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Mapping [City DNA]

Mar 17, 2010

by Jihad Bitar, VIA Architecture

What makes urban design flourish in some cities but remain backwards in others?

My answer:
Successful cities already have their [City DNA] mapped out.

The Idea:
This is my attempt to explain why urban design remains unsuccessful in many cities around the world, while in others it is able to flourish and grow. In the process, I will also attempt to identify the element of urban design that is often missing in many of these failing cities.

Successful urban design tasks should start with a basic understanding of a physical location’s various dimensions; such as history, culture, environment, and architecture as well as the behaviors of its inhabitants. I’m calling it [City DNA], where specific elements of a city are mapped out, researched, published, taught, understood, implemented and challenged in order for that specific city to grow in its proper context.

I’ll start my argument by highlighting two essential points from two important articles written specifically about the Dubai experiment. These points will demonstrate how important it is to understand a city’s [City DNA] if we want it to develop into a healthy urban area with a promising and sustainable future

Article 1:

The first article I’m linking to here is written by Michael Sorkin for the August 2009 issue of Architectural Record, titled: Connect the dots: Dubai, labor, urbanism, sustainability, and the education of architects 1

Sorkin states:

“This is an environment designed by the world’s best and brightest, and for many, a paradigm of global inevitableness.”

Note 1: Regardless of who is hired to design and build any project in a city, if the designer, being an architect or a planner, does not understand the [City DNA] of that specific city, the results will be unsuccessful.

Article 2:

The second article is written by Blair Kamin for the Chicago Tribune on January 08, 2010, titled: In Dubai, you can’t get there from here; architectural feats undercut by shoddy urban planning 2 

Kamin states:
“A tour of this once-booming Persian Gulf city-state, which has shifted into low development gear from hyper-drive, reveals a disturbing disconnect between its architectural spectacle and its short-sighted development practices.” 

Note 2: Regardless how spectacular a city’s architectural forms are, if the designer, being architect or planner, doesn’t understand the [City DNA] of that specific city, the results will be unsuccessful

While I was studying in Japan, I met an exchange student from Columbia University who came to our laboratory to work on her research project. She was developing a theoretical comparison between Western cities and Japanese cities.

Through her studies, she came up with an amazing compilation of the differences between the two types of cities, but for me, her research was more than that– it was the base of my idea to treat our cities in the same manner as we treat any creature on the planet.

To cure or prevent a disease, we need to know the genetic elements of the creature needing treatment so that we can better understand how its body works. Cities are no different than any creature. Some cities may grow, some get polluted, and some get totally destroyed.

To fix and prevent problems or to revive a failing city we must have their genetic map that consists of not only the basic physical elements but also the philosophical elements, which I have termed as [City DNA].

I’m going to use my colleague’s model as a prototype of how the [City DNA] element applies to our cities:

The Western City
(Kevin Lynch):

  • The imaginable city,
  • Encourage pride through distinction,
  • Linear relationship,
  • Understandable when put in map plan
  • The city skeletal structure that consist of (Path, Edge, District, Node and Landmark,)

Lines of vision and movement; channels and speeds movement
Boundary or break in continuity
Area of a city with common identifying characteristics
Convergence of paths or concentration of paths or concentration of activities
Visual reference points within a city often acts to reinforce the node

The Japanese City
(Gunter Nitschke and Yoshinobu Ashihara):

  • The experiential city
  • Fosters harmony through uniformity, fragmented image makes the individual feel part of the larger whole
  • Special relationship
  • Ambiguous in map and plan
  • Molecular structure: additive, clustered, non-hierarchical (Link, En, Dividuum, Ma, Natural context)

Network of access routes; disperses and slows movement
縁 (en):
Transactional space; simultaneously the connection and / or separation between spaces
Dividuum (Dividual):
Part split from and belonging to the whole
間 (ma):
Place or space; understood as the place for tea ceremony or formal space
Natural context:
Topography and surrounding natural elements

What if?
What if every city in the world succeeded in mapping out its [City DNA] in a way similar to the Lynch, Nitchke and Ashihara theories? And in doing so, what would our cities and urban centers look like?

Would it look completely and perfectly transformed?

No! Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Damascus, and Vancouver are not going to look much different than its physical characters of today. But as long as our ideas continue to be centered on [City DNA], any future developments in any city in the world will be built smarter, greener, more adaptive to its unique community; and, above all, they will become better integrated and harmonized with the city, its fabric, its culture, its environment and its residents.

This is the new generation of cities we need today and the path that leads to creating accurate [City DNA] maps starts with serious collaborations between universities, research centers, urban consultants, architects, philosophers, historians as well as municipalities and local communities. Discussion and not disagreement is what our cities are asking us to do and we are obliged to do exactly that.