thoughts on our urban future

Cities have a colour palette

A colourful corner in an English Seaside Town

Many years ago, a friend asked me to talk about the city we were in at the time. My answers where quite vague. I didn’t know what to say! The only thing I remember saying was that I really liked the colours of the city. That was a very colourful city.

Just the other day, I came across these videos by the Geography Collective, for their Urban Earth Project. They were produced in various cities around the world by walking from one end of the city to the other (along a carefully planned route), taking a photograph every 8 steps. When put together they represent a journey that shows the city in a very ‘honest’ way. Daniel Raven-Ellison, who created the project, sought to ‘expose what our cities really look like away from the bias and spin of commercial agendas‘.

I found this a very interesting piece of work. I thought the method allowed for very different cities to be compared at many levels, as it allows for finding differences and similarities – surely a lot can be learned from the project – not least the principle behind the method. But something that struck me was the different colour palettes for the different cities. Whilst it is something that appears rather obvious if we consider the use of local materials and traditional taste in architecture and landscape design, it’s amazing how much colour alone does to the character of a place. This came through strikingly partly because of the speed at which the images on the Geography Collective videos change, without allowing you to focus on the details.

Something makes people in some places choose a variety bright colours for their buildings, whilst in some other places colours are much more consistent throughout and tend to be more sober. While in some cases colour clearly relates to practical matters such as the white limestone buildings of the Mediterranean, where it contributes to not absorbing heat; in other cases (most notably in colourful places) it seems to be done purely on aesthetic uses: somehow it has become part of the identity of the place.

As designers we perhaps should be thinking about colour not only at the scale of architecture but at the urban scale too. Often there is a preference to use materials similar to those in the immediate or wider urban context, but the focus is on the materials rather than on the colours. Colours affect people’s mood and can really change the feel of a place, and I don’t think most designers (and I include myself) really make the most of it.

I leave you with a collection of colourful images from around the world that I really enjoyed. Apart from being a pleasure to look at, it also shows care. It makes me think these communities really have a sense of ownership and pride about their neighbourhoods, built over time, closely related to the people that inhabit them.

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  1. This is interesting. I have always thought of some cities as having a color palette, but oddly I noticed the people not the buildings! I think of New York as a very dark city, black and chic. My mother laughs that when I went to University in Virginia one of my first comments was how everyone was so blonde and that people wore white and bright colors!!

    So is it the chicken or the egg? Do the colors of the city impact upon the colors of the people or do the colors of the people express themselves in the colors of the city? And once the color palette is established, does it ever change? And what dictates these colors to begin with??

  2. And cars… certain cities focus on brighter colour cars than others. Much of this seems to be cultural and environmental (different places have not only different levels of sun, but different natural light tones).

  3. Very true about the different light qualities to different places, but think of London – light is not very strong, yet the palette for buildings and public spaces tends to be sober and even dull! People on the other hand I think do dress a bit colourfully. And for places, is it that one person starts by painting their house bight yellow and for some reason others follow suit?

  4. As for London, subdued colours seem to suit the city best (in my opinion).


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