An Expatriate’s Primer on an Urban View

In Gordon Cullen’s epic early-1960s work, The Concise Townscape, he described the visual experience of townscape views through an emphasis on “serial vision,” and on present and emerging views that become revelation while moving from place to place. More than Edmund Bacon, who focused his Design of Cities on similar experiential aspects framed by the built environment, Cullen provided extensive typologies of architecture and street patterns through photographic example, concentrating on the experience of moving from place to place.

For Cullen, passing through the built environment was full of tensions, delight, drama, and contrasts, specifically, the “drama of juxtapositions.” In my book, Seeing the Better City, I also arrived at the same term, juxtapositions, and, since I moved to the United Kingdom early this year, I see juxtapositions as an even more essential element of  urban observation.

For many years, my urban exploration has stressed an experiential approach to urban juxtapositions, overlaps, intersections, and all the other descriptors applicable to urban life. I like to say that it’s a gut-level, observational process, which every one of us has the means to carry out.

I have thought a lot about such juxtapositions, and why they are points of context and focus—catalysts for today’s urban dialogues. In the United States, I became used to these observed overlays forcing contentious discussions about sudden and gradual change, generational differences, public and private preferences, mergers of cultures and business types, and mixing of land uses, transportation modes, and housing approaches.

Notice a juxtaposition, I would routinely say in Seattle, and see debates about use of a place, flashpoints, and ripples in time—all of which are apparent in the spaces and human expressions of everyday life.

In the United Kingdom, I’ve had a different sense, one much more influenced by the backdrop of history that often frames an observed setting.  Here, while crossing the Richmond Bridge in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, we see the intensity of experience resulting from multi-colored  boats in the Thames River, the backdrop of weather, and a time-honored riverfront redeveloped with offices and commercial spaces oriented toward the river view.

Notice how the juxtapositions in these photographs embrace the assets of a place; the power of the images stems from the combination of its subjects, not any one part. The urban observer finds value in the overlaps and blending of boats, sky, and historic setting that create an inspirational experience, over and above viewing each overlapping element individually.


This entry is adapted from Seeing the Better City (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2017). Photos in Richmond upon Thames by the author.

learning from a one-stop, urban epic–and why


Spoiler alert: I love epic stories with universal meaning for varied audiences around the world. In sum, that is why I think Jonathan F.P. Rose‘s new book will become a must-read classic. And, if 400-pagers are not your style, it’s at worst a well-written, must-browse wonder, with relevant lessons for us all.

Rose is a real estate developer, philanthropist and fine arts patron with prominent New York roots, and holds  a graduate degree in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. His book, The Well-Tempered Citycaptures a life’s worth of experience and thinking, and his seven years of applied work on the book is readily apparent. He has done what many of us aspire to do, and translated experience into broad-based, focused lessons about the potential of our cities. He shows what we can achieve if we avoid discord, and align towards our latent human abilities to coordinate and mutually address inevitable change.

Rose’s inspirational theme is Johann Sebastian Bach’s then-novel, 18th century system of tuning musical instruments in The Well-Tempered Clavier.  He takes Bach’s premise of aligning human ideals with natural harmony, and applies it to urban progress and potential such as greening cities today.

I recently caught up with Rose in Seattle and tested my surmise that even those who prefer the short length of a tweet should immerse themselves in Rose’s ideas.  Why? First, current trends within cities tend to proceed independently and without context, which complicates our ability to converse holistically, and carry out solutions. Second, our state of civility is sorely lacking, and we need new ways to do urban business amid complicating global trends.  I was not disappointed; in our conversation Rose illustrated how The Well-Tempered City presents a baseline to address both of these concerns.


He jumped quickly, with excitement, to a Portland Sustainability Institute (now “Ecodistrict‘)  graphic (reproduced above) that he often uses in presentations.  With read-the-city enthusiasm learned from his brother-in-law, architect/urbanist Peter Calthorpe, Rose explained Portland residents’ aspirations for a green, accessible and safe city, with places where people will want to spend their time. 

But here’s a pleasant caveat: Rose’s points stem not from a developer’s “green-washing,” but from well-studied explanations in the book about humans, and how they are wired, dating from our common ancestors who evolved millions of years ago.

After reading The Well-Tempered City, and speaking at length with Rose, I emerged with excitement and optimism, because with simple attention to his humanistic base, and concepts of vision, coherence and compassion, I saw how idealism and implementation merged. As a developer, Rose applied “the developer’s test” to his book’s ideas and found them workable—and so do I.

With a volume full of implementation examples, it is easy to understand why. His key paragraph from the Introduction—also already reproduced in other online excerpts and feature articles—is worth repeating:

Imagine a city with Singapore’s social housing, Finland’s public education, Austin’s smart grid, the biking culture of Copenhagen, the urban food production of Hanoi, Florence’s Tuscan regional food system, Seattle’s access to nature, New York City’s arts and culture, Hong Kong’s subway system, Curitiba’s bus rapid transit system, Paris’s bike-share program, London’s congestion pricing, San Francisco’s recycling system, Philadelphia’s green stormwater program, Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River restoration project, Windhoek’s wastewater recycling system, Rotterdam’s approach to living with rising seas, Tokyo’s health outcomes, the happiness of Sydney, the equality of Stockholm, the peacefulness of Reykjavík, the harmonic form of the Forbidden City, the market vitality of Casablanca, the cooperative industrialization of Bologna, the innovation of Medellín, the hospitals of Cleveland, and the livability of Vancouver. Each of these aspects of a well-tempered city exists today and is continually improving. Each evolved in its own place and time and is adaptable and combinable. Put them together as interconnected systems and their metropolitan regions will evolve into happier, more prosperous, regenerative cities.

In other words, if you worry that a lofty fascination with classical music is not the recipe for mediating concerns about urban density, affordability, access to public transit or climate change, fear not, because it’s all there.  I watched Rose nimbly grab excerpts like this one during our conversation, and later in the afternoon, in a response to several questions at a Seattle event sponsored by the Urban Land Institute and the Congress for the New Urbanism (as a warmup to the organizations’ overlapping Seattle conferences next Spring).  From San Francisco’s recycling example to Hong Kong’s iconic public transit system to the potential catalytic role of community groups, the book has, as he told me, a little bit for everyone interested in urban issues today.

Perhaps I am inspired by my overlaps with Rose’s world view (such as tendencies to emphasize lessons learned from cities long ago, such as the historic sustainability of Matera discussed in my 2011 The Atlantic article), but I’m just one of many who will find in The Well-Tempered City a roadmap, and many examples, of well-tempered places and their underlying principles.

For example, I would argue that today’s placemaking movement is one element of Rose’s emphasis on how we are capable of fine tuning our cities—with human scale approaches—already embedded in who we really are.


Image of Jonathan F.P. Rose composed by the author in Seattle. © 2009-2016 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

Chuck Wolfe’s new book on using urban observation as a tool to affect change, Seeing the Better City will be available by early 2017 from Island Press, through local booksellers and Amazon.

why the zoning debate in Seattle has lacked ‘first principles’

SeattleTriplex_ChuckWolfe - 1 (1)

In all my years as a Seattle native, I’m not sure I have seen as passionate a debate as the current discourse about the past and future of single-family zoning in this city. Several articles and opinion pieces, in Crosscut and other media, have attempted to dissect one issue identified in the Mayor’s Housing and Livability Agenda Report released last week that single-family zoning in Seattle may have exclusionary roots. At issue is HALA’s potential rebranding of such zoning designations to “low-density,” aimed at rectifying history and allowing for more diverse housing types.

I fear that this debate will rob Seattle of its creative potential to solve the affordable housing crisis. We cannot let that happen, and vilifying HALA’s ideas without a broader perspective risks just that.

Click here for the rest of my guest opinion in Seattle’s Crosscut.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

revisiting sustainable housing, politics and a basic pride of place

SeattleTriplex_ChuckWolfe - 1

In Seattle, the recent recommendations of the Mayor’s Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee have dominated civic discussion, particularly a small part of the HALA report that emphasizes more flexible housing types in single-family neighborhoods (e.g mother-in-law apartments and detached accessory dwelling units).

To some of Seattle’s mainstream media, images such as the one above—depicting a longstanding triplex in a Seattle residential neighborhood—are forgotten. Instead, Rome is burning, or, perhaps, with subconscious memory of the changes brought by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, drastic change stands looming from the brown lawns of the historic heat wave of 2015.

In response, here is a timely republication of a post from last October, that also appeared in the Huffington Post, and, as digested, in Planetizen.

I began with a core question, and answer, about where and how we live: “What do the politics of urban housing have to do with a seasonal caravan park in Provence? For me, the answer is clear. Our political discussions, mired in jargon and positioning, often lose sight of a human pride of place inherent in even the simplest forms of shelter.”

Please read on.


A major American urban theme, today, addresses the challenge of maintaining housing affordability, and determining who should pay to insure available residences close to work and necessary services. Other themes include scrutiny of residential configurations, and debates over how small is too small for today’s dwelling unit size. In Seattle, various stakeholders, from elected officials to developers and nonprofits, continue jousting over an arguably not-ready-for-prime-time housing linkage proposal and new limitations on the size of micro-housing units. A new Advisory Committee will attempt a varied tool-based cure [as of October, 2014].

I recently keynoted a Seattle housing non-profit’s annual breakfast. There, I had to answer a big question: What, exactly, is affordable housing? My answer simply stated that people need affordable access to the sought-after elements of urban life. To paraphrase, people need affordable access to homes of whatever size and shape that they can take pride in.

When people take pride in where they live, their homes’ appearance shows a bonding with the place, often with considered ingenuity.


This ingenuity is clear at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue (a 53 year-old caravan park near Fréjus, France). From the Domaine, I asked myself last month, why not focus on how to see and decode the expressions of people’s pride in and around the walls and ceilings that protect them?

I am talking about the basic decorator and landscaper within us all, our human tendency to create a sense of comfort with the outside world so that we blend more easily with where we live.


The Domaine du Pin de la Lègue is, in American terms, a seasonal manufactured housing community. Some stay almost all year but most people are in residence for short vacations. Either way, there are a range of services nearby, including a grocery store, a produce store, a butcher and deli, a hairdresser, restaurants and more. There’s an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several pools, boules (or pétanque) and plenty of summer events.

Most importantly, there is the pride of place surrounding the small living spaces in the homes all around, from clever retrofits to landscaping and rockeries befitting the best of single-family neighborhoods.


On a stroll, this pride is clear throughout the Domaine, where caravans become palaces amid dignified grounds. In the ways called for among some urban redevelopment movements today, small-scale innovation is on display—it’s a locale where the plot-based, lean and pop-up urbanism movements of the United Kingdom and the United States merge with some admirable diversity.

Admittedly, it’s more campground than the best of Paris, and that’s really the point, as the illustrations here make clear. But unlike a campground, the surroundings are not disassembled. Rather, like a neighborhood, the homes become nurtured, planted around, and modified in functional ways.


People don’t need expensive building materials, identities or complex regulatory tools to find a pride of place. Rather, we carry with us the ability to mine pride from place, even in places that are, perhaps, least expected to shine.

Images composed by the author in Seattle, and at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue, outside Fréjus, France. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

urban edges, and how to define the spaces beyond

In the city, we blend the familiar with the edge of the unknown.


I doubt that before today, any urbanist writer has used an old, Latin term that lives on in southern Italy, to explain the particular wonder of certain city street-ends.  The term, finibus terrae, meant one end of the Earth to the Romans—the edge of the known extent of the land.

In Santa Maria di Leuca, at the tip of Italy’s boot-heel, there is a longstanding basilica named for this ancient boundary. When we were there, in 2008 and 2011, and saw the seaward view from the basilica, it was clear why the place is legend. Surveying the expanse over the juncture of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, people once saw—or imagined—a void in their tangible environment that they could not explain, other than to say, the world stops here.

When the world was flat, it was a place to ponder the human confluence with the unknown, a figurative end of the road, with a view towards an undefined beyond.

In modern parlance, we’ve embraced the multifaceted meanings of the “end of the road”, or “dead ends”. These labels can describe failed businesses or careers, or something more ominous. In physical form, they may apply to an unfinished right of way, a route barred by topography, or a highway cut off by a natural disaster.

In the context of evolving cities, such terminal places—often called street-ends—are also opportunities for change or transition. A street-end may feature preservation of viewpoints, improvements such as public gardens, or enhanced safety measures (e.g., landscaping, lighting or fencing from danger).

In fact, some cities celebrate the opportunities for street-ends, where, often, the public path comes to rest. City staffs and nonprofit organizations champion property use, and access in and around such dead-ends (where unimproved right-of-way is sometimes wrongly appropriated by abutting property owners). In Seattle, for instance, Department of Transportation programming especially emphasizes shoreline street-ends and the opportunities for improvements along Lake Washington and Puget Sound.


Shoreline street ends are not the only Seattle examples.  As illustrated above, other street-ends display dramatic views over lake and bridge, with neighborhoods beyond.  Old and new ideas meet here, along with examples of city life.  Here we see safety enhancements—signage and a railing—complemented by graffiti, and a custom lost and found for a knit hat left behind.

Today’s urbanist may also see a future gondola station, a walkable destination, or the potential for sustaining natural pockets amid the built environment.  But what compels such vision?

I’ll take a leap of faith here, in order to put a modern gloss on the human imagination that conceived the edge of the earth in Italy, long ago.  As with the finibus terrae, such edges, and views, will always inspire us to create tangible and useful meanings for the spaces beyond.

Images composed by the author in Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia, Italy and Seattle. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.