why urban history matters

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. © 2009-2014 myurbanistAll 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.

how attention to overlays enhances our understanding of cities

Second in the new series, in the urban world, juxtapositions matter


On New Year’s Day, I suggested that juxtapositions, or overlays, are key to an understanding of cities, and offer focal points for discussion and resolution. The first example was of a physical juxtaposition that evoked the classic contrasts of old and new, nature and the built environment and natural and artificial light.

Today’s example bridges other urban qualities.

The photograph above is an intentional contrast of a static place and movements of both bus and musician. It also shows the common incursion of simple commerce in a public place—a subject of evolving regulatory focus in American cities—and an overlap that we should approach with a catalog of such imagery in mind.

Finally, the photograph suggests once again that the core of urban understanding is often in the small vignettes we all experience everyday—which, as I have often written, supply the basis for our own perspectives about city life.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanistAll Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

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

finding urban ‘tethers’ in city places

Tether3 ChuckWolfe

In London’s Russell Square one recent morning, I saw the human-scale “tether” illustrated above. Whether for safety or togetherness, parent and child traversed the square, each with strap in hand.

“Is this a cultural thing?”, I wondered while watching. Or was this just big-city caution on display, during travel from here to there?

In contrast, just days before, in Bastia, on the French island of Corsica, a more removed and indirect “tether” was clearly at play. In the wide-open Place Saint-Nicolas, two boys, seemingly alone, consulted without fear.

Unlike the Russell Square example,  the physical distance between parent and child in Bastia seemed surprisingly trusting, fully immersed in the surrounding urban environment.


In the tradition of the open square, “eyes on the street” were everywhere in Bastia. If Russell Square was a path across green, then Place Saint-Nicolas was stage without curtain.

The inset in the photo above (as well as the larger photo below) show aerial views of the square, with arrows depicting viewpoints of parents who elected the more permissive, visual “tether” on that late summer day.

Notably. the flanking cafés along Boulevard du Général de Gaulle enhanced this captive, stage effect.  The outcome honored any urbanist’s nostalgic quest for a livable public place. In the Place Saint-Nicolas, the  view from its many vantage points stood in for the physical “tether” in the London example.


These photos and Google Earth aerials illustrate how culture, weather, purpose and urban form combine to define particular  “tethers” between parent and child in the city.  Sometimes literal and sometimes more subtle, such relationships are key to the rhythm of urban places today.

Images composed by the author in London and in Bastia (Corsica), France. Overhead views courtesy of Google Earth. Click on each image for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanistAll 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.

what can we learn from five principles of people and place?

In my own writing, I enjoy finding layered, historical illustrations of how people relate to the built and sociocultural communities around them. I have explained before how this exercise is not merely academic, but is also useful as a supplement to today’s urbanist dialogue and sustainable placemaking efforts.

Recently, I have devoted considerable time to associated research and photography in support of my pending book, Urbanism Without Effort.  The book will be short and to the point, so unused sections remain, including the following freestanding principles and companion lessons, drawn from several snapshots of people and place.  I offer them below, for further use and inquiry, as well as inspiration and adaptation.

Principle 1: When Placemaking, Account for Authentic, Visible Evolution (Lisbon and Porto, Portugal)

The story of Portugal is not always well-known, and it is a mistake to cast the Iberian peninsula as a lump sum proposition. Placemakers everywhere would benefit from a look beyond across-the border gems such as Barcelona to the complex and unique history that hides behind Portuguese cities.

These places project an organic, under the skin reality that can only be experienced by a visit and exploration.  This is nowhere more so than in Lisbon, which I believe offers an instinctual urbanism that avoids much analysis, circumventing the brain for a direct hit on the soul.



Lisbon’s  history and topography create an urbanity without pretense that seems best learned onsite and on foot.  Porto is similar, with ample windows into how people of character blend with a venerable urban core.

In summary, these cities with their authentic voices  provide the best of organic examples.  Their context explains how color  and sound frame large and small spaces alike, and concentrations of mixed uses offer a model for the compact central city that many have in mind today.

Lesson: The evolved look and feel of an urban place is not an overnight proposition.

Principle 2: Look for the Physical and Cultural Shells that Define Us (Malta)

Other places are more tangible, and  display the shell of the city, and visible pieces of the urban puzzle–the underlying parts that make up the whole.  The baselines of buildings, roads, names and language all provide context for new initiatives that address repair, replacement and evolution of infrastructure and infill development.  In fact, I wrote last February how we can find inspiration from physical artifacts of place to help retrofit for the future .  But in this instance, I refer to understanding not only old buildings or physical “ruins”, but other sociopolitical precedent that makes a place unique.



An unrivaled  example is the island country of Malta, located about 50 miles south of Sicily, at the marine crossroads of Europe and Africa.  The historic Maltese cities, such as Mdina  and Valletta, present reality quite unlike any other.  Inhabitants speak a language mostly derived from Arabic left by long-departed medieval rulers.  They  live among a built environment still reflective of the 3oo year rule of the Knights of the Order of St. John and a mid-16th century siege against the Turks that was once among the more prominent events in European history..

This is not an obscure antiquarian story, but illustrates a highly contextual place, a small country where the cycles of human history are readily experienced  in little more than one day.  All around are reminders of  a shell framed by the only semitic language written in latin script, and physical and cultural remnants of vanished nobility.  While local examples will be more subtle and likely less dramatic, we should remember and champion places with dramatic, definitional shells as inspiration for understanding the present city and its redevelopment potential.

Lesson: The defining physical and sociocultural origins of today’s cities continue to influence their redevelopment

Principle 3: We Can See it All in the Company Town, Evolved (Broken Hill, Australia)

The company town is often cited as another one-stop venue for urban planning precedent. While sometimes lumped with utopian efforts, this paternalistic, industry-developed community is also often referenced for a summary representation of the common elements of any urban place. These elements include housing, work, recreation,  environmental concerns and public safety.



Today, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia provides a snapshot of a major company town,  in evolution from its former dependence on the country’s largest mining concern, BHP. The structure and function of the industry-based daily life is still clear in the layout of the town and the brown slag outcropping that still dramatically dominates the landscape. A thriving artist’s community, contemporary restaurants, retail businesses and social service agencies are also apparent.

In sum, what once was necessary to daily life now merges with the functions of the touristic, the artistic and a gateway to the Outback.  We should look to such places as bellwethers of cities in transition.

Lesson: Urban places convened around a the need for human capital are not new, and remain laboratories for documenting change.

Principle 4: We Can Learn from Simple, Small-Scale Stories of Adaptation (White Cliffs, Australia)

Amid demonstrable instances of climate change worldwide, examples of adaptation to harsh weather show examples of human adaptability. Not far from Broken Hill, residents of the Australian Outback have implemented alternative forms of shelter (known as dugouts, descendant of opal mining days) to offset extreme heat. Conveniently, in White Cliffs,  the Underground Motel shows the potential of local practice in the form of a novelty tourist attraction.



Surveying the landscape of White Cliffs and exploring the underground lodging halls may for now satisfy vacation curiosities, but  there is a larger message inherent in a visit to such outlier venues. When we see examples of alternative forms of settlement, we also witness the ongoing potential–and likely increasing need–for adaptation in urban environments everywhere.

Lesson: Humans are capable of dynamic change and innovative adaptation–good news for tasks ahead..

Principle 5: Some Universal Urban Icons Reflect Human Nature as Much as Place

Finally, given the rich, authentic relationships between people and described above, should we be disappointed by the increasingly standardized symbols of urban evolution around the world?   For instance, the ferris wheel has reentered the international urban imagination, and is seemingly omnipresent in cities competing on the world stage. The Seattle Great Wheel, built as a private business venture, but adopted as a symbol of the city’s emerging waterfront, here contrasts with an under construction version in Melbourne.



Why are these “observation wheels” reaching landmark status in some places when other, more vernacular gestures might better fit the context of a place?

My answer is not to cynically decry these wheels, but to consider them as the same exciting, moving observation points first explained  by seventeenth century observers.   Understanding their ongoing success–premised on fun and excitement–is consistent with my opening call for more studied reflection about relationships of people and the communities around them.

Lesson: Some urban icons show an important universal attribute of people experiencing place–the need for outright enjoyment in the process.

In summary,the five principles and lessons presented here are starting points for discussion, debate and potential conversion.  I believe ongoing vetting of such principles and underlying examples– if discerned and discussed with care–is a remarkable toolbox, adaptable in context across space and time.

Images of Lisbon and Porto, Portugal; Broken Hill, White Cliffs and Melbourne, Australia; Red Tower and Medina, Malta; Seattle, Washington composed by the author. Click on each image for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

scaling the urban future by blending the urban past

How will the city of tomorrow reflect adaptive reuse of the city of today?

I don’t think we ask that question broadly enough, and our day-to-day, property-specific incrementalism can easily overshoot the greatest lessons from history for today’s city politics, regulation and economic constraints.

A hometown case in point, last month, transported me from Seattle to Croatia (virtually) for inspiration about why we should think beyond limited geographies, time frames and lifetimes when we discuss urban redevelopment options.

Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab made urbanist media headlines (including Emily Badger’s January 25 Atlantic Cities story) with a report stating the environmental benefits of green retrofits of historic buildings, as compared to new, state-of-the-art, energy-efficient construction.  In addition, a local church restored as townhouses joined the list of intriguing Seattle adaptive reuse projects typical of national trends.

But almost simultaneously, Seattle Times columnist, Nicole Brodeur, described a protest-free goodbye in my Seattle neighborhood (the same neighborhood of the ice cream laundromat and alley movie night, previously profiled) to a neighborhood icon.  A 112-year old, iconic repair garage and offices (demolished in early February) will soon become the nostalgically named “Pike Station”, comprised of new, live-work townhouses, complete with a courtyard and intermixed retail.

The purported upshot of the local story—that the building’s had a good life and the new use is commendable—is clear in Brodeur’s headline: “Sometimes it’s OK to let an old landmark go”.

How did our predecessors handle these issues in simpler times, when reuse was a practical necessity?  What can we learn from those stories?

As our surroundings evolve, can we create incentives and inspiration for transformational places that are sustainable in form, function and attention to the past?  I have touched on these questions before, when highlighting hill towns as placemaking icons and profiling Italy’s re-emerging Matera, the UNESCO World Heritage site also termed “the sustainable city of stone” (in The Atlantic last year).

When considering these questions about a transition from old to new, focused  more on a city than buildings, for me there is one place  that deserves a very hard look: Split, Croatia (another UNESCO World Heritage site).  Amid the old town center within and next to the ruins of the retirement palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, adaptive reuse is defined at first sight on an urban scale—a place which began as something different from it is today, yet lives on in the new clothing of another age—as more juxtaposition than reinvention.

I was lucky enough to first visit Split in 1968, in the old Yugoslavia, and to return many times in the years that followed. It’s not a stretch to say that its impressionable story explains my legal work in urban redevelopment. There, the survival and reuse of historic elements tells a valuable tale of sustainability, with lessons learned about human capacity to reuse and adapt the built environment.

Shortly after 300 A.D., on the site of Split’s town center, workers completed Diocletian’s Palace.  Diocletian was the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily abdicate, and retire in the modern sense; he viewed the palace as a purposeful respite from power in his home region, possibly for medical reasons.  

After Diocletian’s death, the palace was first a refuge for exiled imperial family members.  Then, through serendipity, after destruction of the nearby Roman city of Salona by the Avars and Slavs at the beginning of the seventh century, the palace became a shelter for fleeing citizens, later a medieval town, a Renaissance regional center, and eventually a major city—surprisingly, with core elements of the palace still prominent today.

Thomas Swick’s essay, Croatian Pop (South Florida Sun Sentinel, 2000, and later reprinted in The Best American Travel Writing, 2001) captures the spirit of Split best, with a poetic vent which rivals the best descriptions of active public places:

I slid through more right-angled alleys that deposited me into an hallucination: a sunken square hemmed in by antiquities. The delicate remains of a colonnade filigreed one side, and the skeletal façade of a temple, now buttressed by brick… Spotlights dramatized the age-blackened columns, giving the scene a crumbling magnificence, while the cafe tables spread across the peristyle provided a jarring contemporary note. So that welded onto the indoor/outdoor motif — niches and statuary under the stars — was the even more compelling one of ancient and modern: teenagers flirting on ruinous walls; couples drinking in the shadow of the gods. It was like stumbling upon a cocktail party in the Roman Forum.

How was this scene created?

In essence, the palace, which spanned almost 10 acres, contained enough elements of classical urbanity—including the gridded crossroads of a military camp (the ancient castrum and its standard roads, the decumanus and cardo), as well as several ceremonial spaces and religious structures—that when repopulated after the destruction of Salona, it became easily adaptable to what we now consider urban uses.

This unintentional convertibility shows an interesting evolution over time;  A mausoleum became a cathedral, the cardo became the winding medieval street that remains today,  the crossing of the decumanus and cardo at the peristyle (a classical courtyard below the Emperor’s apartments) became a baptistry, public square and historic urban center, and the Emperor’s apartments became the structural framework of a residential area.

Due to the interesting progression of the palace to city, Split has drawn visitors for hundreds of years. The Scottish architect Robert Adam profiled its unrivaled preservation of Roman architecture in 1764, through collected drawings, viewable here, often acknowledged as inspiration for the Georgian architectural tradition of parts of London, Bath and Bristol.

In the last century, many excavations and publications by local and American teams have admirably documented the palace’s history and transformation (including the often cited work of Jerko and Tomas Marasovic’, whom I had the honor of meeting as a teenager).  In a 1970 book, the Marasovic’ brothers advocated a universal message in the context of continuing investigation, discovery and restoration to “ensuring…renewed function within the context of a modern urban community”.

While Split guidebook references contain cursory summaries of the palace’s story, the confluence of past and present discussed here, is not often mentioned in the American dialogue, nor is it consistently cited as prospective learning for cities around the world.  This a missed opportunity.

I believe that visiting Diocletian’s Palace and reflecting on how the old can blend with the new provides incomparable perspective. This can add value to today’s discussion of familiar building restoration approaches, or even already innovative, largely replacement-style redevelopment of areas like a former military base, an airport (e.g. the former Stapleton Airport in Denver), or an institutional campus.  The scale of adaptation in Split confirms how humans can be at home and enriched by large-scale incorporation of the past.

A National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations summary of Split hints at the potential lessons:

There was little in the way of organized tourism around the ruins—–there was an outdoor café in the middle of them. However, I found this integration of the historic and the contemporary to be quite pleasing.

Split is one of those places best experienced firsthand, to fully realize the true experience of place—and witness how people live, work and entertain while integrating the history around them.  Short of an actual visit,  several of Peter Watts’ 360 degree photographs at the Panoramic Earth website approximate the experience,  here, one of which is embedded below.  Family life exists amid shops, restaurants and bars, with more recent wayfinding signs summarizing venues at the head of narrow streets.

Swick aptly continues:

But what really distinguishes the complex today is not its size or its symmetries but its fantastic utilitarianism. It is not just that people now gather where Praetorian Guards once strolled, but that they live here. In what must stand as one of the world’s, if not first, at least most spectacular instances of adaptive reuse, the citizens of Split blithely built their dwellings within the palace. They grafted their humble residences onto the walls and filled in the arcades with bedroom windows. Just as weeds sprout among ruins in other lands, here it’s houses. (It is almost as if, after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese had erected apartment blocks in the Forbidden City.)  …I would stroll the grounds shaking my head in wonderment at the curtained front doors next to erstwhile temples, the soccer balls sailing past toppled pillars. I could not walk along the waterfront promenade without staring up in amazement at the stately columns embedded in the condo façade, and occasionally bookending sagging lines of wash.

In other cities, some historic urban cores survive, and there are many examples—from Istanbul to Venice to Jerusalem—even Dubrovnik to Split’s south.  Old towns, often within formerly defensive walls, become functional, large-scale artifacts, some evolved urban areas and some tourist meccas.  In contrast to Split, they were always, first and foremost, cities or towns.

Moving forward, we should design and regulate in a way that the inadvertence described here becomes more purposeful, enabling sustainable reuse on a broader scale.  Examples include zoning and building code provisions that anticipate land assembly and not property-by property approaches, that allow for convertible uses in buildings, that provide for a robust mixture of old and new materials, and the outright recognition that both public and private spaces can realize new uses over time, with only minor reconfiguration.  Lenders, often the true drivers of development, should understand the benefits of such reactivated places.

Indeed, some states and cities have policies encouraging the concept of adaptive reuse.  For instance, Los Angeles has a 12-year-old adaptive reuse ordinance, which encourages live-work revitalization in certain areas of the city.  It is under study for improvement and expansion.

While these examples show that not all buildings are alike, and best practices can make a better place, none tell the more holistic, inspirational story of how human settlements, as a whole, adapt to a changing environment.

Throughout history, cities have fulfilled central cultural, economic and religious roles as a both centers of settlement and qualitative measures of human habitat.  To reinvent them (or juxtapose the best of the past), we need to know where we have been and where we are going, at more than a building scale.

Image credits: Comparative aerial photos from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license; Pike Station garage, narrow Split street and Professor Myer R. Wolfe sketch via the author; panorama embed via Peter Watts/panoramicearth.com. Click on each image for more detail.

A similar version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities and was recently republished on Crosscut.