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Why Kevin Lynch's "Theory of Good City Form" still resonates

The lesser-known work of the famed MIT urbanist offers important lessons for livable cities even - especially - today


Illustration from the cover of Lynch's 1960 The Image of the City.


Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Lennard Instotute for Livable Cities

(Organizers of the IMCL conference series)


In 1981, the urban design theorist Kevin Lynch published a slender volume titled A Theory of Good City Form (later published as simply Good City Form). Lynch was already famous for an earlier landmark work, his 1960 book The Image of the City. But now he was not simply seeking to describe the elements of imageability of a city (nodes, paths, edges, landmarks, districts, etc.), but rather, how do these and other factors actually make, or not make, a “good” city? What are the characteristics that are required?


Lynch’s work is a fitting reminder, for those of us convening at the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference, that the ingredients of livable cities are not simple and cannot be assumed. Furthermore, we may move forward with progress on livable cities only when we have secured a firm footing in our understanding of the history of cities, good and bad, and the ideas that have shaped them – also good or bad.


In the book’s introduction, Lynch noted that such normative questions rarely are assessed rigorously, and most people (theorists included) just assume the qualities of a “good” city as given. But when such values lie unexamined, Lynch argued, they are dangerous. We are then vulnerable to unaccountable ideas, and perhaps unaccountable people. Moreover, if we truly wish to implement our individual and shared visions of good city form, we had better be very clear (with each other, and with ourselves) what it is we are talking about. Only then can we translate understanding into effective action.


Along similar lines and around the same time, the brilliant polymath Herbert Simon famously defined design as follows: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” This deceptively simple sentence raises more questions than it answers – but they are absolutely the right questions. Who is doing the preferring, and why? How do they know what they prefer – particularly if they are part of a group, or potentially more troubling, the subjects of actions preferred (knowingly or unknowingly) by others? How do they know what courses of action will be successful – or are they simply implementing untested fantasies? How do they revise their courses of action if they find that those actions are not effective, or indeed if what they prefer changes, or other feedback based on experience?


Design – of cities, buildings, or other elements of human experience – is not a linear or “waterfall” process. It requires continuous iteration, evaluation, and adaptation to better achieve success, from a human point of view. It may also employ models of the aim, used as guides to achieving the “preferred situations.”


In the book, Lynch described three historical models of “good” city form as their proponents saw them, which he termed “cosmic cities,” “machine cities,” and “organic cities.” His goal was not to elevate one model over the other two, but to ask, what is our model? How does it perhaps combine elements of these other three models, for better or worse?


Lynch reminds us that, if we are ever going to get anywhere in creating anything like more livable and sustainable cities, we had better get very clear about the nature of the cities we seek. Why are they better, and why should we seek to implement them? Furthermore, what means shall we employ to implement – what tools, strategies, systems, approaches?


Lynch is one of four landmark theorists of the late 20th century who are often cited as major influences by practicing urbanists today. The four were singled out by our colleague Stephen Marshall of University College London, in a paper that received international attention. Marshall grouped Lynch with Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs and Gordon Cullen, as seminal theorists who challenged the reigning orthodoxy – but whose work ironically threatened to become a “new orthodoxy.”


Marshall did not dispute the value of their contributions, but he noted the irony of their veneration by an uncritical generation, that failed to treat their work as dynamic elements of a science of cities. Marshall noted that it did little good to replace one ex cathedra doctrine with another, if it wasn’t subject to a rigorous scientific process: continuous evaluation on the basis of new evidence, and continuous revision and refinement as needed.


Marshall’s argument attracted the attention of Scientific American magazine, examined in an article titled, “Jane Jacobs: Is there good science behind urban design?” The article noted that Jacobs, for her part, had criticized the then-reigning orthodoxy as “pseudo-science.” Marshall asked whether the same charge could, with no little irony, be leveled against the next generation.


If we don’t have a rigorous, critically examined understanding of the nature of good cities, as I put it when interviewed for the article, “we're like physicists without a particle theory, or doctors without a germ theory. We don't have a unifying idea about the nature of what we're looking on. We say we're artists, but it's as if we're medieval doctors with our pseudo-scientific potions. We need to recognize that we have a responsibility to use models that are more likely to produce better outcomes.”


This was Marshall’s criticism of much of urban design since Jacobs, Alexander, Cullen and Lynch. I could also point to Alexander’s work on pattern languages, which I certainly believe is a seminal contribution. (Full disclosure, I was a former student, friend and collaborator of Alexander’s.) Yet some of the patterns in the original book are ripe for revision – for example, the pattern “Ring Road,” which suggests that automobiles should concentrate on peripheral arterials. I have proposed to review and refine these and other patterns, and moreover to write new ones. Yet for some ardent Alexander fans, it seems, this is blasphemy: for them, the Master’s work is not to be tampered with. (This brings to mind Goethe’s sage advice, that “tradition is the tending of the fire, not the worship of the ashes.”)


What is the relationship of the art of city design, to the science of cities? How can the research on cities translate into truly better cities? From the Scientific American article:


How can these two viewpoints—of science and design—be reconciled? Mehaffy suggests that urban design theory and urban design practice could have a relationship like that of life science research and medicine. A doctor doesn't spend all of his time in a research lab, but he relies on scientific knowledge to guide his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The art comes in the form of tailoring diagnoses and prescriptions for each individual patient.


Lynch’s less well-known book reminds us that “good city form” is a topic worthy of – even requiring – debate, review, revision. And Marshall reminds us that we need the continuous review, refinement and improvement that is a hallmark of the scientific process. This is true especially for livable cities and their ingredients. As Simon reminds us, we must ask “what is livability?” And we must ask, “how do we know we have achieved it?” “What are the effective methods?” And especially, “Livability for whom?”


We look forward to debating these questions and more at the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference.


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