By Holly St. Clair, Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council
Eric Gordon. The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google. Dartmouth College Press, Lebanon, NH, 2010. 240 pages. $35 (paperback).
Scholars have generally analyzed planning visualization and decision support tools from the perspective of technology, public participation, and planning theory. In his new book, Eric Gordon adds an important new perspective to our understanding of the relationship between visual illustrations and urban landscapes. In The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google, Gordon argues American cities have produced a new way of seeing, and catalogs the subtle ways visual illustrations mold our perceptions of the urban landscape, our expectations of the city, and ultimately the urban form itself. Gordon’s book successfully provides a historical and conceptual framework for planners who utilize technology to visualize the city and engage its residents to shaping its future.
Gordon, a professor of visual and media arts at Emerson College, helps planners reach past our own technology-oriented account of the planning visualization field to consider the power images have on the observers. He shows us how spectators have come to expect visualization of the urban landscape, seamless access this imagery, and increasingly the ability to manipulate images, a phenomenon Gordon labels “possessive spectatorship”.
Gordon traces the evolution of the “possessive spectatorship” in American cities through the last century, weaving together influences from architecture, urban development, and technology. Through these fields, Gordon argues the image of the urban form has become more and more accessible and dynamic. Gordon’s analysis links the history of the last century to cutting edge technologies and current planning practice. The text’s wide-ranging argument includes analysis of such disparate topics as Kodak snapshots of the White City at the Chicago Columbian World’s Exposition, the depiction of New York City in cinema, and Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill urban renewal plans.
The last chapter of the book resonates well with the contemporary landscape of urbanism and technology. Gordon likens the city to a database, which allows spectators to access not only the city’s architecture, but also its social and cultural content. According to Gordon, “possessive spectatorship” becomes a way of managing the scale and complexity of city. New technologies, such as Google and Flickr mash-ups, are enabling more individuals to claim images of the city, and offer their own interpretations and contributions through Internet-enabled collaboration.
Ultimately, Gordon foresees how technology will change the planner’s role, arguing “planners and architects are just beginning to understand the importance of data management, as it becomes increasingly clear that producing and managing a city’s image requires aggregating various forms of data and making them accessible to people where they happened to be.” With many of us in the planning field feeling overwhelmed by the rapidly changing technology, Gordon’s methodic account of the historic trends in the planning field and visualization help ground contemporary work, and put the latest visualizations in a cultural and historical perspective.
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