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Book Review of “Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, ...

Book Review of “Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space” by Charles R. Wolfe

As urban populations skyrocket across the globe and the trend of migration from rural regions to big cities only intensifies, the everyday person is becoming more concerned with how the qualities of their urban environment affect their everyday experience, and as a society we feel more personal motivation than ever to have a hand in

by Karsen Maruca November 16, 2017 One comment
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As urban populations skyrocket across the globe and the trend of migration from rural regions to big cities only intensifies, the everyday person is becoming more concerned with how the qualities of their urban environment affect their everyday experience, and as a society we feel more personal motivation than ever to have a hand in positively sculpting our hometown’s future. But for the vast majority of us who do not work as the decision makers in urban planning departments, understanding how our individual voices and strengths can influence the development of our city homes can feel like a hopeless endeavor, and even so much as concretely describing the change that we would like to see can appear to be an insurmountable challenge.

Fortunately for all of us, author Charles R. Wolfe has created a digestible and informative how-to guide with his second book, “Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space.” Easy to read and rich with inspiring detail, “Seeing the Better City” marries prose with imagery to show how anyone who engages with a city can log their experiences and impressions, and how these observations can contribute to better urban planning and design decisions.

Seeing the Better City by Charles R. Wolfe, Island Press

Few people would be as qualified and adept as Wolfe at speaking on this subject with such immediacy, facility, and elegance. An attorney in Seattle whose practice focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting as well as a seasoned writer on issues surrounding urbanism, Wolfe provides an original and impassioned perspective on cities. He regularly contributes pieces on urban development subjects to numerous publications, including Planetizen, CityLab, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Grist, seattlepi.com, and Crosscut.com; he maintains a personal blog at myurbanist.com. Wolfe is also an Affiliate Associate Professor at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, where he teaches land-use law at the graduate level, as well as the Founder and Principal Advisor at the Seeing Better Cities Group (SBC), an organization founded in 2017 with the mission of improving the dialogue around how cities grow and change in both the United States and around the world. Wolfe’s first book, “Urbanism Without Effort,” was published in 2013, and investigates the notion that creating vibrant and sustainable cities requires an understanding of what organically occurs when people congregate in urban environments; together, his two books lay out the founding principles that fuel his work at SBC. Delving into either of Wolfe’s books quickly reveal him as an avid world traveler and photographer, and indeed his imagery and zeal for exploration are cornerstones of his published work.

Seeing the Better City by Charles R. Wolfe, Island Press

It is this very coupling of the visual with experience and investigation that provides the foundation of Wolfe’s thesis in “Seeing the Better City” – the book is full of the author’s own photography, and the color images in the center are particularly compelling. Wolfe maintains that personal – and primarily visual – observation continues to be an indispensable tool in the understanding and improvement of cities. Digital renderings, simulations, and virtual reality are becoming commonplace in architecture firms and urban planning departments across the globe, and while they significantly update and streamline our understanding of urban space, relying on these resources alone without accounting for the natural impressions that the urban human has when engaging with a place can lead to the creation of spaces in the urban environment that ignore the local context and do not reflect the desires of the end user, ultimately failing to improve the fabric of the city. Here, Wolfe issues a sort of call-to-arms to everyone who interacts with a city in some capacity, encouraging us not to discredit what we see with our own eyes, but to focus on the tangible world before us. It is the sights, sounds, and very atmosphere experienced in a place that lend a city its true character, and heeding these sensations when shaping urban policies, plans, and regulations will lead to the creation of better city environments.

This is a distinctly democratic approach, that shifts the pole of power away from the decision makers classically at the top of the hierarchy, and spreads both the agency and the responsibility to ameliorate a city to everyone who interacts with it. He finds that it is imperative that people – all people – who are recipients of urban change take an active role in being informed – by being observant – to advocate for the best change in the communities they know and love the best. Empowering urbanites and city visitors alike, Wolfe details how we all can document our impressions of the variety of qualities of urban environments that affect our lives, and then provides advice on how we can employ those observations to influence and improve urban planning and design decision making. Wolfe has named this approach the “urban diary;” this tool serves as the key method for making the better city happen, and examining this practice constitutes much of the book.

Seeing the Better City by Charles R. Wolfe, Island Press

Anyone equipped with a camera, a tool for taking notes, and an open eye can be an urban diarist, and it is this diarist’s perspective that unlocks a certain understanding of the dynamics of a city. Wolfe supplements his detailing of the urban diarist with a bounty of examples of his own urban diaries. While Wolfe’s diaries are not always well-inserted into the fabric of the book for maximum readability, the author provides some of his own fascinating conclusions and details visions of his own “better city.” Rather than preaching, he is calling on his readers to go out and make their own urban diaries, while also forming solidarity through their possible shared experiences. Wolfe concedes that the “best” city can be a subjective concept; the many inhabitants of an urban environment experience their milieu differently, resulting in many “cities” within the borders of a single city – what that city is, and how it can be improved, depends upon the various perspectives, contexts, and identities that it is composed of. “Seeing the Better City” offers new insights while encouraging broader ways of thinking.

Seeing the Better City by Charles R. Wolfe, Island Press

Wolfe’s personable and intimate voice make this an easy and engaging read for the layperson – one need not be an elected official or practice a design profession to understand and appreciate the author’s insights. Although some more seasoned urban planning professionals might find the book’s contents somewhat less enlightening, the enthusiasm, passion, and affection Wolfe demonstrates for his themes and his sincere belief in his audience’s potential to influence easily energizes any reader. City visitors, homegrown urban planners, and everyone in-between can find in “Seeing the Better City” a valuable and creative resource for forwarding the discourse on improving urban space. It is a text that guides us as it motivates us to observe, document, and advocate for the better cities that we will all call home.

Do you believe urban diaries are an effective method to democratizing urban planning and policy? What are some of the most recent observations you've made of your city? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Images by Karsen Maruca. Data linked to sources. Creative commons images courtesy of Pexels.com (Images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). 

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  • Deb Sinha

    Urban Diary is a valuable advice. We, the planners must seek evidence of the city, the people, the culture, the subtlety of everything that’s there, that’s working. Taking notes, documentation is the best way to help us remember and recapitulate when we are actively working or getting involved within the policymaking process.

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