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Placemaking and Memorable Cities; a New Book by UPP Professor Kheir Al-Kodmany

Kheir Al-Kodmany

Before the pandemic slowed non-essential travel to a halt, Urban Planning and Policy Professor Kheir Al-Kodmany had been busy travelling the world, visiting cities in East Asia, Europe, Middle East, and South America. Al-Kodmany had grown interested in the ways in which cities like Singapore had become bastions of cutting-edge high-rise buildings that improve environmental impact by incorporating green technologies and integrating plant-covered facades. These high-rises have been praised for enhancing air qualities in their neighborhoods. However, the thousands of miles of travel couldn’t help but remind him of the skyscrapers in his own backyard, and the city of Chicago’s unique position in the history of dense urban development and iconic skylines.

That fascination with the city of Chicago, and the picturesque city views available from the UIC campus, are the inspiration for Al-Kodmany’s new book, Tall Buildings and the City: Improving the Understanding of Placemaking, Imageability, and Tourism. With the book, Al-Kodmany has several goals: enhance understanding of what makes cities and their skylines memorable, determine the best ways of using the city’s iconic nature to better attract tourists, and enhance the sense of place that people experience in a city. These overlapping aims, supplemented by hundreds of photographs and locational data from social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) helped to illustrate Al-Kodmany’s arguments that Chicago’s skyscrapers tell an epic story of transformative architectural design, innovative engineering solutions, and bold entrepreneurial spirit. The city’s public plazas and open spaces attract visitors, breathe life, and bring balance to the cityscape. Concisely, “Chicago is a placemaking model. Undoubtedly, individual landmark buildings and significant public spaces in the City of Chicago are already known. However, this study delineates socio-spatial clusters of landmark buildings and public places that collectively foster a unique sense of place.” 

Drawing upon the work of Kevin Lynch’s seminal book, The Image of the City, which claims that cities become more usable, memorable, and pleasant when they feature great imageable elements, Al-Kodmany argues that Chicago exemplifies Lynch’s theory. That is, by applying Kevin Lynch’s theory of imageability, the book identifies a system of landmarks, paths, nodes, districts, and edges that collectively shape the popular image of Chicago, such that the resulting visual order is worth noting and maintaining. For instance, both Lake Michigan and the Chicago River give Chicago a particular advantage. These natural features, lined up by high-rises, create strong ‘edges’ upon which people can trace a clear path, making it easier to view the city as a complete body. Further, the study identifies placemaking elements, including Sublime Edge and Exotic Confluence for the Chicago River; Grand Gateway and City’s Signature for the Magnificent Mile, and City’s Heart and Soul and Millennium Gateway for the Loop. Architecturally, the city benefits from its history as the site of the world’s first and modern skyscrapers, making it a natural draw for architecture lovers and curious tourists alike.

“It’s this collection of unique and authentic architectural styles that creates a living museum of architecture…. and their socio-spatial clustering engenders distinct urban spaces. Placemaking goes beyond architecture; the urban scene is more important than individual skyscrapers. Indeed, the idea that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts is well illustrated by Chicago skyscrapers,” Al-Kodmany says. 

As such, Al-Kodmany stresses that as the birthplace of skyscrapers, Chicago, remains a leading city in tall building spatial integration and architectural creativity. He recommends that as many cities all over the world rush to construct tall buildings, Chicago remains a quintessential model that can inform and inspire to better integrate these “urban giants” into their respective urban contexts. He, however, hopes that Chicago can offer more amenities like nightlife, “winter tourism,” and easier access to food and restrooms in downtown areas, noting that tourists must often walk across the vast scope of downtown to find either, potentially limiting the appeal of the city.

Interestingly, Al-Kodmany notes that placemaking, a relatively recent urban planning trend that focuses on the creation of distinct spatial identity or “soul” within a particular space, is already rooted in the city’s past. According to him, Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago addressed the concept of placemaking, even without using the term itself. With an emphasis on making the city memorable, Chicago still stands out amongst global cities today, drawing visitors who continue to admire its many enduring qualities. “Without stating the term ‘placemaking,’ Burnham was thinking along these lines,” Al-Kodmany says. “He saw Chicago as a unique place, where its natural setting and beautiful buildings laid along Lake Michigan and Chicago River would help to shape and define the city’s identity.”

Overall, the 500-page book demonstrates an interdisciplinary study that promotes the understanding of design and planning of future vertical cities. Tall buildings have been damaging sense of place in many cities around the globe. In response, this book offers a new way of understanding the role of tall buildings that could play in promoting placemaking. It brings the example of Chicago, the birthplace of tall buildings, and explains how this building typology in conjunction with open spaces can improve the overall urban structure and imageability of the city. 

The Springer publisher of the book describes it as: “The first book to use big data to shed new light on popular images of cities. It provides new findings and insights on people’s perceptions of cities and socio-spatial clusters and offers a guide to the successful development of vertical cities.”