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How Cities Evolve

Cities are alive, organic, vibrant with motion on the streets, pulsing with citizens crowding the sidewalks. They grow, and decline, and sometimes die. They evolve, transforming at the pace of nature, not fashion, changing in response to changes of both their constituent populace and the broader social environment. At their worst, cities are overwhelming; at their best, cities are stimulating. Quite often, they're both, and more.

Photographer Douglas Levere has chronicled the evolution of what many consider the paradigmatic city: New York. In his new book New York Changing, Levere photographs the city from the same vantage points as early 20th century photographer Berenice Abbott, demonstrating the sometimes subtle, sometimes shocking evolution of New York over the course of over half a century. Many of the images are available at his website, and capture the excitement and melancholy of urban history. The pictures shown here are of Henry Street, in Manhattan, in 1935 and 1998. A picture taken from the same location today would, sadly, show yet another transformation.

The result is a frozen-in-time version of the "Century Cam" project film director Sam Raimi has proposed -- a network of cameras documenting urban evolution. While the Century Cam remains unbuilt, the still image analog remains possible. Levere's book isn't the conclusion to Berenice Abbott's beginning; it's simply another page. Photographers could -- and should -- revisit these locations again and again, building in a slow, measured pace the visual record of change. And the documentation of urban transformation shouldn't be limited to New York: cities from San Francisco to Shanghai, Mumbai to Munich, Rio to Rome, should be documented in this same way.

Successful cities are crucial to a successful bright green future. When they work, the dense environment is far more efficient than suburban and exurban sprawl, and the cultural churn is a trigger for innovation and creativity. Far from an environmental menace, cities can be very green. Cities are learning to be sustainable.

In 1994, Stewart Brand wrote How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built,which took a re-photographic approach to analyzing architectural change. Yet trying to understand urban transformation by looking at one building at a time is like trying to gauge a body's changes by looking only at the cells: useful, but hardly the whole story. Cities are more than their individual buildings; they are filled with flows of information and commerce, networks of ideas and people, all shaping the ongoing construction and reconstruction of the urban experience. We need a fresh examination of urban life, rooted in re-photographic history but with an eye towards understand the city as a relentlessly-changing system. Abbott and Levere give us a peek at how cities evolve. Now we need to see How Cities Learn.

(Via IDFuel, the Industrial Design weblog)


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference How Cities Evolve:

» Wireless Cities from unmediated
If cities evolve, what will shape their evolution over the next few decades? Salon has an interesting article today about the use of wireless technologies as the drivers for urban change. "Urban Renewal, the Wireless Way" (subscription or brief adverti... [Read More]

Comments (6)


On a vaguely similar topic, anyone based in the UK might be interested in this upcoming event:

"We are hosting a discussion examining "Civil Society & The City" at the University College London at 7:00pm on the 30th November.

We want to explore the current trajectory in - what some people have called - the 'sanitising of the city'. Why is there such a clamour for 'active citizenship'? Should cities be about community... or anonymity? Are there too many, or too few, constraints on urban living?"



ROBERT CAMPBELL AND PETER VANDERWARKER have been doing compare and contrast modern and historical photographs of various sites in Boston for the "Cityscapes" feature that has been running in the Boston Globe Magazine for the last 21 years. They've also written _Cityscapes of Boston_ and Vanderwerker has written _Boston Then and Now: 59 Boston Sites Photographed in the Past and Present_.

Stefan Jones:

When he isn't busy churning out lame-ass conservative op-ed columns or detailing trips to the mall with his toddler, James Lileks occasionally puts on an urban historian hat. His site (www.lileks.com) has some kick-ass photo-essays on Minneapolis and New York. Some segments detail the history of a particular building, using postcards and newspaper archive photos.

Last year there was an exhibit at the McCord museum in Montreal on rephotographing Montreal. It was quite impressive - one of the ads from a century ago is still visible today in downtown Montreal.

From the museum's site (http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/info/pressreleases/119g.html):

After Notman takes as its starting point the iconic images of Notman & Sons, a leading 19th-century photography studio whose staff photographed Montreal's streets, churches, markets and ports. Dating from 1863 to 1918, each Notman & Sons image is contrasted in the exhibition with a photograph taken by Andrzej Maciejewski (1959- ) a contemporary photographer and practicing artist. Between 1999 and 2001, Maciejewski returned to where Notman & Sons took its original images and rephotographed each site, paying careful attention to capture the same vantage point and time of day. Intriguing views include the Montreal harbour, Jacques Cartier Square and the Windsor Hotel.

Placed side by side, After Notman's 34 photographic duos serve to document Montreal's architectural heritage and urban evolution, and highlight the city's unique character and unrelenting beauty. Moreover, the rephotographs encourage visitors to play the game of looking for differences in composition, vantage point, angle, light, even the apparent weather conditions. In doing so, visitors will discover that although Montreal has changed, it has maintained its image by rebuilding on itself, keeping alive its heart, its spirit, its places of interest — in short, its urban vitality.


The photos are also published in a bilingual book:
After Notman: Montreal Views : A Century Apart
D'Aprs Notman: Regards Sur Montreal : UN Siecle Plus Tard
by Andrzej Maciejewsk


Thanks for these sites (and cites), folks -- keep 'em coming.

Someone needs to open the Urban Rephotography Archive to collect these links.


Not quite the same thing but may be of interest, Daedalus Books (www.salebooks.com) is offering _One Thousand Buildings of Paris_ and _One Thousand New York Buildings_ which have b & w photos portraits of each building and capsule histories.


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