URBAN CODE: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City

By Anne Mikoleit; Moritz Pürckhauer
MIT Press 2011

This handy pocket-sized code book is guide to ‘seeing’ and understanding NYC’s SoHo and what makes life interesting within this district? (This is all based on the presumption that people do like SoHo and that it does ‘work’).

Urban Code could be seen as a contemporary extraction/review of three well known texts; Jane Jacobs’ The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.  These may be old texts and perhaps forgotten but Urban Code proposes their ongoing relevance.  In using SoHo as its case study we can begin to translate broad principles of Jacobs et al, in finer detail set within a contemporary scene.  Of course, this translation makes deeper sense for those familiar with SoHo; for others, Urban Code may remain a little diagrammatic.  In recently spending time in Manhattan, Urban Code triggered my recollection of the city and challenged my ‘of course, it’s NYC, that’s why it works’ attitude.

The key lesson? Human behaviour is key to understanding cities; think about the nuances of the everyday city, the ordinary as interesting, and stay close to the ground –  these are a few lessons that can be lost in the infrastructure of urban design. We are sensory beings; we like to watch, gather, engage, retreat, play, and meet each other in our cities.  We do not mind a little clutter on the pavement if it offers an interesting experience, provides a sense of community and reaffirms that our everyday life (and routine) is equally important and considered as the structures (architecture and infrastructure) supporting it.  It often helps to remove the vehicle from the picture, but not always.  They are part of the ‘street theatre’ just as the cafe tables, busker and city poodle become actors/activators of the street.  The ‘art’ is in the balance and composition of all the elements that make a city.  Perhaps the next edition of Urban Code is to figure out how we might choreograph our cities?

It’s a worthwhile investment for any urban designer; its compaction, diagrams and reflective prose makes it perfect for the tram ride or coffee break.  It certainly had me sketching and thinking about what might work for Adelaide…I may never figure out ‘the code’ of my city but I’m certainly enjoying the adventure in thinking.

Emma Wood

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