City Form: A Metaphor for Your Work

Often, fields other than our own can provide great insights and outstanding tools that, when properly understood and contextually modified for use,  can equip us with healthy innovative analysis and  implementation techniques that profit our own work and organizations.

Renowned planner Kevin Lynch, in his iconic book Image of the City (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1960 – (read my 50th Anniversary review on “RenaissanceRules” at, defined and taught the use of key elements of city form – Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes, and Landmarks that have valuable parallel application to leadership excellence in many other fields of endeavor.

Let us first look briefly at how Lynch defined those physical elements of cities, and then apply them as a template and toolkit for leading and innovation in other fields:

  • Paths: “Channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves”
  • Edges: “May be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related and joined together.”
  • Districts: “Sections…recognizable as having some common, identifying character.” 
  • Nodes:  “Strategic spots…may be primarily junctions, places of a break…, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another, or simply concentrations, condensation of some use or physical character.”
  • Landmarks:  “Point references…physical objects, frequently used clues of identity and even of structure.”

As Kevin Lynch stated (“Image of the City”, page 48),

“None of the element types isolated above exist in isolation in the real case.  Districts are structure with nodes, defined by edges, penetrated by paths, and sprinkled with landmarks.  Elements regularly overlap and pierce one another.  If this analysis begins with the differentiation of the data into categories, it must end with their reintegration into the whole image.”

Corporate Plan in City Form - Renaissance Lucca

Corporate Plan in City Form - Renaissance Lucca

Other planners use synonyms for some elements, still others have identified detailed physical parameters that are found in each one, or believe that different elements are vital in addition to these.  You may find value in studying a professional analysis of a city with which you are very familiar in order to gain further understanding of these terms and their application.  For now, Lynch’s five elements are a good starting point for using the city as a metaphor for your work.

First, sequester yourself in a quiet place for a few hours to map out the Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks evident in your work and organization today – in those terms, but broadly infused with the worldview of your expertise.  This “mapping out” will not necessarily resemble your organization chart or a mind map of your project, and a better result will occur if you proceed independently from them (but compare later to obtain a surprisingly different perspective, in most cases!) 

As you proceed, be sure, incrementally and in a summary review, to:

  • Celebrate the elements that are evident, working and growing in vitality. 
  • Highlight those that have potential for further healthy growth. 
  • Identify those that appear to need correction interventions.  
  • Explore the foundations of long-lasting elements, to reaffirm those Traditions and values that are both lasting and healthy. 
  • Recall without preconception the history and environment that led to the current “plan”, whether good or bad, accidental, serendipitous or intentional.
  • Never confuse correlation with causality (thank you Nassem Nicholas Taleb).

Next, more carefully revisit and identify missing elements, evident disconnects, wrong assumptions (see my post “Wrong Assumptions” at ), unrealized opportunities, jarring inconsistencies, errors, and misprioritized relationships that cause an incomplete, misused or ineffective system.

Then, review your “tool kit” for developing a “Renewal” planning process (not the plan itself, yet), specifically identifying viable alternative futures for testing and experimentation, and honing metrics for measuring progress and results.  Along the way, triage “hot spots” to diagnose problems and treat critical issues as they arise.  Sometimes, applying a tourniquet or “band-aid” is prudent when recognized as a short-term, focused protective measure, but do not confuse it with a proper cure or treatment regimen.

What Next?  We will have more to present on the process, tool kit, planning techniques and implementation in the future.  As you work through the above exercise, you will find that many of the necessary leadership and implementation skills, tools, and relationships are in your possession and part of your expertise right now, just sometimes not utilized to the best effect!  Do the analysis first to avoid repetitious, damaging errors – and reacquaint yourself with how much you already know! 

As they say in woodworking and construction,

Measure twice, Cut once.

About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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