All Commentary
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Invisible City

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a short, often wonderful but consistently enigmatic (at least to me) novel about an extended conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Marco tells the Khan a series of tales about fantastical cities he’s perhaps only imagined.

I’ve always assumed that the book’s title refers to that imaginary quality, since no one besides Marco himself has actually seen the cities he describes, and they likely exist only in his mind or in the words as he utters them.

Last weekend I hosted a couple of group “tours” of my neighborhood. These tours are called “Jane’s Walks” in memory of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs. In the course of explaining her (mostly laissez-faire) principles to the group, I realized there’s another interpretation of Calvino’s title that I much prefer.

It is this: A city—especially a great one—cannot really be seen. Paradoxically, the closest we can come to actually seeing one is through the imagination. Otherwise, it’s invisible. Moreover, if you can fully comprehend a place, then it’s not a city.


You Don’t See a City on a Map

If you think about a particular city that you know, what comes to mind? An image, a feeling, a smell, or a sound? Before we visit a city, we may look at pictures of parts of it, perhaps its famous landmarks, but these mean little to us in themselves. We may study a map of Paris to get a sense of the layout or the general shape of the metropolis. But what we are seeing is not the city of Paris but something highly abstract, abstracted not only from Paris but also from the particular reality of our lives. If, before going there, we could somehow look at a photo we will take of Paris, the scene would not evoke much from us or have much meaning (unless we could relate it to something we’d already experienced). But looking at the photo afterward, having been there, we feel a rush of memory, emotion, and meaning that goes well beyond the edges of the picture.


Eyes on the Street

If the view of a city I remember is of a vista from high up, say the Eiffel Tower, I can comprehend most of the physical layout. But whether a postcard I bought or a photo I took myself, what gives that scene meaning to me is the memory that I was there: Standing on that platform, having ridden up an endless elevator, feeling the cold and the crowd, I saw that view. The city below, however, remains distant. That’s not the city I’m reliving at that moment; it’s my looking out from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

In most cases, though, what we remember of a city takes place at street level. Certainly, our image of where we live is like that. As the architect Kevin Lynch explained, a city is a lattice of such mental images that we share with other inhabitants. A familiar city has what Ken-ichi Sasaki called a “tactility” that we sense through our entire bodies, not just our eyes. You can’t see a city from a tower or an airplane any more than you can feel a city from a tower or an airplane.


So How Can We See a City at All?

If our experience of a city is limited to, as F. A. Hayek might say, “the particular circumstances of time and place,” how is it possible to see or know a city at all?  Here’s where Calvino comes in. We know it from the mosaic of our experiences over time, plus our imagination.

Hayek, for example, defines an “order” (and I’m paraphrasing here) as a set of relations from which it’s possible to draw a reasonable inference about a part of the order that we aren’t familiar with based on our knowledge of the part that we are familiar with. So when it comes to the kind of order that a city is, we begin to know and to see a city when we become acquainted with enough places that we begin to sense the “structure” that ties them together. In this way we fill the gaps of knowledge. That is, our imagination extrapolates from what we know and interpolates between familiar places to fill in some of the gaps we don’t have a chance to see and experience.

Of course, the more complex the city, the harder it is to do this. It’s easier in Purchase, N.Y., where I teach than in the neighborhood in New York City where I live.


The Invisible Infrastructure

Our ability to creatively extrapolate from and interpolate between its parts helps make the city somewhat visible. But all these parts change in important ways before we can finish the process, which is why we can only catch glimpses of the city now and then.

But what is it exactly that we are glimpsing? What makes a great city a city is not its buildings and streets—its physical infrastructure—or even the patterns of people in public spaces. A great city, one that cannot be fully seen, is composed of the relations among those people. Those relations—among neighbors, passers-by, shoppers, shopkeepers, cars, and pedestrians—make it possible for people to rely on one another to some degree and for everything to hang together. When it works right, people feel safe and free to move from place to place, to break old ties and form new ones, and to create new ideas and leave old ones behind.

The dynamic matrix of those relations, the social infrastructure of the city, is again mostly unseen. Social theorists like Jacobs try to uncover bits by careful observation and clear thinking, but that process has its limits.


One Lesson (of Many)

One implication is that no human mind can have a coherent and comprehensive vision of a city that embodies its complex dynamics, certainly not one that can be imposed on and made to work in a free society. A real city, like the market process, is many times smarter and more creative than a single mind. It has to be because the problems it faces are many times more complex than any person or group could begin to solve—or even imagine.

That’s why central planning at the local level—concerning, for example, highways and massive housing developments—tends to be just as unsuccessful as central planning at the level of national economies. The belief in such central planning suggests a failure of imagination, especially the ability to imagine a world that cannot be seen—that is, in fact, invisible.


  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.