A sense of identity: My journey with a detective, a samurai and a writer

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Principal | Urban Designer

“A 21st century city doesn’t need a brand or a slogan. What a 21st century city needs is a strong sense of identity. What it needs, perhaps, is an origin myth in which it can take collective pride. A shared defining narrative that feels real, and not like something dreamed up by an out-of-town marketing firm.” – Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal 

City columnist Paula Simons’ quote sets the tone for the advancement of new narratives in today’s cities. As part of the Cities for People initiative—a movement that aims to make Canadian cities more resilient, inclusive and innovative and associated with the idea of  ‘urban planning narrative’—turns the math and science of planning into the art of storytelling and creativity.

With today’s technology and the prevalence of social media, it’s essential for us to recognize the influence of popular (or pop) culture and how it shapes our unique sense of identity. As an urban designer, a city with narratives and meanings has the potential to evolve and enrich the urban experience for its citizens. It also provides a layer of complexities and imageries that storytelling and moviemaking often use. I find there’s a symbiotic relationship between cities and fiction, and watching a fictional character in a television series or a movie can sometimes translate to an intimate journey within that setting.

Three city design ideas come to mind to illustrate this point: Elements, Mapping and Interaction. Elements refer to the buildings, public space, streets and landscape that shape a city’s character and identity. Mapping refers to the coordination and networks between spaces, and how we can apply cognitive mapping to navigate cities. And Interaction refers to the intangible qualities of our public spaces that allow people to meet and socialize that is the social infrastructure of a city.

Creating a sense of identity

I. Elements

 “Just put me back in London. I need to get to know the place again, breathe it in—feel every quiver of its beating heart.” – Sherlock Holmes

The BBC’s television series Sherlock depicts the legendary British detective Sherlock Holmes living and solving mind-baffling crimes in Victorian London. While watching this brilliant sociopath played by the talented actor Benedict Cumberbatch, I came to understand that London is the only city where one can experience what it’s like to walk in Sherlock’s footsteps.

As he solves one crime after another, Sherlock keeps a mental encyclopedia of every sight, landmark and detail about London, easily navigating the sophisticated and charming city like the palm of his hand. Everything in the city from the macrostructures such as the building blocks, streets and sidewalks, to the minute details such as the windows, furniture, textures and sounds. These elements support the narratives of the story, providing the complexity and richness of London for its viewers.

According to Roy Strickland, a prolific urban designer and educator, “As urban location films make use of the city’s plentiful and often subtle forms and spaces, designers may use narratives to help evolve urban environments.” From experiencing London through Sherlock’s eyes, it has brought out my inner detective, making me attune to the sights and sounds of cities in ways that I hadn’t before.

II. Mapping

“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… Perhaps…" – Bushido, Book of the Samurai

The 1967 crime film Le Samouraï uses this quote to describe hitman Jeff Costello, played by Alain Delon, as he attempts to elude the investigating officer and his lover after carrying out a murder.  Le Samouraï takes place in the city of Paris, which acts as an important ally for Costello’s escape routes. Costello understands the city intimately, interiorizing the subway maps, and every entry and exit point that would serve him effectively in the cat and mouse game with his pursuers. 

According to Christopher and Lisa Leinberger’s The top 12 movies about urbanism, “Movies play a powerful, if rarely recognized, role in how we understand urbanism, whether they are set in drivable suburban or walkable urban places.” In the case of Le Samouraï, it presents the topography of Paris on three levels:

  1. Underground metro system and its subterranean arrangement of tunnels, staircases and conduits
  2. Ground or street level network with reference to different surface locales and points of entry and exit
  3. Aboveground or upper-level circulation, which features the elusive paternoster in a Parisian building

Costello understands Paris’s complex urban topography and uses his mapping skills to evade being followed and captured for the majority of the film. The chase scenes are dark and minimalist, but intense. His movements are often unpredictable to others, but swiftly executed. In the end, his pursuers eventually catch up with him by mapping out his probable routes to locate and lay the perfect trap. Quite remarkably, they beat him at his own game, as Costello’s prowess of mapping becomes his Achilles’ heel. 

III. Interaction

“When I first move to New York I bought Vogue instead of dinner. I just felt it fed me more.” – Carrie Bradshaw

Based on the 1997 book of the same name by Candace Bushnell, Sex and the City follows the lives of four friends as they attempt to find purpose and companionship in New York City. Carrie Bradshaw, a New York City newspaper columnist, narrates the ups and downs of their adventures in a modern fairy-tale, using the streets of New York City as their playground. Sex and the City illustrates the busy melting pot of different tastes, cultures and stories in New York—from runway fashion shows and art galleries to storefronts and local bakeries. In other words, as Michael Patrick King, the show’s executive producer, told the New York Times shortly before the series finale, “People have said [New York City] was the fifth character [on the show].”

I find one of the most exciting things about the characters’ interactions is that they may or may not be a direct outcome of city planning. According to a blog post by DJ Mason, a graduate of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, “These little interactions between everyday citizens and their surroundings are so salient that planning is a fairly popular topic in media, both directly and indirectly.” A city like New York City shows that even with all the struggles or problems typically associated with high population density areas, the true beauty lies in the interaction between the busy streets and robust pedestrian experience. In the words of Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress who played Bradshaw, “The beautiful thing about New York is, you have to expose yourself to other people the minute you step outside the door. There is no choice. And I love that.”

In conclusion

Of course, there is a wide range of pulp fiction that can inspire the way we design and experience our cities. Furthermore, there are other narratives beyond Elements, Mapping and Interaction too. For instance, in Winnipeg, memories and identity come to my mind as seen in the storytelling of our downtown’s alleyways and their industrial past, or the uniqueness of our city’s ad-hoc vernacular that celebrates our endearing and colorful identity. 

What story does your city tell? How does it shape your sense of identity?

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