Deep-Reading the Urban Form

Engaging with the various layers of historic, political and geographic sub-structures upon which a city stands allows for richer insights into how cities evolve, and how different cities evolve differently.

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published August 09, 2011

We live in times where our lives are intricately connected to urban environments. Yet our ability not to read our environment clearly has resulted in enormous stress and confusion.

We are often at odds with our expectations of urban form, and its reality. Given the lack of control one has in molding the urban form, one is left to one's own devises to make sense of their urban environment and regain some control over the deep ambiguities one feels.

Under such conditions, one often slips into a tourist mode and starts to surf on the edges, afraid to dwell deep - for that, one is told, is the domain of professionals. This leads to unexpected results, as one can only take out as much as one puts into reading the urban form.

Surface reading a city's built form, and not engaging with the various layers of historic, political and geographic sub-structures upon which it stands, prevents richer insights into how cities evolve, and how different cities evolve differently.

It is from sifting through such sub-structures that local patterns are discovered. These emergent patterns facilitate a deep read of cities and generate a sounder basis for formulating urban development solutions which are time and location specific.

Cities such as Hamilton, which are locked in old geographic patterns and corresponding path dependencies, require a structural realigning of patterns if they are to re-emerge as world cities in the 21st century. Very little originality in urban design has ever resulted from a surface read of cities.

To truly understand Vancouver's urban structure requires a deeper read of Vancouver. One place to start would be the few decisive moments in its history that shaped its potential and its subsequent physical reality.

One such moment was The Last Spike from 1885. Others were the Plan for the City of Vancouver, 1930; and the more recent Expo '86 - or the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication.

In recognizing the criticality of its commercial and industrial harbor, and foreseeing a 'Union Station' early on in its formative years, Vancouver set the framework for its current connectivity to the world economy (see pgs 141-147 in above Plan for the City of Vancouver).

Such decisive moments continue to shape a city's built-form and drive its economy-which then colours its social and aesthetic culture and its buildings and street life. It is such moments that give cities like Vienna, London, Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, Milan, New York, Tokyo, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver among many, their most memorable place experience.

Although Vancouver has had its historical share of intense political intrigue which far outweighs Hamilton's travails, it was Vancouver's decisive moment of 1930 that underpinned its first innovative leap in urban planning.

The answer to how Vancouver managed to overcome its cultural insularity to earnestly embrace foreign cultures, which directly impacted its economic growth, is a topic for a deep read of its social evolution.

From San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury to Vancouver's Gastown to Toronto's Yorkville, the impact of the counterculture of sixties and seventies redefined the urban expectations and patterns of downtown cores and gave the world its bible of urban life. Yet these cities had already been determined by the decisive seminal moments of their early histories.

Unlike Vancouver, which missed a highway thru its core, Seattle did not. Here are a few decisive moments from Seattle: 1, 2, 3, 4, which may shock those who are inclined to believe that Starbucks defined Seattle's vibrant urban form and its culture.

So what does make Seattle work? For that matter, why does Paris work in spite of having its core brutally hollowed out in one of its decisive moments? Why does Vancouver really work in spite of a sprawling urban suburbia right outside of its core?

Is it because of the urban theories of the eighties, or in spite of them? These are questions that deep reading of cities may help reconcile, something which professional urban theorizing has failed at for decades.

Deep reading cities can be one of the most fascinating and gratifying experience. Most of us may never be able to redirect the course of modern cities to an ideal state; however, more often than not, sifting through the sub-structures of a city will help bust popular urban myths and open up a third option - even if it is presently only in our minds.

Topography plays a critical role in shaping the destiny of cities. Vancouver's growth pattern over a hundred years can be read so clearly in these very silent maps: (a, b). More here on Erick Villagomez's most fascinating deep read of Vancouver. An incredible approach to urban discourse that you will find here may help Hamilton redefine its standards of public engagement on urban issues.

One of the most progressive forums on Urbanism hosted by Stephen Rees, can show Hamilton how to overcome the deep angst which it frequently experiences from the corrosive 'us vs. them' discourse on city building issues; or tell us as to what could go wrong with our LRT plan, or even inform us on what happens when we deal with transportation as though it were an end in itself.

Surface reading of cities often leads to the temptations of transplanting one city's success on to another that is struggling. In such instances, one needs to remember Jane Jacobs' incisive read on excessive duplication of success in her "Self-destruction of diversity" (TDLGAC, ch. 13).

Even in instances where such transplanting from a surface read of cities seems to work, it leads to an homogenization of urban experience. Is it any wonder that most North American cities end up looking like each other in the best of times and even the worst of times?

While the very practice of urban design in our times stands at the juncture of intense self-scrutiny and self-doubt, the laissez-faire growth of many cities continue to be powered by politics and bureaucracies clutching onto urban ideas from the eighties.

In such times, Hamilton's urban enthusiasts must develop an intuitive ability to deep read cities. It is from this ability that they will be able to recognize, appreciate and engage with the changes already being ushered in by an economy that does not wait for politics, bureaucracy or the urbanists to come up to speed with its rapid motions and movements.

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton. http://metrohamilton.ning.com/


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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 09, 2011 at 08:05:08

Thank you for reminding me of how valuable a resource you are to the city of Hamilton and its residents. (Especially to this forum.)

An unappreciated one up to now, but hopefully, that will soon change...

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 09, 2011 at 09:59:00

Nice article Mahesh. It is especially interesting and useful to read how Vancouverites are discussing and analyzing their city. As I mentioned in my own article, people in Vancouver have been debating and analyzing the city for many years and the discussion continues.

Of course, we shouldn't simply copy what other cities have done (I don't think the elevated skytrain is a good option for urban rapid transit, for example), but I was very interested in the process and the small incremental changes they've made on the street.

One difference is that these discussions almost always start from the assumption that Vancouver is a great city and place to live, but with room for improvement. There aren't many Vancouver-haters on those forums. However, I was shocked when I first moved to Hamilton at how many residents told me what a dump the place is and encouraged me not to stay! I'd usually say something like "it seems pretty nice to me". I'd never encountered such self-loathing anywhere else. In Hamilton we also need to start from the position that the city is worth improving!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2011-08-09 10:00:43

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted August 09, 2011 at 15:55:35 in reply to Comment 67720

Thank you Nicholas, for bringing up the point on self-loathing. It has been the biggest handicap and cause of many missed economic opportunities in our city, and which also deeply shades our public image.

I remember attempting to bring a seminar to downtown Hamilton in 2006 - then offered by the East Side Institute of NY. It dealt with healing just such characteristics found commonly in economically devastated urban neighbourhoods. Ironically, I did not get much support from my peers then, who were simply convinced that it would not work here, as there was way too much self-loathing in this city!!

I looked up the ESI's website again after seeing your comment, and am truly amazed to see the positive impact that it continues to have on so many people in urban areas.

We have to address this debilitating condition at a city level to regain our civic pride at a very fundamental level. The approach taken by ESI would be highly effective in overcoming this condition in our city.

... Thanks all, for your comments!

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By JM (registered) | Posted August 09, 2011 at 11:43:17

do you think the commonwealth games my have been one of those moments???? no thanks to the corruption and epic fail in india...................

dont compare this to pan am though, this wouldve been all Hamilton and not TO

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted August 16, 2011 at 00:39:22

The companion piece to this article called: ' On Doing Cities' is published here.

'Deep-Reading the Urban Form' was originally titled 'On Reading Cities'.

The subject of Reading vs. Doing Produces Different Forms of Thinking, was the inspiration for these titles - which interestingly led me to: upward/downward counterfactual thinking - and its possible bearing on the quality of urban discourse in Hamilton.

Note to Editor: Do feel free to re-publish this companion piece here, if you wish.

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