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An A-Z of Urban Design concepts (and their misuse) K/L

K is for Kevin Lynch
Kevin Lynch was a professor of urban planning at MIT and authored several books with a focus on urban form.  The Urban Design Reader (Routledge, 2007) makes the arresting claim that The Image of the City (1960) is “the most widely read urban design book of all time”.  (Quite how they know this is unclear.)  In any event, Lynch can reliably be said to have developed one of the most influential theories about how people perceive cities.

Lynch made a particular study of the way people recognise the structure of cities and organise that information into ‘mental maps’ to help them navigate their way around.  He concluded that city form can be understood in terms of five elements: paths, edges, nodes, landmarks and districts. The use of these elements not only enhances a place’s legibility, but it also creates more memorable places to which people can develop a sense of belonging.

The older parts of our cities have a high degree of legibility and local identity because of the diverse elements that have been either planned in or which have evolved over time: a wide range of street types, street patterns on different alignments creating distinctive nodes where they meet, varied building forms and assorted use-mixes. In contrast, many of our new suburbs tend towards a dull sameness –minimum width local streets everywhere punctuated only by broad arterial roads, uniform street grids, homogenous project homes only distinguished by their colour and nary a corner shop. Any attempt to vary the formula is value-engineered out in the interests of efficiency and the holy grail of affordable housing.

The result is monotonous suburbs that could be anywhere. (And questionable benefits in terms of affordability. Just because lots can be delivered at a slightly lower price doesn’t mean they’ll be sold at a discount.)

Good urban design, like planning, involves balance. Has the balance in new suburbs swung too far towards alleged affordability and away from creating legible and memorable places?

L is for Landmarks
Landmarks are structures that stand out from their surroundings due to their height, use, unusual design or position at the termination of key viewlines. They are one of the key elements of good urban design that help people understand and navigate around cities. So where should landmarks be created and what qualities should they have?

Landmarks enhance legibility when they mark an important place in the city. This might be the heart of an activity centre, an important public function (such as a town hall) or a significant transport node (such as a railway station).

The degree to which a landmark stands out should reflect the importance of the place. While a cathedral warrants a sky-piercing spire, a local library can be marked merely by distinctive design.
Landmarks by their nature have a greater visual impact on the community. This carries with it a responsibility for excellent design. (In contrast, while ‘infill’ buildings should meet minimum design standards, they need not be extraordinary.)

Landmarks are an important element of good urban form. But their distinctiveness must be scaled relative to their importance and their design quality must match their visibility.

Next month: M is for Malls and N is for Neighbourhoods, walkable.

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