The Image of Oakland

Oakland City Hall areaWhat images come to mind when you think of Oakland, California?  It seems that many people tend to only associate this Bay Area city with crime, police misconduct (like what happened with the Occupy Oakland demonstrations), a struggling economy, and out of control Raiders fans.  With this in mind, I would not be surprised if some of you questioned my sanity or logic when I mentioned Oakland as a place I wanted to visit and explore in a previous article (“L.A. Times Travel Show: A Planner’s Perspective“).  Well, I went there with my family last week and want to take some time now to discuss what I saw and experienced.  As a way to organize my thoughts and observations, I have decided to follow well-known planner Kevin Lynch‘s approach of analyzing the public image of cities as detailed in his book The Image of the City (1960).  Specifically, according to Lynch, the contents of a city’s images can be classified into five types of elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.  Obviously, these elements can overlap.  As Lynch so eloquently explains, “[i]f this analysis begins with the differentiation of the data into categories, it must end with their reintegration into the whole image.”  Thus I will begin by highlighting each of the five elements and then conclude by discussing them together to provide a more complete image of the city.


Paths are the streets, sidewalks, trails, and other channels in which people travel.  Broadway is the major path we took while in Oakland.  It serves as the key transportation route for downtown, with both bus stops and subway stations along the way.  Walking down this street from our hotel, we were able to see the wonderful architecture the city has to offer.  The historic City Hall and Tribune Tower are landmarks that stood out to me.  (I will discuss them further under Landmarks.)  I found Broadway to be a good street for pedestrians, even those with a baby stroller like me, because the sidewalk is wide and mostly smooth.


Jack London SquareEdges are perceived boundaries such as walls, buildings, and shorelines.  The major edges I observed are the Interstate 880 (Nimitz) Freeway and the waterfront/shoreline.  I saw both on our way to Jack London Square, which is named after the author Jack London, located at the south end of Broadway, and is now a popular tourist destination.  Like almost all freeways, I-880 divides communities both visually and physically.  It was not pleasant to walk or even drive under the freeway as it was a dark, unattractive space.  On the other hand, the shoreline is a more natural edge and a place I enjoyed visiting, even in the rain.  Located on the waterfront, Jack London Square is the home of stores, restaurants, hotels, an Amtrak station, a San Francisco Bay Ferry dock, the historic Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, the (re-located) cabin Jack London lived in the Klondike, and a movie theater.  (On a side note, we tried a couple of the restaurants (Kincaid’s and Scott’s Seafood) and had wonderful meals.)


Oakland ChinatownDistricts are relatively large sections of the city distinguished by some identity or character.  The major district we visited was Chinatown, which is located in downtown between Broadway to the west, I-880 to the south, Oak Street and Laney College to the east, and 12th Street to the north.  Unlike many Chinatowns, it has no formal arch or gate, but it does have bilingual street signs.  I have heard that Chinatown is in economic decline, but it was not obvious to me.  The district was still bustling with pedestrian activity; I was particularly impressed that there are diagonal crosswalks like those on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.  We ate at a local restaurant, checked out a busy bakery, and just enjoyed the overall atmosphere of Chinatown, which although quite different, still brought back some memories of my native Hong Kong.


Latham SquareNodes are focal points, intersections or loci.  A node that got my attention was Latham Square which I only came across by accident.  This square is one of the most prominent and architecturally important intersections in Oakland, with several unique features including: its location at the intersection of two of the most significant streets in Oakland (Telegraph Avenue and Broadway); its function as a gateway to the emerging Uptown neighborhood and entertainment district; and its position between the Rotunda and Cathedral Buildings, two local examples of early 20th century architecture.  The appearance of Latham Square reminded me of Sunset Triangle Plaza here in Los Angeles as both involve painted streets and the installation of outdoor furniture.  Another node I visited is Lafayette Square Park which was designed by landscape architect Walter Hood and was mentioned in my article “Walter Hood and Hybrid Landscapes.”  Lafayette Square This park is located near downtown at the confluence of residential, office, convention and historic districts.  It features a quiet hillock, lawn and picnic area, game tables, horseshoe pits, barbeque areas, a performance area, playground, and restroom.  Based on my observation, Hood was successful in creating different smaller separate spaces for various user groups (such as children, seniors) within the park.


Landmarks are readily identifiable objects which serve as external reference points.  As I mentioned above, two prominent landmarks are the City Hall and Oakland Tribune buildings.  I learned that the City Hall building was completed in 1914, and replaced a prior building that stood on what is now Frank H. Ogawa Plaza.  Standing at the height of 320 feet, it was the first high-rise  government building in the United States.  Oakland ArchitectureWhen it was built, it was also the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.   Tribune Tower was built in 1906 and was inspired by St Mark’s Campanile in Venice, Italy.  The tower is 305 feet in height, with 22 stories.  This is an iconic building which I was fortunate enough to have a view of from my hotel.  Another landmark I want to mention is the Fox Oakland Theatre.  The 2,800-seat theater originally opened in 1928, closed in 1966, and recently re-opened in 2009.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater now hosts concerts and other special events, and serves as the home of the Oakland School for the Arts.


Overall, I enjoyed my visit to Oakland.  As I explained above, it is a place with a variety of elements that make it very interesting for planners and tourists.  While Oakland may have its share of problems such as high crime and unemployment, I believe that we should also be aware of the many positives of the city.  The aesthetics of Oakland is not often discussed, but after seeing what I have seen, I must conclude that beauty, hope, and strength are ever present in a city that is often belittled and hidden in the shadow of San Francisco.


Note: All photos by author.

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.