis of how pedestrians move through a rational grid of streets. Other forms of spatial analysis using isovists provide useful measures for modes of being in all urban form typologies, even within the grid. While an isovist technically describes a visual field - everything that can be observed from a given point - it has more to do with direct spatial perception than with vision. Blind, or deaf, or no sense of smell - we still have multiple sensory avenues for perceiving our environment. Urban space, any space, has an environmental resonance in which we are immersed at a level beneath cognitive awareness, the level of our remnant lizard brain, of bodies in motion, moving eyes, breathing lungs, beating hearts, pulsing blood. It's about being fully alive where you are at the moment. If you happen to be in a great urban space, so much the better.

By Lydia Heard

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