Ideas about cities are always changing, but the fundamentals of urban living stand the test of time. "Urbanism Without Effort," written by Seattle native Chuck Wolfe, suggests that we consider the basics when faced with the complexities of planning cities. Using illustrations of various urban environments around the world, it articulates an idea that I have always pondered and is the missing piece to today's tactical urbanism.
City planning is a fine balance between art and science, people and place. Too often, buzzwords and trending ideas dominate, while the fundamentals are missing from the dialogue. A look back to our innate sensibilities, put in a localized context, and executed with professional expertise, will yield the best results. Wolfe says that to do this, it’s as important to observe as it is to intervene. He suggests that we keep an “urban diary,” whether it be physical or mental, to gain this wisdom.
This isn't new by any stretch; we have probably been tackling these ideas long before placemaking was a professional endeavor. This may excite the anti-regulation types, but Wolfe isn't suggesting that planners need to get out of the way. The crux is that the regulatory environment needs to take a holistic approach, understanding the human relationships with cities that have always existed. Without it, the result could be superficial or imposing. Another policy failure is land-use patterns that limit creativity and potential. Why can’t a restaurant exist in an industrial building? Finally, changes that are made at a policy level should be contextual as well. What works in Croatia may not work in Seattle. However, all places have their own topography, socio-cultural realities, and historical assets.
"Urbanism Without Effort" is a good read for those who like to romanticize urban living, but it is also grounded in solutions. It’s not a “how-to” book, but it sets the tone for future projects. Adaptive reuse is a common theme, arguing that we should build off of the strengths that exist in places, rather than create new ones. Wolfe uses the example of a mossy Seattle bridge that was converted into a pedestrian connection, which created an aesthetic and practical part of the landscape.
Places that are “human-scale,” such as walkable blocks, alleyway restaurants, or dynamic mixed-use areas, also reoccur in Wolfe’s “urban diary.” Consider London’s Covent Garden, where walkability (or Wolfe’s term, “sit-ability”), historic architecture with various uses, and a local touch create an inviting and cultural environment. What you are seeing is urbanism that isn't trying too hard. This wasn't done deliberately; people just like to live this way.
At its core, Wolfe is critiquing modern day efforts of “placemaking.” Too often, we take what works somewhere and assume it will work at home. Inevitably it comes off as contrived. A premier example of authentic urbanism is Wolfe's description of an alley-way movie night in a Seattle neighborhood. The spontaneous and creative venue was iconic of the book's general message.
The jargon-free text makes this book a good option for anyone, but the substance of the message could make for academic reading as well. I enjoyed reading this book for its vignettes of urban living from around the world. Understanding how these places came to be is key to discovering the untapped potential in our own city.
Have you noticed examples of effortless urbanism in your travels? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
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Credits: Creative Commons images courtesy of FWStudio, Heb at Wikimedia Commons, and Jean-Christophe Benoist. Updated December 10, 2017.
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