Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How do we compare cities? OR, Does this logo make sense?

I had fun creating the logo for this blog. Can you identify the places? (I almost wrote, "can you identify the CITIES". Oops. One of them is not a city. Oops, maybe THREE of them aren't cities. How do we define cities? Well, that will be another post).

These are the places in the logo above:
1. Chichen Itza
2. Stonehenge
3. A generic Medieval European city gate
4. New York City
5. Angkor

Now Stonehenge was definitly NOT a city. So what is it doing in my logo? This is actually a serious question. I didn't pick Stonehenge for aesthetic purposes (well, not entirely for aesthetic reasons). Its inclusion can be viewed as an intellectual statement about comparative urbanism.

Stonehenge is relevant to comparative urbanism because as a large public monument, it shares physical properties, and social implications, with urban public monuments (such as the other elements of the logo). Monuments communicate information about their builders and about their social context, and they have an influence on individuals and society. These issues are part of architectural communication theory, a body of thought associated with Amos Rapoport (his best book, in my mind, is The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach, Univ. Arizona Press, 1990). Or see my paper on urban theory, where I cover this and other theoretical approaches to ancient cities.

Cities are complex and messy things, and it is difficult to compare them. As a scholar, I find it far too complicated to make big comparisons of whole cities. Much more useful are comparisons of specific parts of cities (housing, or streets, or parks), or comparisons of specific urban processes (transportation, or manufacturing), or specific urban conditions (homelessness, or health care, or symbolic meaning, or poverty).

Stonehenge was not a city, and it was not part of a state-level society. As such, whole-settlement comparisons of Stonehenge with, say, the four cities in the logo, would not be very informative. On the other hand, specific smaller-scale comparisons of the monument of Stonehenge with some ancient urban monuments could be enlightening and might help us better understand the role of monuments in society. So Stonehenge, while NOT an urban feature, is relevant to research in comparative urbanism that focuses on a smaller scale than whole cities. It is definitely relevant to the wide urban world (and it looks pretty good, too).


  1. It is easily agreed that it seems easier to compare parts of the city than the whole of the city. However, singling out parts of the city runs the risk of overlooking their context. And whether the context is formed of its neighbouring units, a street, neighbouhood or the complete city, there is always the question of where the 'comparative totality' should end. In isolation what kind of comparison of parts are viable to make? For a truly informative type of comparison, finding generic common grounds is a necessity. Just how generic can it become before it sheds all information or how specific can it become before comparison doesn't really tell you anything?

    At the same time, in this example, the definition of monumentality becomes important. Is a monument the same thing as a monumental building or the monumentality of a place? And although this question may be apparent, so, to me, is the question what a street or a park is.

    I guess any approximation of most of these urban (I prefer simply talking about the built environment in these case) elements actually depend on their context of surrounding elements, which begs the question what may act as common denominators? If elements can be defined following common denominators within the whole, it would make their classification a contextual one, while allowing for comparison.

  2. @Benjamin- I agree that these issues of comparison are much more complicated, and we need to consider context. I was trying to make a pretty low-level point that comparison is important for urban studies, and that such comparison should not be limited to the modern world. I'm not clear on what you mean by "common denominators."

  3. I was definitely not trying to disprove the relevance of urban comparison (ancient and modern. On the contrary! Your opening up of discussion is most appreciated.

    What I mean by 'common denominators' (may be a Dutchism) is a fundamental elementary part of space which is present in (or even defines) every layout of urban space. Talking about urban form this could be something as simple as a line, but unless we would inform that line to reflect something of the complexes that it forms, there's is little to be learned from comparison of such complexes. To achieve proper comparative interpretation the generic empirical properties of the element need to be combined with a generic type of meaning, allowing for particularities to emerge from the complexes they are in and/or their formation histories. I hope this clarifies it a bit.