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Experiential Layers of the City.

by Bruce Donnelly

We usually look at familiar urban places as our habits dictate, rarely changing from our default viewpoint. We shop, go to work, go out for the evening—hardly thinking about how we think about the interaction of beauty, people’s stories, and the ways people represent themselves.

This narrowed perspective limits our effectiveness as designers, planners, and citizens. By consciously cultivating the skill to switch between ways of thinking about places, we can notice and compare those layers, as well as how they do or do not comport with the circumstances at hand.

There are, of course, many different experiential layers to urban experience. However, three essential layers, in an effective order, are:

  • Beauty
  • Stories
  • Representation

Once we learn to pay attention, we can combine the layers with the circumstances of a particular situation to decide, say, whether the beauty of a place and the stories of its lives mesh. Through reverse-engineering successes and failures, then, we can better understand success and failure, and therefore move more knowledgably and elegantly through the city.

Formal garden.
  Taking in beauty in a formal flower garden, above, and a Japanese tea garden, below.
Japanese garden.

Beauty: The Garden

In a garden, we let ourselves relax our critical mind to take in beauty. Like no other places, they give us the opportunity to see things—flowers, trees, earth, water—simply as what they are. Gardens can show us different kinds of beauty; the beauty of a formal flower garden is different from that of a quiet Japanese tea garden. If we learn to appreciate places on this first, most intuitive level, then we can notice what gives places beauty, or robs them of it, and defer thinking about why ugly things might be necessary.

How can we get into a mode of thought where we set those things aside? We can go for a walk in a place we like. We can stop thinking about what we have to do; in fact, think less, and entertain our emotions. Maybe a poster in a bookstore catches the eye. Instead of trying to figure out what it means, we can let its visual impact wash over us. Is it pretty? Maybe a house looks attractive. Instead of thinking about how nice it would be to live there; it’s better, appreciate it as we would a flower. What is the nature of its beauty? Maybe its beauty is chaste, or maybe it is full-bodied.

When we detach from the written meanings of signs, the semiotics of buildings, and look for something “pretty” or “august,” we start to notice that certain types of beauty don’t go well together—it is difficult for a Japanese tea garden to follow a formal knot garden. Odd juxtapositions, such as a line of telephone poles running through a formal ensemble of civic buildings, may suddenly strike us as unpleasant rather than mundane.

We can look at people the same way. Which people are pretty, ugly, august, stern, and so on? Personally, I like to be flaneur for a while. Baudelaire was a “botanist of the sidewalk,” and made a habit of walking Paris's streets in a slightly detached, but emotionally engaged way, much the same way I might walk through a garden.

When I look at places this way, I sometimes come to appreciate things I might otherwise feel I shouldn’t. On one particularly warm day, walking on a sidewalk in Chicago’s Loop, I might enjoy the façade of a garishly painted building. In another frame of mind, I might deplore its outlandishness, but I must be honest that for a moment, I have enjoyed such things.

This way of looking lets us drink in places' emotional moods, established by the physical setting and, more, by the people in it. Yet, this detached appreciation of city places is impossible to maintain, because we have to attend to things like crossing traffic and greeting people. Eventually it's time to re-engage, and ask, ”What’s going on?” Having paid attention to the beauty and ugliness in a place, it’s time to listen to its stories.

Skateboarder in action.
Street photography includes people—such as the skater above and the couple on a plaza below—in the context of their place.  
Couple swinging around a light post next to a plaza.

Stories: Street Photography

There's a myth, or a danger, that the photographer can hide behind the lens, and maybe in some types of photography it is possible. But with street photography, we must go out on the street and engage people. Not only does focusing on people in the street force us to pay attention to their actions, but walking around with a camera gives us the cure for the voyeuristic detachment into which we might otherwise fall.

We can take a camera out; put it around our neck, hold it prominently, and start taking pictures on a street. In the camera’s static frame, people’s stories become somehow more important than they are when we can see everything happening in front of us.

Helen Liggett, the author of Urban Encounters, approaches the city from a modest but intellectually engaging position, and especially through the lens. When we engage the city through what people do, we become receptive to it. Down the street from the garish façade, skateboarders borrowing an office plaza on Sunday might show off for me, shooting off the tops of railings. There’s no hiding behind the lens, hence the receptivity. There’s no escaping the story of the moment, either—not just what’s actually happening, but also the story the pictures tell, in a more idealized form. We can, paradoxically, better focus our attention on the stories of the street through a lens.

When I engage places this way, it allows me to focus on what I do with myself in real places. When, farther up the street, I take a picture of someone buying a newspaper at a newsstand, I cannot photograph the transaction as such, but can only photograph the transfer of pieces of paper from one hand to another; I cannot photograph people waiting for a bus, but can photograph people standing, more or less patiently beneath a bus-stop sign. We have to fill in the rest, extrapolating from images to reconstruct a story.

Through photography, we can draw our attention to what people are doing, and how they do it in physical space. Paradoxically, precisely because photography only lets us photograph the physical reality of something, it forces us to fill in the gaps, and focus our minds there. Another reason we feel Liggett's indebtedness is that we are looking at life in unguarded moments—looking beneath the way people represent themselves. Valuable as this is, it is almost unfair, since people, households, businesses and so on take the trouble to represent themselves.

McDonald's in Sedona, Arizona.
  The many forms of McDonald's, and how we read the place: McDonald's in Sedona, Arizona, with its strict design guidelines (top) and McDonald's in suburban Tucson, Arizona.
Top photo by Carmen Brewer. Bottom photo courtesy Tucson Unified School District.
McDonald's in downtown Chicago.

Representations: Reading Places

Everything in the urban environment represents a person, company, or institution, and often represents multiple layers of people and groups. These representations come from aspirations, rather than just the activity of the moment. If we look past the representations to the aspirations inspiring them, we read what people care about, and what people want others to see.

Go out onto a city street, and we can see how these aspirations array themselves densely. Perhaps we see a national store’s sign. The chain (for example, McDonald's) represents itself through its sign, but the community may also represent itself by exerting limits on the sizes and colors of signs. If we see a small green McDonald's sign, it means the community has decided that it has “high standards,” and that two or three entities—the city, the chain, and the franchisee—have each pressed their aspirations into a single object. On the street, that sign and a hundred others, combined with particular standards for stores and street furniture, may communicate a community’s sense of its own taste, without even a single sign of its own on view.

How can we train ourselves to pick out these interactions? We can begin by taking a notebook out into a street. In this instance, a walk from a commercial strip to a residential street will do nicely. We can pay attention to everything we can about how buildings, signs, trees, and curbs represent, and who they represent. We can ask four questions:

  • Who is doing the representation?
  • What is the audience?
  • What is the intended message?
  • What is the actual, overt reading?

In Cleveland, one church raises a thin, glorious spire to the heavens to express worshipfulness, but people used to call it the “church of the holy oil can,” because of its shape and because John Rockefeller used to worship there. The congregation’s representation of itself became muddled. We can read not only what the community intends, but also what it says without intending to say.

In Looking at Cities, Allan Jacobs reads cities in a similar way, and so reads which neighborhoods are on the way toward gentrification, and even (through buildings' ages) when the local economy was booming, and when it permitted no new buildings. With enough practice, it is possible to read communities carefully, and learn more than we might imagine.

Such readings span two different categories of investigation. First, we can look for clues for things like disinvestment or changing ethnicity—deteriorated window frames or Chinese characters on signs, for say—and second, we can read the owner’s intentions. For example, in Toronto, the early renovators often painted everything a respectable white to clean it up and make it decent, but later renovators have often used tasteful or “historically appropriate” colors. The same activity of recovering the historic fabric takes two different tacks, depending upon people's aspirations.

When I walk down a street, looking for representations, I’m usually struck by the richness of each place’s layers of meaning. When I pass the garish façade, I might notice that each floor has its own sign, probably unconsciously recapitulating the practice of the mid-nineteenth century, but with more color. I might pass, later, a house in severely deteriorated condition, but with beautiful flowers in neatly clipped beds, and be unsurprised to find out that an elderly woman, short on means but long on pride, makes it her home. The next house might have a lawn with bare spots, barred windows, notices stuck through the barred door’s handle, and a pair of shiny SUVs in the driveway. On a main street, I may notice a restaurant with alternative papers in its lobby, notices for local band concerts, and a bulletin board with apartments-to-rent fliers sporting a fringe of tear-off phone numbers. Each signifies a different quality of engagement with the community.

If we pay attention to such complex readings, we realize that there are overt signals we intend to send, but there is usually irony—such as a too-“tasteful” sign for a nail shop with a special on glitter. We don’t always send the signals we intend. Sometimes, we set out to do one thing, and actually do another. Once we learn to read people’s aspirations, we can investigate the gap between aspiration and reality—the better to meet our own aspirations. We can learn to reverse-engineer.


Reverse-engineering, in the wider meaning outside the engineering world, is the practice of taking success and figuring out how it works. Passing a park bench, I might ask, “What makes it work?” Perhaps it is because it faces and is just the right distance from a playground, so that parents can watch their children. By looking for beauty, for stories, and at representation, we can prepare ourselves to figure out how they can or should be aligned. Yet, how do we do this analysis?

We can pair off different sets of readings, adding “the given circumstances” as a catch-all. Thus:

Two-way arrow.
Two-way arrow.
Two-way arrow.
The Given Circumstances
Two-way arrow.
Two-way arrow.
The Given Circumstances
Two-way arrow.
The Given Circumstances

In the example above, the bench may have worked, under the given circumstances, because it made a certain story possible. It might also make more stories possible than just those of parents watching children, by offering a beautiful view as well, or by being near a jogging trail and drinking fountain. Perhaps the bench shows aspirations to familiarity, comfort, even a little nostalgia. Perhaps the bench offers a certain kind of beauty appropriate to the setting. I might actually sit down on the bench to note all those matches, and maybe note a few mismatches. For example, the bench might have an understated, familiar beauty appropriate to its setting in a historic park, but the neighborhood might aspire to something more in keeping with its ethnic heritage.

Homeless peson on bench.
What makes these park benches work? Going beyond the usual assumptions helps us learn what does and doesn't work, and why.
Top photo courtesy U.S. Census Bureau.
Couple snuggling on bench.

This sort of detailed search can get us beyond the usual assumptions. Too often, we work from only the most obvious—and shallow—assumptions: Park bench = Good.

It's rare for us, unfortunately, to critically investigate success and failure between different points of view. I often find myself reconsidering my prejudices when I use this approach. By doing so, we can make observations about what tends to work and what doesn’t. Does the next bench over work as well? Why not? Is it facing slightly the wrong way? Is it too close to the jogging path? By being sensitive to the particulars of each layer, and to their interactions, we can very carefully lay out observations, almost as a checklist.

When someone tells us that an urban element, like an alley, or porch or front-loaded garage is good or bad, our history of observations of multiple layers will armor us against such categorical assertions. If we hear that vagrants sleep on the bench at night, we might ask, “Does that story preclude the ones we want?” If it does, we can check the possible remedies against each layer, or way of seeing the place, and search for a response that strengthens the other stories we like: perhaps an additional armrest in the middle of the bench will better demarcate the space so that more people will sit on the bench, or maybe a park guard would make everyone more comfortable as well as turn out the vagrants in the morning. In the first solution, we pair, “the given circumstances” with “beauty,” and “beauty” with “stories.” In the second case, the guard changes the story for the better, leaving beauty intact.


In her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs reverse-engineers whole neighborhoods and streets, as well as the fortunes of small companies. Touring the North End of Boston, she discovered that the place was lively and comfortable. She called a planner, who said, “Say, what you ought to do, you ought to come back and go down in the summer if you think it's fun now. You'd be crazy about it in summer. But of course we have to rebuild it eventually. We've got to get those people off the streets.”

Boston's North End, intersection with lots of people at night.
  Boston's North End: Bustling street life is just one of the successful neighborhood's stories.
Photo by Joseph Driscoll.

In that passage, the great reverse-engineer of cities talked to someone utterly unable to understand cities. Part of reverse-engineering success and failure is to find information that's not apparent on the ground—demographics, business ownership, unit costs, and so on. In this case, the planner’s blindness—not to such circumstances, but to the North End’s beauties, stories, and the way it represented itself—made him blind to the place’s worth.

If we are to avoid being quite so insensitive to cities, we must attend not just to statistics, and not just to our personal preferences, but also to the levels of experience that help make them good or bad. It means that we must open ourselves to places’ beauties, and take note of their absences, too. It means that we must pay attention to the ways that people use space—to their everyday stories. It means that we must read the ways that people represent themselves, their businesses, their households, and so on, including the occasional ironies and miscommunications. Finally, it means comparing each of those to the others, and to the circumstances of the particular location, to gain a full picture of what’s going on.


Bruce F. Donnelly is an urban planner in the Cleveland, Ohio area, with a strong penchant for urbanism predating the founding of the Congress for New Urbanism.
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