In his classic book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch outlined five elements that people consistently use to mentally map their environment: paths, edges, district, nodes and landmarks. He defined landmark as a readily identifiable object that serves as an external point of reference. In more common use, it is an element one would use while giving directions to someone. Vertical things, especially tall ones, more often than not, fall into the landmark category. Of course, this is not to say that a landmark has to be vertical). Tall things can be seen from many directions and at distance, handy wayfinding attributes. Some of the most famous objects in the world fall into this category: the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the list goes on and on.
It occurred to me, however, that in our community our wayfinding and orientation points tend not to be these vertical elements. For these purposes we seem to use either a) a horizontal public spaces (Ross’s Landing, Miller Plaza, Coolidge Park, Fountain Square, Walnut Street Bridge, Riverwalk), or b) semi-public buildings whose primary character is more of mass than of height (Choo-Choo, Aquarium, Memorial Auditorium).
The issue is not that we lack vertical elements, nor is it in their distribution. Downtown is choc full of prominent, beautiful vertical elements: IMAX, Creative Discovery Museum, 1st Centenary Steeple, First Methodist Church Steeple, Dome Building, 17th Street Water Tower, and the 1st Baptist Church Steeple to name but a few. However, for some reason they don’t seem to be the elements by which we mentally map our city. If you look at these verticals, they are for the most part introverted things. They express themselves in an outward way, but they serve internal purposes. The places we tend to use for points of reference are very public places. Example: if you were on Georgia Avenue in front of the Courthouse, would you be more likely to say “I’m by Fountain Square” or “I’m by the old First Methodist Church Steeple”. I think most Chattanoogans would orient themselves more by the square than by the steeple, despite the fact that the steeple is far more prominent from a physical standpoint.
|Is this guy by Fountain Square or|
the old First Methodist Church Steeple?
Does this mean that there is an innate quality in Chattanoogans that predisposes us to think of our community in terms of public space? What a fantastic concept. I think this would explain an awful lot of things. When the Design Studio was still around, we would host groups from around the globe who came to see the city and learn from what our community accomplished. Invariably, a group would arrive looking for a “silver bullet” project they could export and replicate back home. Invariably, the group would leave with the understanding that our successes were not due a single project, but in our community process and attention to the public realm. The care we (used to) put into the planning and design of the public realm in downtown is on display for all to see.
I will admit that there exists the possibility that I’m full of it- maybe we don’t really see the city that way (but as another great Alabamian once said: I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It). I believe that the community has a special quirk that makes us more sensitive to our shared public realm. Do we all share some genetic trait? Unlikely. If it's not genetic then it's a trait we have picked up from our environment. Perhaps there is something in the water or the pollen. Again, unlikely. So this trait must be something that we have learned. Hmm...I wonder how.