An Expanded Approach to the Analysis of Cities

Even with so much data in the world, cities are a slippery subject. What if an everyday part of life in cities—the "scenes" comprised by businesses, people, and practices of similarly distinct aesthetics—can help our understanding?

9 minute read

November 11, 2021, 9:00 AM PST

By Martha Frish


Cool shops along Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles is one version of a scene, though there are many more. | oliverdelahaye / Shutterstock

Over the last decade, there's been increasing professional emphasis on the use of data to analyze how cities function. Much of this work has depended on dense examination of complex systems of land use, housing, transportation, and geographies, but the sheer physicality and scale of cities often seems obscured by oceanic amounts of data.

In a recently published Planetizen article, "Building on Jacobs: The City Emergent; Beyond Streets and Buildings," Fanis Grammenos argues for a true science of cities and emphasizes that Jane Jacobs "bemoaned the practice of 'pseudoscience,' berating the planning, engineering, and zoning practices of her day." While I agree that, until recently, there have been significant voids in the comprehensive analytical tools in the fields of planning, engineering, and zoning, I'd like to propose a "yes… and."

Specifically, the question is: how does the envelope of the built environment – made up of a variety of architectural styles, reflections of the generations before us and the lessons of history – affect the development of the distinctive scenes that occur simultaneously within the same city on the same day?

My work with Terry Nichols Clark and Daniel A. Silver proposes a new approach to the study of culture and place. In the "scenes approach," discussed in Scenescapes (Silver and Clark, 2016) and in various texts gathered at The Scenes Project, environment and action are considered scenically. Businesses and institutions (e.g., tattoo parlors, churches, restaurants), people (e.g., artists, the elderly), and practices (e.g., worshiping, conversing, performing) join to produce areas with distinct aesthetics—hip, edgy, refined, glamorous, rustic, charming, and the like. These aesthetic qualities make it possible to move about a city scenically, taking the scenic route to discover the styles of life each has to offer.

The Scenes Project sees scenes "as part of our everyday social environment," and the theory of scenes is based on 15 dimensions, which use a "both-and" approach to teasing out the characteristics of urban scenes (Scenescapes, pp 34-43). The goal of analyzing such distinctions is to recalibrate our vision to be more sensitive to the world around us as not only a landscape but also as a scenescape: different relations and combinations of dimensions reveal different overall scenes. These are apparent in both spatial relationships, where the meaning of a scene shifts from its proximity to others nearby, and in cultural relationships, where different combinations of the same dimensions in different places yield different overall scenes.

Grammenos presents a "city's physical elements [as] but an incidental stage, a backdrop, where city life unfolds." I'd argue that a city's physical elements are NOT "an incidental stage," but I agree with Grammenos that time, disciplinary blinders, and limited expertise have hindered the thorough analysis as the subject deserves. I'd also say that the histories and ambitions that streets and buildings evoke are more than sufficient reasons to continue expanding the analytical methods applied to cities.

Scenescapes elaborates and illustrates these claims in great detail, in dialogue with the relevant social science research on economic growth, residential communities, and politics. As heritage plays a major role in defining the character of a scene, and heritage designations are clearly efforts to intervene in and regulate the scenery of life, there are and continue to be consequences for the larger scenes that meld around them.

To perceive the situation as a scene involves taking it up as a painter or poet might. Whether an ensemble of buildings is a consistent, restrained row of Classical Revival townhouses in Brooklyn, or a more riotous block of rambling Queen Anne houses in Chicago, or what Hugh Morrison describes as the "huge, communal edifices of stone and adobe" of the Indian pueblos of Taos, New Mexico in Early American Architecture From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period (1952), a distinctive aesthetic environment exists in each place. Each of these environments creates a specific tangible envelope in which particular "scenes" happen. Context, holism, and feedback are crucial attributes of these environments.

The goal of analyzing such distinctions is to recalibrate our vision to be more sensitive to the world around us as not only a landscape but also as a scenescape: different relations and combinations of dimensions reveal different overall scenes. These are apparent in both spatial relationships, where the meaning of a scene shifts from its proximity to others nearby, and in cultural relationships, where different combinations of the same dimensions in different places yield different overall scenes.


There is no single or universal meaning of "heritage." What it means to appeal to heritage to preserve or create a scene varies by context. For example, national context may matter: to appeal to "national heritage" in sustaining a scene in the United States is to do so in a distinct framework, one that—speaking very broadly—tends to prize the preservation of an original founding moment. Much American practice assumes that both the method of construction and its underlying intellectual philosophy are of value and worthy of preservation. However, the emphasis on the aesthetic and philosophical value of architectural style and the maintenance of its integrity is not globally shared.

In contrast, "national heritage" in China might carry quite different implications, and "heritage" can even be invoked in an anti-traditionalist manner. For example, buildings themselves may be treated as possessing minimal distinctive value because they can be reconstructed/rebuilt in a traditional way to match any particular historical era. This is a view attributed by some observers to some contemporary Chinese practice, in which the power of the state is paramount.

Yet context itself is contextual. For example, "China" and the "United States" are large, multi-faceted entities that cannot be reduced to a single "culture." Parts of California are in some dimensions more similar to parts of Texas than they are to the rest of California—for instance, the alternative cultural scenes of the Bay Area and Austin. To appeal to the importance of "cultural heritage" in preserving these sorts of scenes may carry great weight set against a backdrop where "Keep Austin Weird" resonates. But elsewhere—perhaps just a hundred miles away—the same appeal might fall flat. Thus, to examine how heritage appeals operate in practice requires locating them both in reference to the scene they seek to sustain and in the context of the local audience to which they are made.

Finally, the concept of "Bohemia" is another example of variance by context. While some emphasis on transgression cuts across most Bohemias, specific bohemian scenes might emphasize one set of values more than others. In one, resisting corporateness can be paramount; in others, personal creativity or sense of humor can prevail. One recent Twitter post, with the caption "There are no rules anymore," serves as an example.


Heritage can be considered not only "in itself" but rather "for the scene"—in terms of its contributions to the series of experiences of which it is a part. This can mean paying attention to architectural elements that seem inessential to a building considered in isolation, by asking questions such as:

What activities do heritage spaces support, within and around them?

  • What sorts of shops or restaurants are nearby?
  • Do they harmonize or clash with one another?
  • What sort of street life animates the surrounding area?
  • Do people tend to mill around out front or enter and exit quickly? By car or on foot?
  • How does the heritage of an area impact the experience of other things in the area? For instance, how does the juxtaposition of an early 20th century bank façade with a modern glass and steel office building transform the way we encounter both?


Attention to feedback provides a major source of analysis for joining scenes, heritage, and other processes that affect local area development. There are many potential intellectual approaches to pursue. One could integrate heritage into the interactive models developed in Scenescapes. For instance, one could examine not only whether the presence of heritage buildings sparks economic growth or shapes residential patterns, but if and how this shifts depending on the scene.

Perhaps areas with heritage designations and scenes that prize self-expression or local authenticity attract different groups and spark growth at different rates. Colleagues have found that individuals who reside in scenes that invoke tradition, local authenticity, and neighborliness are more likely to have conservative political attitudes (Silver and Miller 2016). Does the presence of heritage designations enhance or moderate this connection?

Another way to examine feedback is through studying the interplay of heritage, scenes, and the complex, conflictual, dynamic array of resources, groups, and actors outlined in several of the Scenescapes papers (see "Buzz as an Urban Resource" and ch. 6 of Scenescapes; see also Clark and Silver 2013; Silver 2013). From this vantage point, "heritage" can be a symbolic tool—sometimes a weapon—wielded during local debates about the character of a place.

There are multiple analytical questions as to when, who, how, and how successfully the heritage tool is utilized. For example:

  • When and why do some groups seek heritage designation to preserve the character of a scene they value, but others do not? This is an important question, but there has been no national or global meta-analysis conducted to date, as far as I am aware. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has stimulated a new level of interest within the African American community in documenting and learning from the built environment.
  • Which types of scenes are more likely to support successful efforts at heritage advocacy, and how does this vary depending on context—for instance when the scene is in a residential community or a tourist area?
  • Comparative case studies of local political controversies over heritage designation could examine when and why various groups appeal to the value of heritage for a scene in general, but also for sustaining specific scenic qualities. When and why do specific dimensions of scenes become targets of heritage activism, such as maintaining local authenticity, a spirit of transgression, an ethnic culture, a creative sensibility, or any other scene dimension?

Finally, other promising approaches utilize "big data," which is perhaps what Grammenos means by a "true science of cities." The Scenescapes quantitative research on scenes builds metrics from digital directories that provide localized information about hundreds of organizational types, such as tattoo parlors, art galleries, restaurants, churches, and more. Merging these metrics with National Register and local heritage inventories, as well as interviews and local histories, has the potential to enhance the analysis of scene and heritage across contexts. Social media data from sources such as Twitter or Instagram could provide insight into the varieties of "buzz" that various heritage sites generate, and how this shifts across scenes. New visual pattern recognition techniques can discern the visual styles of the buildings and street life of scenes encompassing historic districts.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been working on The Atlas of ReUrbanism for at least a couple of years, and state and local preservation organizations have produced their own analyses, but many opportunities for further research remain. The Scenes perspective provides neither answers nor advocacy for these and similar questions, but it does provide a language and analytical framework in which they might be fruitfully engaged.

Martha Frish has taught at The School of the Art Institute and DePaul University and writes about experiencing the urban built environment. She can be reached at [email protected]

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