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About the Author
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The Dynamic Potential of Urbanism Without Effort
AS URBAN STAKEHOLDERS — residents, pundits, developers, associated professionals, and politicians — we like to discuss and debate aspects of urbanism and how cities should change to meet new challenges. But when we talk about urbanism, I think we often forget the underlying dynamics that are as old as cities themselves. As a result, we favor fads over the indigenous underpinnings of urban settlement and our own, thorough observations about urban change. We focus too literally on conclusory plans, apps, model codes, transportation modes, building categories, economic and population specifics, and summary indicators of how land is currently used. While we might appropriately champion the programmed successes of certain iconic examples, we risk ignoring the backstory of urban forms and functions and failing to truly understand the traditional relationships between people and place.
I believe it is critical to first isolate spontaneous and latent examples of successful urban land use before applying any data-driven inquiries, prescription of typologies, desired ends, or governmental initiatives. Such inspirational "urbanism without effort" is the premise of this book and its illustrations, as well as the basis for a clean, multidisciplinary slate for reinvigorating the way we think about urban development today.
This premise needs a definition and reference point for all that follows here and in future inquiry. Urbanism without effort is what happens naturally when people congregate in cities — based on the innate interactions that urban dwellers have with one another and with the surrounding urban and physical environment. Such innate interactions are often the product of cultural traditions and organic urban development, independent of government intervention, policy, or plan.
Urbanism without effort is not always initially obvious; it may seem more whimsical than remarkable when viewed from an aerial photo, an online map, or a satellite picture. In fact, it is almost invisible from these perspectives, as the fine urban grain is lost. It is best recognized and embraced from the ground and experienced firsthand, where it is possible to see more than just the physical outline of the city — it is possible to see life flowing through the urban form. This familiar, firsthand perspective, often informed by photography, focuses on organic and naturally occurring urbanism, as distinguished from other typecast, purposeful approaches, such as tactical, lean, interventionist, insurgent, or "pop-up" urbanism.
While these more purposeful approaches — and associated demonstration projects — may lead to successful places, I often wonder, why don't they always have a meaningful and lasting effect? All too often these approaches are more sensational than not, overly superficial, or temporary by design. And, unless calibrated to the local context, the status quo frequently returns after these purposeful installations, such as street-side tables, greened parking spaces, food trucks, or guerrilla gardens, are removed or abandoned. In comparison, urbanism without effort endures beyond a mere installation or exhibition. Because it is latent rather than faddishly imposed, it can grow and evolve based upon a more historical, authentic, and robust foundation.
Rather than assume that the popular and touted is readily adaptable everywhere, or readily subject to apps, metrics, or labels, we should return to first principles and isolate the fundamental, vernacular relationships between city inhabitants and what surrounds them. We need to look, analyze, and discern, until we remember what a basic and familiar sort of city life looks like. While we consider these inherent factors that shape spaces and their use, we also must remember that there is a certain spontaneous magic attributable to good urban places that can awaken them but will only occur when they are locally relevant and embraced.
The Premise and the Pictures
To assure a successful and meaningful return to first principles, we each need a renewed and fine-tuned qualitative emphasis — our own, image-rich "urban diaries"— over and above the many thoughtful urbanist measures, such as Walk Score, Place Score, StreetScore, or even the conjectural JaneScore. It is time to look at cities in a more holistic way that better explicates today's often irrational fusion of the planned, the spontaneous, and the natural — and to understand the city as "an artefact [sic] of a curious kind ... more like a dream than anything else," including experiences of place that are "a rainbow well within our grasp."
Urban diaries play an important thematic role in this book and its more applied companion, Seeing the Better City, as an ongoing source of urban documentation and understanding. While they may sometimes be figurative, or emerge from an internalized memory or intuition, they may also take the form of a notebook, a scrapbook, a sketchbook, or a digital file displayed by computer or tablet that reflects changing views of the city over time.
No matter what form an urban diary may take, I believe (and Seeing the Better City explains and applies) that well-composed, onsite photographs are an essential part of documenting holistic urban observation, beyond the removed convenience of Google Street View. Whether immediately tangible or a picture in the mind, such imagery can re-create what political writer Alexander Cockburn once termed "the lost valleys of the imagination."
Legendary travel photographer Burton Holmes aptly used the phrase "film as biography" to describe photographs that authentically capture another time or another place. To me, that term infers principles of practice for regulation and design that are easily observed from images of real and foundational places. In particular, the architect is able to derive the relation between building and street. The traffic engineer finds inspiration for lanes, surfacing, and signage. The lawyer and planner see building setbacks and the means to encourage pedestrian spaces while assuring light, air, acceptable noise levels, and governance of private use of public spaces.
No doubt, I inherited this point of view from my father, who was an urban planning professor. While growing up, I watched him photograph, with an East German Exacta, for purposes of his later sketching, teaching, and advocating the role of urban imagery. In a 1965 article, he argued that several landmark studies of American communities (e.g., Lloyd Warner's Yankee City and Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown) partially missed the mark because they lacked diagrams and pictures.
Many social studies of communities refer implicitly or explicitly to urban form without so much as a picture, map or diagram. Yet visual material can make a contribution to understanding the urban environment itself, the interrelationship of society and environment, and the development of techniques for study and communication.
My own 1968 photographs from Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy (partially shown here) document my first interests in reading the city for myself, something we can easily do on a much larger, more shareable scale today with smartphones and social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. Even without digital outlets, as a teenage beneficiary of my father's academic research, I was drawn to the differences I saw in foreign cities that predate my native Seattle by more than 1,000 years, specifically the following:
Cities that organized around important public places, like churches and squares and towers
Monuments located in these public places, some new and some that have been there a very long time, to honor people or events from history
Notable walking areas where people were separated from cars
Cities that honored the water around them, and built themselves so that land uses were clustered close together and work was close to home
Cities where, in the face of a wall, there were different, exposed layers from several eras, that told the story of how the city grew
In the past 20 years, I've restarted this search for expressions of effortless urbanism in other places in order to compare and contrast the American experience. Journeys to common and uncommon destinations — ranging from Australia to the Middle East to Tanzania to Malta and Iceland — have illuminated the primary patterns of human settlement and land use, with a focus on enviable practices derived from the historical lessons of climate, culture, and the core needs of human life. This dance of people and place can be painfully simple when experienced and photographed in context, with fundamental tenets in mind and history displayed outright. The roles of walking, shelter, and movement between places, and the impacts of climate and safety appear far more basic and robust through the lens of careful observation from across the world.
In 2009, I began building on vignettes observed both through this international lens as well as through local examples, and since then I have depicted and described a range of urban basics in several articles, in the first edition of this book, and in its 2017 companion, Seeing the Better City. These efforts and associated social media frame, inter alia, huts and fortresses, carts and bicycles, and narrow paths and boulevards — and include narrative and photographs that feature places, spaces, buildings, and people as they appear in context, often by happenstance. As a result, I rediscovered perspectives that led me to address local issues — even in law practice — more focused on the implicit and organic evolution of urbanized areas rather than immediately embracing incomplete, nostalgic, popularized and/or prescribed urbanist and "smart city" labels, metrics, or points of view.
Polarities and Outliers
Sometimes, in my opinion, we overemphasize the virtues of the city — or latch on to the next popular urbanist notion or trend — without adequate precedential or contextual inquiry.
In the extreme, to paraphrase Lennon and McCartney, we can easily "misunderstand all that we see" amid a placemaking approach once bluntly critiqued by the late Ada Louise Huxtable, "[t]he remarkable marriage of technologically based and shrewdly programmed artificial experience with a manufactured and managed environment." Huxtable made a discerning point, that somehow in envisioning the city, reality was not the only option, and the glorified fake risked carrying the day. As she noted in 1997:
The dream of pedestrianism, so valiantly and fruitlessly pursued by planners who have looked to the past and overseas for models of historic hill towns and plazas ... has been aggressively naturalized; the social stroll has become a sensuous assault.
In the intervening years, have we grown toward greater authenticity? For example, Eugene, Oregon's pedestrian mall didn't always work as planned. However, Arlington, Virginia's pervasive focus on sustainability and alternative modes of transportation has broadened awareness and approach, and created the countervailing successes of transit-oriented development. As, generally, has Portland, Oregon's modern legacy of light rail, streetcars, and bicycles. Whatever the answer to the question of authenticity, we should consider the risks of places with a purpose to provide only an illusion — nothing more — of places where we may want to be. Such places end up as little more than a hollow reminder of their authentic inspiration. To quote Shakespeare's King Lear, "nothing will come of nothing."
According to journalist-turned-urban authority Grady Clay, there is more work to be done than casual emulation of inspirational examples. The "undisclosed evidence" underlying the authentic form and patterns of cities is invaluable, yet often goes undiscovered. In Close-Up: How to Read the American City, Clay wrote:
And where are we? Grasping at straws, clutching yesterday's program, swamped by today's expert view, clawing at the newest opinion polls, but neglecting that limitless, timeless, boundless wealth of visible evidence that merely waits in a potentially organizable state for us to take a hard look, to make the next move.
As I explain in Seeing the Better City, in the years since Huxtable's and Clay's writing, the merit of a city-dweller's individual, personal observation and exploration may have lost further ground to popular, competing camps of typologies and endless debate about which should prevail.
The more prescriptive, neotraditional attributes of first-generation new urbanism and form-based codes arguably flirted with Huxtable's warning against Disney-fied developments (including the well-known new urbanist-inspired model town in Celebration, Florida, which was in fact built by Disney). In addition to the more spontaneous, interventionist approaches, such as tactical, insurgent, or "pop-up" urbanism noted earlier (increasingly embraced by many new urbanists today), other more recent trends include landscape urbanism, "green" or low-impact development, bicycle infrastructure, and a considerable focus on compact and walkable transit-oriented development. All of these approaches share an implicit, if not explicit goal — behavior modification through planning and design — in order to build community and teach sustainable ways of urban life.
Consider how a purpose-driven acknowledgment or inventory — an urban diary — of urbanism without effort might precede these "pied piper" interventions. Ideas should not be vetted and advanced without an eye to the indigenous urban spirit, with its ready and simple victories ripe for observation, in parts of the city less known or described. Simply stated, spontaneous, organic neighborhood life can be readily illustrated by each of us and is already there for the taking.
On the one hand, naturally occurring phenomena such as an "alley movie night" (further described in chapter 3) laudably evolve without policy or design. At first, this small-scale urbanism may seem unremarkable, but its success is assured through simple, spontaneous actions of neighbors — an important reminder that a city neighborhood can experience community without really trying — an urbanism without effort that needs no thought leadership or sound bites.
The organic synergy of "alley movie night" among neighbors replicates the latent familiarity of European street life, not because of doctrine or dogma, but because, as depicted above, it is as natural as affiliation with the place next door. By comparison, more purposeful and programmed approaches, such as Melbourne's Moonlight Cinema on the Botanic Gardens lawn, or Cinema Nights in Melbourne's Piazza Italia (in the predominantly Italian district of Carlton) feature passersby joining neighbors for an organized event — more an imitation of an ideal than bona fide urbanism without effort. But it creates, nonetheless, a delightful dissonance by placing a neighborhood-like activity within the larger-scale confines of a busy city.
In contrast, while the organic can provide a sound basis for emulation, policy, and implementation, disparate prescriptions of urban form can have the opposite effect, even beyond Huxtable's admonitions. Sometimes, the look and feel of a place may seem inspirational as an urban scale worth repeating. But, in fact, the underlying reasons for its appearance may be the polar opposite from the ideal, sustainable city model.
To me, one such example has particular irony: the Ghetto in the Cannareggio section of Venice appears to be a compact, dense urban development of the sort touted by today's urbanists. However, further investigation reveals a sordid history of overcrowding and segregation.
While the Venetian Ghetto has the same dense, walkable core that is so desirable today, in the sixteenth century it was built to house a disfavored religious and cultural group that was allowed to work in the remainder of the city only by day. The Ghetto was an isolated island where the bridges were locked at night, effectively imprisoning the residents. The institutionalization of the term "ghetto" helps to reveal the backstory of the buildings, structures, and spaces, and that the full sociocultural story of a place should be vetted before its form is borrowed elsewhere.
These polarities of organic success in an American neighborhood alley versus formalistic dysfunction of the Venetian Ghetto illustrate the diversity and depth of urban experience. Looks can deceive, and context and history play a large role in the level of success of an urban place. However, without a careful, contextual archaeology of the urban landscape, onlookers may not readily understand the social and/or physical backdrop at hand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Urbanism Without Effort"
Copyright © 2019 Charles R. Wolfe.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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