why urban history [still] matters

[Republished five years after original posting, upon today’s visit to Edinburgh from London. This post was named The Guardian Cities‘ web article of the week in early March, 2014.]

Going forward, let’s not discount the influence of history’s recurring themes in how we redevelop the urban realm.


So many discussions about cities today look only forward, without fully considering the past.  We presume ways of life that must change for the better:  Greener, more inclusive and shareable;  global in orientation; away from land use regulations that favor separation of uses, and towards healthier, less auto-dependent realms.

I do not believe for a moment that urban change is so simple.  Without a longer view, we risk undervaluing lessons learned long ago.

Height, density, use/control of land and public health in urban settings have evolved for a very long time.  We can build on this urban history of reinvention and renewal and think more universally about how past, present and future define urban development.

Last week, I went to Edinburgh, Scotland to see why this urban history matters.

What is the value of historical perspective, particularly in the world heritage areas of central Edinburgh? Such focus goes far beyond common “brick and mortar” examples, such as castle ruins, statues of architect Robert Adam and William Wallace (Braveheart), a tower honoring author Walter Scott or St. Giles Cathedral.


Rather, as urban thinkers such as Sir Patrick Geddes once stressed, the real emphasis is on the power of continuous human settlement—and inspiration gleaned from a dynamic city over time.

The humble acceptance of the long-term reminds us, according to the Scottish architectural historian Miles Glendinning, that change is a constant, and that specific themes of long-term habitation can create broader ways of understanding the cyclical nature of urban reinvention.

We know that rediscovery of the inner city is the raison d’être of many urban-dwellers today, and that dense urban cores are both increasing lifestyle choices and economic drivers from the regional to international levels.  We now tend to disfavor sprawl as a solution to overcrowded conditions, and stress instead old standby’s of increased height, cooperative living spaces and smaller dwellings.

But places like Edinburgh’s world heritage areas show that our current ability to meet these goals safely is reflective of lessons learned long ago, when overpopulated and unsanitary conditions within city walls eventually inspired new understandings of urban disease control.  Within medieval Edinburgh, buildings as high as 11-15 stories once flanked the High Street (Royal Mile) as it crossed in linear fashion from Edinburgh Castle to Hollyrood Palace.

The upper classes lived on upper floors.  The poor lived below.  Waste disposal competed with walking and commerce in the closes, wynds (alleys in today’s parlance) and courtyards of old, as sewerage found its way to the small lake (the Nor’ Loch) then flanking the city’s northern boundary.

Later, wider streets cut into former closes and wynds, while others remained intact.  Such early governmental interventions brought light and air to former “high rises” and underground dwellings, and the eventual transition of the polluted Nor’ Loch to gardens at the base of the Old Town.


Today, Edinburgh’s Old Town is part tourist, part retrofit.  The medieval shell survives, but living conditions are now consistent with a modern age. Historic venues such as the Royal Mile have new roles, and captivating visuals such as the bend in West Bow Street replace the rudiments of life within the walls with the trends of today.

What lessons emerge from buried, medieval closes and formerly inhabited, forgotten building vaults of the Old Town?


Credit: The Real Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh

In a tour of remaining portions of several abandoned underground medieval closes covered by building foundations since the 18th century, I saw eerie parallels to today’s reinvented urban alleys and laneways, apodments and live-work dwellings—the medieval spaces evolved without the banner of pestilence—back to the future, with modern gloss.

Similarly, it was not hard to see how today’s urban redevelopers can repopulate the shells of the past when opportunity strikes in a more modern form of infill.  In 2002, a fire destroyed a group of Old Town tenements (termed a “rabbit warren” by firefighters) next to the historic Cowgate area.  Edinburgh-based Whiteburn worked with planners, heritage groups and the community to assemble eight formerly disparate properties and redevelop the area into a mixed use venue including a new hotel and grocery store.

And what of the neoclassical New Town, the city planning marvel centered around stately squares and avenues, authored by competition winner James Craig in 1766-67?  The planned New Town was nothing short of a period-piece, stately reinvention of the original urban core, which quickly became a residence for the wealthy, and provided gateway to later expansion as the city grew.  Now a commercial hub at the base of the Old Town, it largely retains the Georgian grandeur of its original design.


My sense of the New Town’s legacy?

Its physical form provides testament to the power of interventionist planning when a municipality has a broad swath of land assembled for a common purpose. In this case, Scotland’s unification/military peace with England tendered the Old Town’s walls irrelevant after the mid-18th century, and an earlier royal grant had made the land available.

Today’s Edinburgh still benefits from the wide spaces of Craig’s plan, which so profoundly contrasts with the tight scale and former living conditions of the Old Town above.


In the end, the historical perspective presented here raises interesting questions about the nature of urban change, and how a global economy integrates with an evolving urban artifact.  In Edinburgh, integrity issues began long ago, and continue, with classic historic preservation debates along the Royal Mile and the construction of the controversial Scottish Parliament on the site of the old Hollyrood Brewery —not to mention railroad incursions of the nineteenth century and much-debated urban malls in the New Town.

But to an American observer from Seattle, one hometown image—the Starbucks logo—particularly stands out.   In the photograph below, storied history and modern lifestyle communicate their “age value” to one another from a vaunted wide avenue of the New Town.  Looking up from the New Town’s George Street, midway between St. Andrews and Charlotte Squares, medieval past and global future speak to their uniting element: human ingenuity and reinvention, across the ages.


Images composed by the author in Edinburgh, Scotland, with the exception of the photograph of Mary King’s Close, obtained from a distributed photograph by The Real Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2019 myurbanistAll Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Seeing the Better City and Urbanism Without Effort, from Island Press.

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.

using ‘plot-based urbanism’ to reclaim the basic unit of the city



In recent years, urbanists have decried suburban developments on large greenfield properties in favor of a return to diverse, close grain urban fabrics. This granular form of development once served as the foundation for pre-automobile streets and town centers. Increasingly, urban designers, town planners, academics, community organizations and governments worldwide now seek more sustainable approaches to contemporary placemaking.

This move towards urban sustainability is old news. But, exploration of paths forward continues at many levels and under many urbanism monikers—from “new” to “landscape” to “tactical” and more. Late last month in Glasgow, I had the opportunity to learn about another urbanism moniker, “plot-based urbanism”, based on diverse, solution-based perspectives in the United Kingdom (UK).

Plot-based urbanism is best known in the UK, based on work by Sergio Porta, Ombretta Romice et al. at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and notable contributions by several UK practitioners.  Plot-based urbanism returns to first principles of city-building, and underscores the fundamental importance of the plot in sustainable urban development over time. Specifically, the approach derives from historic traditions of placemaking, fosters staged growth, mixed land uses, minimizes adverse economic risks, encourages informal participation, and respects local culture.


At the University of Strathclyde on October 27 and 28, the University’s Urban Design Studies Unit (UDSU) assembled leading voices in the plot-based urbanism dialogue, to move towards practical implementation and greater collaboration in research, practice and policy. I was honored to keynote the Summit, organized by Alessandra Feliciotti and J. Alexander Maxwell, as a Visiting Scholar at the University. For me, this was a tremendous opportunity, given the American tendency (and often economic necessity) to aggregate land for urban redevelopment.

The discussion was diverse and interdisciplinary, and ranged from academic concepts to potential practical principles, as shown in the brief summary below (compiled and adapted from the Summit abstracts submitted by the speakers). It was clear that a return to basics evoked different issues for each summit participant, with varying perspectives presented on how a plot-based approach could enhance different urban development issues and scenarios going forward.

Keynote address: Returning to the first principles of urbanism

Charles R. Wolfe, Principal, Attorney at Law, Seattle, Washington, USA


There are basic similarities among placemaking, plot-based urbanism, and other contemporary “urbanisms”; however, the underlying rationales for urban policy, planning and regulation are best understood from a historical perspective and in a better understanding of the everyday uses of urban space. In order to create vibrant, sustainable urban areas for the long-term, we must first understand what happens naturally when people congregate in cities—innate, unprompted interactions of urban dwellers with each other and their surrounding urban and physical environment, also known as “urbanism without effort“.

First Panel

Recalibrating the plot for mixed-use buildings

Jonathan Tarbatt, John Thompson & Partners, London, UK

Plot size and traditional close-grain vertically mixed-use building typologies (‘living over the shop’) are essential to plot-based urbanism. To be viable in today’s market, new mixed-use plots must be configured so that the resultant buildings are able to meet modern standards and expectations. This configuration is more complicated for mixed-use plots than for single uses, because to design something with no detail – a plot – it is necessary to know, or at least anticipate, all the detail.

The Popular Home Initiative using plot-based approaches

Kelvin Campbell, Urban Initiatives, London, UK

The Popular Home Initiative focuses on the stumbling blocks to housing recovery in the UK and explores inroads into the delivery of medium density family housing based on a plot-based urbanism approach. With a lack of both finance and new ideas to solve the problem, we face a serious challenge—one than cannot be entirely solved by using old models. Housing is not about the products of high design; it is about the good “normal”, and we have lost sight of what this means and urgently need to discover our new urban vernacular.


Second Panel

Urban regeneration in Glasgow through plot-based development: The Botany, Maryhill

Gordon Barbour, Glasgow Housing Association, Glasgow, UK

Glasgow’s population is expected to grow significantly in the next 25 years, after decades of decline. At the same time it has, as a legacy of population loss and economic change, a large amount of well-located urban land lying vacant or derelict, most of which is publicly owned. With limitations on the construction of both subsidized social housing, and housing for sale by private enterprise, conventional methods themselves will not be enough to prevent displacement of future housing development to greenfield sites on the urban periphery. A plot-based approach might offer the means to unlock the housing development potential of much of this vacant land in the city.

Control and Transitional Edges: Towards a socio-spatial morphology for plot-based urbanism

Kevin Thwaites, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

A new urban spatial structure called the ‘transitional edge’ seeks to connect social sustainability and human well-being. John Habraken’s discussion about the structure of the ordinary built environment is combined with spatial concepts from Experiential Landscape research to form an analytical framework. The resultant ‘transitional edge’ spatial structure provides an important conceptual thread reconnecting social and spatial dimensions of urban form to inform planning and design decision-making for urban sustainable living.

Plot-based urbanism: Experiences in developing countries and UN-Habitat’s latest activities

Salvatore Fundaró, UN-Habitat, Nairobi, Kenya

Cities face an enormous backlog of services and housing. There is indeed an urban planning crisis: the unplanned city is largely inefficient and requires increasing resources to make it more functional and livable. In order to further advance innovations, UN-Habitat proposes: (1) planning in advance of population increase and leveraging plans for revenue creation through value capture; (2) planning at the scale of the problem, particularly the projected growth of the urban population; (3) planning incrementally, starting with streets and following with water and sanitation, drainage, energy and lighting, transport, etc.; (4) planning for density and mixed land use; (5) providing urban networks for sustainable mobility and sustainable energy.


Third Panel

Town centers and the power of plot-based change

Diarmaid Lawlor, Architecture and Design Scotland, Edinburgh, UK

Town centers fit the ‘too hard’ box: too hard to understand, too complex to manage, too small to matter. The big economic narrative of place is about cities, and their regions. In this, towns are part of the story of other places.

Imagine though, the town center as a set of fixed spaces which can be re-purposed, plot by plot, in clusters, and along streets. A massive civic estate, a place with its own story. Imagine the town center as a place for public service collaboration, small and medium enterprise, new forms of participation, creative uses of space, new reasons to be. Imagine town centres as the best way to deliver collaborative public services, in places people want to be, in ways that matter.

Grow your own Garden City plot-by-plot

David Rudlin, Urbanism Environment and Design (URBED), Manchester, UK

URBED first referenced plot based urbanism in the late 1970s, when they developed the idea of ‘balanced incremental development’. In their book, Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood, first published in 1999, they explored the idea of the trellis and vine. According to URBED, the trellis is the master plan and the vine is the city that grows on the framework created by the plan. URBED suggested that the way to create a good place was to draw a plan, divide it into small plots, auction the plots and allow development of each plot with no rules whatsoever. This of course was a “ridiculous” idea that could never happen, except that it is the method by which our most admired urban areas were originally built.


Looking to the future and preliminary lessons learned

A Summit summary report, available soon, will set the stage for a follow-up summit in 2015. This report will set an agenda for future discussions and more practical implementation of plot-based urbanism.

As a preliminary matter, like all attempts to summarize approaches to city-building, Day 1 of the Summit provided varying, sometimes disconnected perspectives. However, after a moderated conferral on Day 2, the Summit established that:

  • Contemporary placemaking often fails to deliver longer-term sustainable, liveable urban environments.
  • The design of plots, blocks, and master plans must allow for urban change over time by establishing  context-specific, fundamental frameworks for urban development.
  • Unlike other parts of the world (e.g., Austria, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Norway and the United States), housing development in the UK is provided by only a handful of developers. This raises questions about power of large-scale developers and the role of land use regulation and local municipalities in incentivizing more diversity.
  • The ideas inherent in plot-based urbanism have potential in both regeneration and new-built projects, in both more developed and less developed countries.
  • There is a need for more collaboration between research and practice and between practice and policy in order to implement plot-based urbanism on a meaningful scale in order to affect change.

(Thanks to J. Alexander Maxwell, Fulbright-University of Strathclyde Postgraduate Research Scholar, for his contributions to this article.)

cities and the plot: stay tuned

For five years, myurbanist has focused on the organic, naturally occurring aspects of urban development and placemaking. Several myurbanist entries became the basis for last year’s Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013).

This year, based on introductions from friends and through social media, I’ve collaborated with the Urban Design Studies Unit at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow on common interests, including ideas about the latent length of main streets throughout history.

Later this month, the collaboration continues, with the Plot-Based Urbanism Summit in Glasgow, commencing October 27. The Summit will focus on strategies and examples emphasizing foundational, close-grain urban fabrics that were once the premise of urban development and associated street networks.  In particular, the Summit will address the fundamental role of the individual “plot” in urban development.

My keynote will stress the “first principles of urbanism” discussed many times here and in Urbanism Without Effort, and suggest basic implementation strategies. I very much look forward to the range of related subjects covered in panels convened by leading United Kingdom proponents of the plot-based approach.

See the following programme for more, and look for updates here and on Twitter, under the hashtag #PBUrb14.

#PBUrb14: Plot-Based Urbanism Summit Programme, Glasgow, October 27, 2014 by myurbanist

public space in motion, from Nice, France

On Saturday, September 13, the 2014 multi-day (and always provocative) Seattle Design Festival features a “Public Space in Motion” panel.

Here, almost live from France, is the panel’s opening presentation: