Images, Instagram, and City Planning

#CITYPLANNING ScreenshotIt takes vision to plan and implement creative ideas to improve our communities.  Vision as used here refers to a vivid, creative conception or anticipation of what could be.  I strongly agree with sociologist Frederik Polak (1973) that “the future may well be decided by the images of the future with the greatest power to capture our imaginations and draw us to them, becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.”  After all, images help us to visualize what is possible.

It is almost impossible to talk about images these days without bringing up Instagram.  As just about everyone knows, Instagram is a free photo-sharing program and social network.  Launched in October 2010, the service enables an individual to take a photo, apply a digital filter to it, and then share it with other users.  Instagram has grown tremendously in a short period of time and has become very popular, as evidenced by the following statistics:

  • 30 million+ registered users
  • 1 billion+ photos uploaded
  • 5 million+ photos uploaded per day
  • 575 likes per second
  • 81 comments per second

You may be wondering, what is the connection between Instagram and city planning?  Even though I have only been an Instagram logo“Instagrammer” for a few months, I can see how the application can aid planners and even advance city planning.  Specifically, it can accomplish this by doing exactly what Polak argued: capturing our imaginations with a vast array of images, helping us to visualize what is possible, and then doing what is necessary to bring forth positive changes to our communities.  As an example, I can go on Instagram to find pictures of different cities and see how different urban design ideas have been implemented in real life.  Of course, further research via the internet and other means would be necessary, but Instagram is a good place to start because it allows users to easily and visually identify locations and projects of relevance and interest through a search using hashtags.

#DTLA ScreenshotAs a practical tip, I suggest that one begin searching by location, i.e. a particular neighborhood or place rather than using more general terms like city planning or urban planning.  As of 12/27/12, only about 300 photos were hashtagged “#cityplanning” comparing to over 200,000 photos for “#dtla” (Downtown Los Angeles).  While not all of the “dtla” photos are planning-related, many capture the diversity of the city’s architecture and communities, and may help inspire and broaden the horizon of planners everywhere.

Hashtag Search Results as of 12/27/12:    

No. of Photos












Several months ago, I wrote an article about the use of smartphones by planners and highlighted several useful apps such as ArcGIS, Business Analyst Online, Google Earth, and Planetizen.  In hindsight, I should have included Instagram on the list because it addresses one of the four basic skills that every effective planner should have: recording.  (The other three skills are observing, communicating, and self-educating.)

According to Randall Arendt, a renowned planner and fellow of the Royal Institute of Town Planners, planners seeking to become more effective at their jobs should practice becoming observers.  In his article “The Highly Effective Planner”, Arendt recommends that all planners carry a small digital camera (or a smartphone) so they can “capture images of things that surprise and delight them and those that produce feelings of sadness or disgust.”  He further explains that making recording a habit will result in a personal library of digital images that can be used to illustrate and supplement plans and presentations.  He also suggests that planners learn basic Photoshop techniques to crop images, correct for exposure, and increase contrast or color saturation.  Of course, one can now perform all of these tasks using Instagram.  It should be noted that users also have the ability to manipulate or enhance photos using filters on Instagram and other photo apps.  Thus one can create stylized or idealized images that do not reflect reality or actual conditions; a disclaimer should be included whenever images are altered to avoid misleading viewers.  (If you are a member of the American Planning Association, you can login and access Arendt’s article here.)

Photos are particularly effective as part of an image preference survey designed to elicit feedback on the kinds of development people hope to encourage or discourage.  The survey typically consists of a series of images that participants must score according to their preference.  The images may be actual photographs or computer-simulated images depicting potential urban environments.  Planning officials find survey results helpful in developing design standards that reflect community preferences.  One may even think of Instagram as one big image preference survey given that it contains a large repository of photos, and allows users to like and comment on photos.

Urban TomographiesOne of the great things about Instagram is that one can see a city, building, or object from a variety of perspectives because users take photos from different angles or vantage points, at different times of the day, in different seasons etc.  Thus as a collective, Instagrammers are actually promoting “tomography” which is a method of exploring a phenomenon through a large number of examples or perspectives.  In his book Urban Tomographies, USC Professor Martin H. Krieger introduces tomographic methods and the principles behind them, and helps readers to appreciate different aspects of a community, from infrastructure to work to worship in Los Angeles.  He points out that in medical tomography, such as a CAT scan, two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional organ are used to envision the organ itself, and demonstrates how urban tomography can apply the same approach to the study of city life.

Krieger took tens of thousands of photos of electrical distributing stations, industrial sites, markets, and storefront churches throughout Los Angeles.  He also recorded the city’s ambient sounds such as the calls of a tamale vendor and the buzz of a workshop saw.  Filled with Krieger’s unique insights as well as numerous maps and photographs, Urban Tomographies is a fascinating book that challenges readers to study and understand city life in an innovative and far more thorough way than we are accustomed to.

Images are critical to city planning.  We cannot plan and implement creative ideas to improve our communities without first seeing what has been done and considering what can be done.  As I discussed above, Instagram has emerged as a fun tool that can help planners.  It may even advance city planning by encouraging us to record what we see and by opening our eyes to the different possibilities out there.  We can also learn from Professor Krieger and his book by being more intentional, systematic, and comprehensive in how we study, understand, and plan with the communities we serve.


Photo credits:

Instagram screenshots by author

Instagram logo from Instagram

Urban Tomographies from University of Pennsylvania Press

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.