Reading the City

Imagine you want to know more about a particular city. Perhaps you have just arrived from some other place, or maybe you’re curious because you plan to move to it. What is the city’s story? How did it come to be what it is today? Where is it headed? Who and what have been shaping its transformation?

It was questions like these that first caused me to begin dreaming up “city of the year” tours for graduate students in urban planning at the U of Iowa 15 year ago.

As you might guess, there is no single way to “read” a city. What one looks for in a city depends on one’s interests. Someone who is interested in the medical or educational system, for example, would want to meet with health care professionals, or teachers and administrators. People interested in the arts or music scene would look elsewhere.

My interest was in helping our planning students connect what they were learning in the classroom to the real material cities of the upper Midwest. I was especially keen on connecting those cities to “History and Theories of Planning,” a core course I had been teaching for ten years. I wanted to use those cities as local manifestations of the course’s key themes, but also to learn how the particular cities differed from the more generic city discussed in the course. I also wanted to give our graduate students a chance to meet with various professionals and citizens, and to give them a better sense of the kinds of work practicing planners (and others involved in the process of planning) actually do.

These tours actually began far from the Midwest, for in 1998 I guided a group of students on a “Sustainable Cities Tour” through parts of western Europe. This tour included 2-3 day visits to Leicester (England), Aalborg (Denmark), Freiburg (Germany), and La Rochelle (France), along with short stops in London, Koln, and Paris. As discussed in an earlier posting on this web site (“Learning through the Intermediary of the World”), I wanted students to learn first hand what some of the best European cities were doing to become more sustainable.

This trip to Europe was soon followed by a field trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1998, by a follow up trip to the Twin Cities in 1999, and then by trips to Louisville in 2002, Kansas City in 2004, New Orleans in 2006, and Milwaukee in 2008.

The trips did not simply emerge whole cloth out of my active imagination. Rather, they were built on background knowledge I had already developed through my doctoral work in urban planning and by teaching “History and Theories” and related courses for the preceding ten years.

Learning from each succeeding trip, I gradually developed what one might loosely call a method for designing and conducting future trips.

I would begin by identifying a potentially enlightening set of scholarly books and articles related to the city’s history and planning. At first I did this by myself, but later I began asking a graduate research assistants to do the literature search for me, first through the University’s Library and later through Google Scholar. This literature search would take place 4-6 months before the planned date of the forthcoming trip.

I’d read all the material, seeking to get a sense of the city’s collective identity; the key characters, trends, and events that had helped shape the city’s transformation over time; and the key locations at which major events had occurred. Reading this material also enabled me to see how various authors had tried to tell the city’s story, often using vignettes concerning key characters and events.

After reading all or most of this material, I would undertake a scoping visit to the city, seeking primarily to get a physical sense of the settings in which major events had occurred, and their spatial relationships with one another. This enabled me to begin imagining a route we could follow while touring the city. While scoping the city, I would also visit the best local bookstore, seeking to identify other useful literature. I was especially on the lookout for novels set in the city, which could fruitfully be related to the more historical and planning-oriented literature that I had already read.

Two or three months before the planned date of the trip, I would contact alumni from the U of Iowa’s Planning Program who were working in the city’s region. I would ask if they could point us to hot planning-related activities and developments, and to help us meet (if possible) with major actors in the city’s current scene; e.g., mayors and directors of planning departments. I also sought help in identifying good restaurants and night spots that might attract our students.

In the “History and Theories” course, I would give students a list of potential projects relevant to the city, and provide them with sources of information concerning those projects. That way the students could become quasi-experts with regard to one particular aspect of the city prior to departing on our trip.

Prior to departing, I would devise a route for us to follow, one that would ideally enable us to move forward through historical time but also ensure that we would be able to meet with key individuals.

In some cases, notably Louisville and Kansas City, I was able to take advantage of the fact that I had either grown up in the city or else worked there for several years. In those cases I had insider knowledge that I took advantage of.

The trips themselves typically took place in October, partly to ensure that students had learned enough about planning history to make sense out of what they would be hearing and seeing on the ground. I also wanted to maximize the probability that the weather would facilitate walking outdoors.

I won’t discuss what we did on each trip. Those details can be found in the Field Trips category of this WordPress blog site.

But I can report that none of the cities ever perfectly fit the story of the generic city told in the “History and Theories of Planning” course. For example, some (especially New Orleans and Louisville) were considerably older than the others. Some (e.g., Milwaukee) had been far more industrialized (and subsequently deindustrialized) than the others. Louisville and New Orleans were both located in what used to be slave states, but their histories differed quite substantially from one another. Likewise, none of the cities had experienced a disaster equivalent to Hurricane Katrina’s strike on New Orleasn. Unlike the other three cities, Kansas City and Louisville were located in bi-state metropolitan regions. And so on.

That said, all the cities manifested important aspects of the generic story. For example, all of them (with the complicated exception of post-Katrina New Orleans at that moment in time) are trying to brand and market themselves in order to compete more effectively in global-scale markets.

Although I wouldn’t want to claim that the “method” just describe would work for everybody – not everybody can call upon research assistants and alumni – I can say that you will learn a lot about your city of interest if you follow a method similar to the one I’ve just described.

You will learn how to read the city with new eyes. It will never seem quite the same again.

This entry was posted in Field trip reports, Louisville, New Orleans, Other Cities, planning, planning history and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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