by 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 ‘place DNA’, 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 ‘place DNA’. 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 place 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.
Place DNA as a dangerous metaphor
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) have brilliantly demonstrated, metaphors actually form the way we think. So while we may be aware we’re using the place DNA metaphor 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 a place 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. 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.
 Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). 2003. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago.