I am obsessed with the city. While I grew up in suburbia, I went to an urban college and lived in big cities for the last 20 years. I’ve lived in Boston, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and Mumbai, with major stops in London and Singapore. That’s the greatest hits of urbanity right there.
A lot of attention is paid to the big moves of the city and great work has been done, from Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, to Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, to the most iconic example, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. These are big overarching books well worth your time.
But they miss the smaller details of urban living. Municipalities – Cities, villages, urban and suburban areas – are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life. They help keep us moving safely about our day by deploying signage and traffic lights; hold our newspapers before and after we read them; street furniture protects us with bollards and separated bike lanes; and street furniture brings us joy with trees and art.
I envision this project to be similar to another seminal, if controversial book: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Perhaps these are the smaller-scale patterns which flow from the objects themselves. I can only be so presumptuous. This website endeavors to present a wide cross section of communities, taking into account varying densities, geographic location, community age, and mobility mix, allowing wider insights.
Wide-scale scholarship in this area, especially at this scale, is limited. Conducting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative will give designers and Civic Practitioners additional information and inspiration, leading to better decisions, positively impacting their communities.
You can check out some typology examples here:
- Praetento aquafluo
WSNY NYC Drinking water sampling station
- Raedam signum
- ignem vocant
Or try these:
All of this research can flow into final artifacts in different ways. The key design problem is finding the intersection of what I find inspiring, what other people find interesting, and what makes sense. So far, I’ve shortlisted the following outputs:
A portable guide for identifying street furniture, markings, and urban typologies in the wild. I envision the first edition focused on New York City, with future editions covering other regions and cities, as there will be a great deal of communal overlap worldwide (but I have to start somewhere).
Left: Old mockup.
A set of identification cards practitioners can use as they go about their day, acting as both flash cards and design tool allowing exploration of new typology combinations.
Left: card prototype
I need your help
So I’ve been doing this project on and off for a few years, and while I’m invested, I’ve just gotten to the point where I can show the work in some organized format. I have some questions:
- Is this useful to anyone? Am I just obsessed with this stuff?
- What can make it better? What should I do less?
- What kind of content do people want/need?
- Is there an appetite for a Kickstarter/Patreon to help defray some of the cost?
- What form factors are the most useful, or interesting?
- I’m still working on the overall tone of voice for this project – go one way and it’s too dry, the other way and it’s too niche.
I work at IDEO where I build things for people. I lead projects to better understand people’s needs, often at the scale of cities or nations, translating insights to design opportunities. I help organizations grow to serve people in new ways, supporting them through the necessary change to meet these needs. With a background in architecture I collaborate with partners to design across media, spanning digital, technology, space, and place.
Questions, comments, etc? Please fill out the form below or email me here:
randy AT plemel DOT com