Urban design, GDP/capita and the theory of good city form

Is this the world's best city to live in?

This is the world's richest city. Do you want to live here? Where is it? Does it look really American?

Kevin Lynch wrote a book on the Theory of Good City Form (MIT Press, 1981). His criteria were vitality, sense, fit, access, control, efficiency and justice. None of the criteria are readily measurable and Kevin Lynch did not identify which cities best satisfy them. One imagines he would have given Boston a good position in the ranking of North American cities. Lynch does not mention sustainability – and doesn’t everyone want more money? And so shouldn’t GDP/head be on Lynch’s list? After all, its more measureable and one can even find a ranking of cities by per capita GDP on Wikipedia. It goes like this: Tokyo $1479/head, New York City $1406/head, Los Angeles $792/head,   Chicago $574/head, London  $565/head,  Paris $564/head, Osaka $417/head, Mexico City $390/head, Philadelphia $388/head, São Paulo $388/head. I am surprised that the city at the top of the list is four times as productive as the city in tenth position. Boston is not in the top ten and nor are Edinburgh, Rome, Kyoto, Isfahan, Munich, Hangzhou or many of the other places admired by urban designers. Are we barking up the wrong trees? Or are there no connections between the quality of the urban landscape, the desirablilty of a city as a place to live and the economic productivity of the settlement? And what has size got to do with it? Peter Hall argues that the best size for a city is about 1 million people. The top ten list of cities by GDP suggests to me that bigger cities tend to be more productive. Here are the top ten cities by size: Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City, Delhi, Mumbai, New York City, São Paulo, Manila, Los Angeles, Shanghai.

(Above photograph of Tokyo, courtesy riverseal)

9 thoughts on “Urban design, GDP/capita and the theory of good city form

  1. Christine

    You are right..I was surprised that the photograph was of Tokyo a city of some 12 million people! It is a city I have wanted to live in for some time….[ z.about.com/…/tokyotowerpicture-southwest.jpg ] Perhaps these photographs are more typical of my expectations? [ http://www.uva.co.uk/archives/date/2005/08 ] Up close it seems much less American! It is said that the Western part of Tokyo is made up of 26 cities. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo ]

    It is said that Japan’s economy is at last experiencing some positive momentum away from a shrinking economy. The economy appears to be driven by government policy decisions rather than by urban form? But closer analysis paints an even more complex situation…
    [ http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fd20100110pb.html ]

    I wonder is it an affordable city to live and work in the new millennium?

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    If I may ask, what attracts you to living in Tokyo?
    I agree about it feeling more like 26 cities built side-by-side than one big city and I do not think it has the visual or cultural excitement of New York. Of the cities on the list I think London is the most livable and that enhancing this character with lavish public expenditure is the best thing London could do to secure its economic wellbeing.
    By the way, look at the roof garden in the left foreground of the birdseye view of Tokyo.

  3. Christine

    I have always had a fascination for experiencing city life. Tokyo is both a dense and sprawling city. The city operates 24/7.[ http://city.jsc.nasa.gov/EarthObservatory/Cities_at_Night_The_View_from_Space.htm ]

    The areas of Tokyo around District II have spectacular parks and traditional Buddhist temples dating back to the 12th century.[ http://blog.ratestogo.com/a-guide-to-tokyos-districts-ii/ ] While in District I it is possible to experience the best of traditional and modern Japanese culture. [ http://blog.ratestogo.com/a-guide-to-tokyos-districts-i/ ]

    The Japanese aesthetic is subtle, sophisticated and surprising. What designer wouldn’t want to learn more? [ http://ii-ne-kore.blogspot.com/2009/09/modern-japanese-architecture-and-ma.html ]

    And last but not least Tokyo is quite central to other major destinations in terms of flight time ie. London, New York and Sydney.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I have been reading books by Haruki Murakami recently and like them a lot. He paints a picture of Japanese life which is very different to the salaryman model so famous in the west. The underlying reason is probably that Japanese life has changed since the model became set in concrete. But I don’t think the form of Japanese cities has changed in the ratio of Salaryman:Murakami. The comparison with Holland is interesting: both socieities have strong senses of both community and individualism. But both qualities are better-expressed in the form of Dutch cities than Japanese cities. Few, if any, countries are as good as making cities as the Dutch.

  5. Christine

    Yes Holland is a very interesting country for city design as it has many famous cities beyond the national capital Amsterdam (pop @1.6 mill.) For example the political capital the Hague (pop @ .5 mill.), the port city Rotterdam (pop @1.6 mill), the university city Utrecht, arguably Holland’s oldest city Maastricht, the ‘tulip’ city Haarlem and the painterly city of Delft to name but a few.

    One of my favourite Dutch architects H P Berlage was involved with the city planning of the Hague
    [ http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H.P._Berlage_1908_expansion_plan_for_The_Hague_detail.jpg ]and Amsterdam.

    This tradition of concern for the design of the city has continued at the Berlage Institute.
    [ http://www.berlage-institute.nl/research/details/4th_international_architecture_biennale_rotterdam_open_city_master_class?PHPSESSID=69b305d5690e292b1bb2e1f944b48307 ]

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    There are many curious aspects to urban design, including the different approaches of different nations.
    Historically, the urge to make good and better cities has come from the rich – and many of the best examples result from an alliance between religion and monarchy.
    But since the nineteenth century, the urge has often come from a desire to make things better for the poor. Many of the theorists have been on the left of the political spectrum. Often they have been anti-king and anti-God, many of them also following Karl Marx’ attutude that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. So, for example, they are convinced that the residents of Dharavi would be a whole lot happier if they lived in tower blocks. Urban designers have shown little enthusiasm for empirical research on this or any other subject. Their principle has been ‘we know what you need – and we’re going to persuade the politicians to give you it’. It has been authoritarianism untempered by faith – and it has been bad. The churchmen should stop worrying their cassocks about sex and get back to a serious involvement in urban design, because science, too, has its limitations.

  7. Christine

    Indian aesthetic theory list eight rasa’s (the dominant emotional theme of a work of art or the primary feeling that is evoked in the person that views, reads or hears such a work);

    Rati – love
    Hasya – mirth
    Soka – sorrow
    Krodha – anger
    Utsaha – energy
    Bhaya – terror
    Jugupsa – disgust
    Vismaya – astonishment

    Right now I suppose the residents of Dharavi are probably feeling Soka and Krodha, perhaps even Bhaya. These feelings would flow from ‘the moral’ evaluation of the work relative to the viewer rather than its ‘visual’ aspects.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    What an interesting list. I’d like to see designers use it in explaining their work, just as I would like them to EXPLAIN the relationship between their design and the existing site. There are no rules about whether the design should be similar to or different from its surroundings but the relationship must be explained and must be justified.

  9. Christine

    Possibly the best explanation I can give that explains context sensitive design is to refer you back to two previous posts ‘Seine it before?’ and the post which shows the Sydney Opera House in different landscape and urban contexts. This example probably has little explanatory power because the Opera House is good in any context.

    The same object in different context elicits different emotions depending on the viewers interpretation of the object in its context. An example is the ski mask.

    1 From the V & A [ http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/13016-popup.html ] Energy?
    2.Cyclist version [ http://images.nextnewnetworks.com/14622_blog.jpg ] Astonishment?
    3.Fashion version [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/81822373@N00/382848260/ ] Mirth?
    4.First impressions count version [ http://neareastfamily.org/ski_mask.html ] Terror?
    5.Walking version [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/cubistliterature/3606425834/ ] Astonishment?

    The context to really watch out for….[ http://comps.fotosearch.com/comp/OJO/OJO210/burglar-ski-mask_~pe0065909.jpg ] Anger? Terror? Disgust? Well I suppose that depends on where you are and who you are in relation to the burglar.


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