A fascinating article in Atlantic Cities explains how data mining of Google Street View images can identify the distinctive visual elements of a city. For Paris the computer identified the distinctive elements as street signs, ornate 19th Century windows, cast iron balconies, and decorative street lamps. You can’t see the rooflines on a Google Street View, but I would add the Mansard roofs as another distinctive of Paris. For Boston, the computer analysis found that black window shutters and red brick exteriors were visually distinctive, while for San Francisco it was Victorian bay windows.
This analysis raises lots of interesting questions. What would be the distinctive elements of a 20th or 21st Century suburb? What would be the distinctive visual elements for Minneapolis-St. Paul? In what way are the people part of the distinctive visual character of a place? After all, aren’t the street fashions and street musicians and entertainers part of what makes London or Paris distinctive?