Places don’t have DNAs – living organisms do

DNAby Ares Kalandides

I recently came upon a very interesting (and in my opinion also very useful) document, the World Towns Framework, which begins with the following: “We shall support the unique characteristics of each town and urban district, the ‘DNA of place’, to engage communities, businesses and institutions in driving forward their future, and to address the plural and distinctive set of challenges facing these unique places.”

There are several issues I could raise here (e.g. does each town really have unique characteristics or is it the blend of characteristics that is unique? are communities, business and institutions players of the same level or are they different types of categories?), but today I’d like to ponder only the ‘DNA of place’. It is an expression that bothers me and always has. 

I am obviously well aware of the fact that it is used here as a metaphor, hence the single quotation marks. Nobody really believes that places have a DNA, but obviously somebody believes they possess something like it.  That’s probably what is meant by “the unique characteristics” that precede the expression.

“Which characteristics of place will change and which will not, at any given moment in history, is not something we can predict nor is it written in some predesigned code. Eventually every single characteristic may evolve, change or even disappear.”

Yet, I think that the use of this metaphor is both wrong and dangerous. DNA can be understood as a kind of basic structure of organisms, an ‘unalterable’ code upon which they are built. And while organisms grow, change and eventually die, their DNA remains the same until their death. This can hardly be said about places. While places indeed possess a unique mix of different characteristics (themselves constituted through a unique intersection of trajectories) such characteristics are not stable and definitely not ‘unalterable’. There is of course continuity, but there are also disruptions and profound changes in their historical development. The DNA metaphor suggests an underlying immobility, while social phenomena are always in a flux. Which characteristics of place will change and which will not, at any given moment in history, is not something we can predict nor is it written in some predesigned code. Eventually every single characteristic may evolve, change or even disappear.

I also believe that the use of this metaphor is potentially dangerous. Any transfer of a term from the natural to the social sciences is in itself risky (society functions according to different rules than nature), but metaphors do more than just illustrate. As Lakoff & Johnson (1980/2003)[1] have brilliantly demonstrated, metaphors actually form the way we think. So while we may be aware we’re using the DNA metaphor for places in a non-literal way, its use alone may unconsciously entrap us into a line of thinking that follows natural laws rather than societal principles. In other words, thinking of places as having a DNA, may well induce a fictitious concept of place unalienability. That the latter can be reactionary, inward-looking and even xenophobic I hope is obvious.

Ascribing agency to places suggests some conscious unity of action, some kind of brain-like centre that possesses something resembling feelings.

The same thing goes with other metaphors: I often hear people talk of the “organic growth” of towns, which is then usually opposed to something called “planned growth”. I think I know what is meant (organic = non-planned), but the risks are similar as above: Even “organic growth” here is the product of human agency and does not follow some fixed physical laws.

And finally the most disturbing one for me is the anthropomorphism of place: expressions such as “cities aspire” or “cities hope” at the beginning of a sentence (this is a metonomy rather than a metaphor, but I won’t delve into that now). Cities can neither aspire nor hope – as they are not human. Ascribing agency to places suggests some conscious unity of action, some kind of brain-like centre that possesses something resembling feelings. The metaphor here creates a false unity out of diversity, even of internal conflict: while some people (or groups) in a city may hope one thing, others may hope exactly the opposite. City managers may indeed ‘aspire’ to something and city administrations may ‘wish’ – but cities do neither.

I obviously catch myself using wrong metaphors all the time – especially the city anthropomorphism one – so I can hardly be smug about it. Nevertheless, as somebody who pays a lot of attention to the power of words, I would like us to stop and ponder before using metaphors, lest we let loose a train of thought we do not wish to pursue.

[1] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). 2003. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago.


About Ares

Ares Kalandides holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the National Technical University of Athens. He is the founder and CEO of Inpolis, an international consultancy based in Berlin, Germany and has implement several projects around the world. Ares teaches Urban Economics at the Technical University in Berlin and Metropolitan Studies at NYU Berlin.
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10 Responses to Places don’t have DNAs – living organisms do

  1. I personally like the DNA metaphor as it points towards studying places (or similar) in more detail to identify certain features/elements that are more/less conducive for a place to be alive (or to function?! although that sounds difficult)…each nucleotide differs in its role/impact and importance and (only) together with other nucleotides does it result in certain outcomes. The DNA can change, but only over many generations…not too far off from an understanding of incremental transformations of places. There can also be mutations – another metaphor that may work for places. And the DNA is something complex and fascinating – it makes us appreciate that its complexity and interdependencies are (still) beyond our understanding.
    HOWEVER, I would share your concern, but from a different perspective: I think the changing perception of the DNA and what can be done with it in the natural science is the critical aspect. If in natural science an understanding develops where the manipulation and synthetic replication/manufacturing of DNA(s) becomes feasible and acceptable, then the meaning of the word will be perceived differently and may, as a result, impact on the metaphorical meaning of DNA in social science.

    • Ares says:

      I don’t need the risky DNA metaphor to do that. We can talk about “the specificity of place” and go about to identify the intersection of elements that form it. It has all the advantages without the underlying risks.

      • How about “code”? (which can be deciphered, but does not need to be ‘techy’ or natural science-related)

      • Ares says:

        Not very happy to it (still sounds too techy) and also seems to be some kind of underlying thing – whereas places are permenantly constituted.

    • Ares says:

      Even in your argument, there is a distinction between the “natural” and the “artificial” (manufactured) which cannot apply to places.

      • Right, which makes it dangerous when people would assume so. (To a certain degree I would say that the argument however is linked to a democratic setting.)

  2. caio esteves says:

    Great post Ares!

  3. Florian says:

    I find the DNA metaphor both useful and suitable for describing how places such as cities are part of many different pieces which need to come together in the right way to ‘deliver’ a compelling result. Just like DNA of humans or animals, city DNA can be artificially altered – e.g. through place making – but can also change naturally over time. Place branding is a very complex undertaking and metaphors help to demystify it and make it accessible to professionals without a PhD in the topic.

  4. S.E. says:

    I think we talk about the identity of a place which goes beyond the physical and which we used to refer to with the term ‘Genius Loci’. It’s perhaps an issue of the time we live in that the term turned into ‘DNA’, loosing at the same time the poetic quality. If the ‘Genius Loci’ is considered outdated in today’s urbanity, it could still be used for smaller places…Does today’s urbanity call for something more scientific and is this perhaps the reason for the misused reference to DNA?

    • Ares says:

      Why would “genius loci” be outdated? I think it’s a beautiful metaphor. I also consider “identity” or even the “sense of place” useful terms. DNA creates misunderstandings by turning social phenomena into natural ones.

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