While reading through some of the response to my last post on Beacon Hill, I couldn’t help but go back to a big influence on my thinking, Kevin Lynch. Lynch, who lived from 1918 to 1984, was a professor, planner, writer and seminal thinker. Many of Lynch’s early writings and notes that influenced his most important work, Image of the City, are available at an online archive, called Perceptual Form of the City.
One of the most interesting documents is called “Morning with a cab dispatcher,” the notes Lynch took after spending a morning trying to understand Boston from the perspective of the guy who sends out and tracks cabs.
I have to credit Lynch for the process underneath Zero Based Zoning, the idea of starting land use planning and code writing with use rather than building form. Planning is not about pushing things around on a map, or bus routes, or zones, or even demographics; what matters is the people. Lynch thought planning started with listening to how people use their city first.
Despatcher receives request, computes nearest “stand” (or cruising zone), calls first cab in line in this “stand”, and places his peg in proper number in “occupied” section. Other cabs report local pick-ups, and their pegs are also removed. As fares are completed, cabs report their new “stand”, and their peg put in proper column. This goes at rapid, overlapping rate.
Lynch describes how the dispatcher “pictures” the city as he does his job.
[The dispatcher] says he does this in his head so quickly that hard to describe, but that he does not picture Boston as a map (he never uses one). Rather as though he were driving through streets himself (probably at a very rapid rate). Basically he organizes from the main streets, associating addresses and minor streets from the way they “come off” the mains.
Like many of us, the cab dispatcher has a way of dividing up the city conceptually that doesn’t necessarily correspond to an official map or plan. He knows the city based on key buildings and how they relate to big streets, little streets, and other land marks. The dispatcher knows Boston based on the way he uses his city, not based on how it’s zoned. The same is true of bus drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and police.
You’ll notice that there is nothing transactional going on in “Morning with a Cab Dispatcher;” that is, you don’t hear a litany of gripes and fears coming from the cab dispatcher and how he wants those addressed. The listening that Lynch does isn’t about, “what do you want?” That’s what our Seattle process has become, a kind of cage match between interests worried about change or what we can get from the process, not an honest appreciation of how a neighborhood is used by people and how that can be improved as more people move in.
Maps, plans, frameworks, and land use codes are important, but they should be a result of listening to how people use and want to use their city, not arbitrary building heights. And they should never be about codifying fear or attenuating someone’s profits. Planning is really the story about our hopes for the ever changing city, not a defense against change. Lynch’s work can help us train our brains to ask, “how do we prepare for change?” rather than figuring out how we can avoid it.