from village to city, we are what we throw away

We clothe our discarded items in different forms and colors, but our built environments always have small places and features devoted to what we throw away.

This observation is nothing profoundly new, or empirically established. But this fundamental element of daily life creates a legible catalog of best practices followed by residents, municipalities and private contractors.


Two photos here tell the story. I have many others from around the world, but these two—above, from Findhorn, Scotland, and below, from a Seattle alley—show variations of access, style and color.

Note, particularly, the Scottish example, punctuating the otherwise mundane with color that suggests, “this is not such a bad thing, after all”.  Note, also, how despite the vegetation of the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle receptacles still somehow control the scene.


My personal take-away is that, in the instances shown here, mandating more fencing or enclosures for garbage and recycling containers would detract from the spontaneous delight of placement and expression.

Others may disagree on aesthetic or environmental grounds.  However, any such naysayers risk denying the wonders of the photogenic in favor of an unduly imposed regularity, better saved for another day.

Images composed by the author in Findhorn, Scotland, 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.

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.)

the once and future street, and how it defines us

A week’s residency in Glasgow, Scotland returns a 2011 essay to the forefront, and its message: In the post-freeway world, recall the important, organic landscape of neighborhood, towers and spires, lost before we can remember.




Among the more memorable aspects of my professional residence in Glasgow, Scotland this week are the readily ascertainable contexts of different streets from different eras. Dramatic contrasts emerge in a walk west from the remains of the historic, medieval High Street, across the pedestrian shopping promenades of Buchanan and Sauchiehall Streets, to the channeled traffic and amplified sounds of the M8 motorway system that transformed Charing Cross.

It’s a walk worth taking, as shown above, for a ready reference to the ebb and flow of the urban land use and transportation relationship over time.

Most importantly, this walk from High Street to the M8 provided new relevance for some of my earlier essays. While written for general applicability, the one reproduced below (posted both here and in The Atlantic in September, 2011) seems particularly relevant.


Some of the best thoughts about tomorrow’s urbanism come from yesterday’s observations.

A case in point is a quick-read essay entitled “The Discovery of the Street,” by J.B. Jackson (1909-1996), one of the twentieth century’s most noted commentators on the American landscape.

Jackson tells us what is organic, wondrous and ethereal about life in cities, through a bittersweet history of public space, from medieval markets to the modern freeway.

No matter that the Jackson piece is “legacy” in form and only partially internet-accessible (preview here in Glazer and Lille, The Public Face of Architecture). Jackson’s classic writing spins a most relevant story, an ambiguous tale about the raison d’être of today’s urbanism: reclaiming the human and natural systems which underlie the city, as first principles of urban reemergence from within, rather than sprawl to afar.

According to Jackson, likely writing in the 1970’s, the symbol of the modern city is a collection of streets as seen from above, a mere “cartographic abstraction” of implied richness, because the bird’s-eye relationship between public byways and private space is how we now understand urban areas. In contrast, Jackson described the foundational and compact, vertical city of towers amid a landscape perceived by the medieval resident of long ago—who did not need to understand public streets and spaces—while living a straightforward human and animal-propelled life of short journeys to work, church, market and neighbors.

The medieval, vertical city, however imperfect, was represented by a idealized symbol of the divine (a religious construct), “miniature versions of a celestial prototype: a walled city divided by two intersecting streets into four quarters.”

Jackson’s essay came to mind in my recurring legal work over the past few years addressing responsibility for environmental cleanup and the nature of public and private ownership as related to highways, arterials, streets and alleys, and associated advocacy about who is fiscally responsible for assuring public safety adjacent to private places. I had consulted his work frequently long ago, in the context of my Master’s thesis and a later book chapter I wrote on neighborhood planning, summarized here.

His masterful narrative focuses on the 11th century, and how laws, which once regulated classes of people (e.g. feudal lords, citizens, traders and merchants), evolved to regulate places. From the dawn of the geographically delineated, regulated marketplace through the evolution of transportation technology, advances such as the harnessing of multiple horses and pivoted front wagon axle resulted in the surrounding city taking on a different shape. Jackson recounts how forms of public assembly further developed, and streets and squares changed to accommodate both commerce and necessary vehicular space. Land became a commodity as lots to be created, measured and and taxed, with buildings to be designed and regulated:

Almost at once the town authorities recognized the street as a versatile tool for exerting control. In one town after another ordinances regulated the height of buildings, the pitch of their roofs, even their design, which had to be suited to the social standing of the occupants. City building plans were detailed… In the additions to existing towns the dimensions of the lot were prescribed, and all houses were taxed on the basis of frontage. The fact that each house owned half the width of the street in front of it encouraged each business or each household to expand its activities on to the street and to use the space for its convenience. As a consequence the civic authorities legislated questions of health and safety….

People learned to perceive a new kind of public space where previously there had merely seen a succession of alleys and passageways, a crooked interval between houses. Now they discovered a continuous space with a quality—and eventually a name—of its own…

The main point for invoking Jackson today, is that in order to achieve a successful city—a place of congregation in the social science, rather than religious sense—we must understand the backstory of organic human association. We must further honor Jackson’s inquiry as to why stones and huts—density based on human association and interdependence—evolved into public and private spaces with the associated loss of a human scale.

As his essay concludes:

It was in this tentative and almost unconscious manner that the street in our European-American model began a career that became increasingly spectacular and then culminated in the freeway. Imperceptively and over many generations our vision of the city shifted from the cluster of towers and spires to the perspectives of avenues and streets and uniform-sized lots. The celestial model, never easy to discern in the dark medieval spaces among stone walls and crowded huts, has been at last forgotten; the map, the diagram, the coordinates are what help us to make sense of the city [emphasis added].

In my view, Jackson’s subtle synopsis ends with an ironic, yet nostalgic judgment of a milquetoast, mapped reality, He implies missed opportunities to create more ideal, scaled spaces which look across and upward rather than down from above.

Jackson might have spoken more directly, but, in my opinion, he invoked a laudable, now familiar challenge to the post-freeway world—to recall the importance of the organic landscape of neighborhood, towers and spires lost before we can remember.

Images composed by the author in Glasgow. Prior photos also composed by the author in Seattle and in Fayence and Annecy, France. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

why the ‘finesse of the avenue’ is what cities need

Fourth in an illustrated series about place-decoding from the South of France.


The Finesse of the Avenue

Last month in Cassis, the Avenue Victor Hugo told the stories surrounding its pavement and curbs.  People walked the Avenue, between a small square-with-fountain and the quay, while the trees, awnings and overhangs together cast the shadows that passers-by always need. The shiny, at-angle paving stones reflected the light in ways seldom seen on a street.  And ambient noise seemed pleasant and appropriate, muffled perhaps by the envelope of finesse just described.

My experience in Cassis was a major reminder, about how several factors can combine to create a “finesse of the avenue”; a noteworthy confluence of people—both natives and tourists— of physical aspects of the urban environment, and of the human senses of sight and sound.

In short, natural, built and human factors merged in a perfect storm of light, trees, stones and scale.

But, of course,  it was not a storm at all.  It was an exemplary venue to practice the “place decoding” called for in my three earlier series entries.

The Human Impact of a Simple Fix

While Cassis is known as a fishing village turned touristic haven (and a departure point for dramatic rock faces above the Mediterranean and remarkable inlets along coast, a short distance from Marseille), this essay is hardly a travelogue.

Rather, it focuses on the human impact of one of the simplest and most common municipal interventions: Closure of a street to automobiles on Market Day, or during times of heavy use of a place (in this case, to board tour boats or visit the beach on a September Saturday).  As a result, inherent and longstanding qualities of the place re-emerge for the people.

The two sets of photos below show Cassis with full automobile access, off-season (via Google Street View), and on that September late morning, when I photographed street use at a more human scale.  Comparing the two, it is not difficult to distinguish the ho-hum on the left from the right hand’s  finesse of the avenue.

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The placemaking movement has already marshaled the festival imagery  implied here. We know that medieval townscapes and small streets are not a precursor to experiments that allow the value of public spaces and mix and re-enable non-motorized transportation modes. Transformations such as New York City’s Times Square pedestrian plaza are increasingly well-known, on their way to best practice status for our cities and towns.

The Role of Magic and Finesse in Urban Definition

In a place like Cassis, however, it’s more than cutting off the cars.

Some places have magic elements that combine in unique, empowering ways that inordinately impact the urban experience.  I have written about those special locales in Urbanism Without Effort and inferred associated people-based criteria of comfort and scale.  Just as those criteria became clear for me in London’s Neal’s Yard, and parts of Portland, Oregon’s small, cohesive downtown blocks, they reemerged with vigor in the Cassis experience.

The additional ten images below show the essentials of everyday life, carried out in public, with comfort and apparent ease. While some are walking, others are selling, shopping, reading, attending to pets, or each other. These essentials stand out amid the merger of private and public, and the temporary compromise of the automobile. The “envelope of finesse” of light, trees, shade and reflection described above, worked a magic aura, in my opinion, without over-designed intervention.

Communicating this “finesse of the avenue” is as valuable as the scholars and thought leaders’ views about successful urban attributes. Places with the look and feel of Avenue Victor Hugo, if interpreted in context, illustrate successful attributes of urban public spaces, and help define the infrastructure and services that cities should equitably provide. It’s a gut-level, observational process, which every one of us has the means to carry out, to better understand the underlying make-up of successful city life.











Images composed by the author in Cassis, Provence, France, with the exception of the indicated Google Street View comparison photographs. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist.  All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

Coming next: Lessons in Housing from the Domaine of the Caravan.

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

‘inevitably urban’ and the role of the people


Inevitable Urban Times

These times seem so inevitably urban.  Of course, my wry remark comes from a city-dweller in a post-recessionary Seattle, where new construction appears at every turn.

Here, civic dialogue focuses on the social repercussions of growth, such as affordability of urban housing (“build more“, said yesterday’s Seattle Times), the proper range of housing types, and how residents will travel from here to there.

These are also times to think again about how to “create scalable solutions for city leaders to share with their constituencies across the world”, according to The Atlantic’s CityLab 2014 event underway now in Los Angeles.


Attention to human opportunities in the city is now commonplace, with recurring urbanism, placemaking and urban innovation events like CityLab 2014, The Placemaking Leadership Council and The Future of Places all occurring within the last month. Proffered solutions abound, aided by technology, applications and provocative presentations, both live and online.

Oratory and Shakespeare Define the City

But it’s worth remembering that inquiry about the how to fulfill human opportunities is longstanding. There is undeniable precedent in storied oratory, arguably the internet of ancient times.

The Greek poet, Alcaeus of Mytilene (680-511 BC) (as reported by Roman-era sophist Aelius Aristides in later oratory) established human opportunities as central to his definition of the city:

Not houses finely roofed or the stones of walls well builded, nay nor canals and dockyards make the city, but men [sic] able to use their opportunity [emphasis added].

Sound familiar?

The human part of the built environment has echoed in other, much-quoted prose. Beyond the Greek sophists and orators (themselves criticized for educating only those who could afford the price), Shakespeare’s better known quotation, from Coriolanus, Act 3, Scene 1, also set the tone:

“What is the city but the people?”

What I Learned About Cities

In my case, personal background complements history.

In one of his last presentations, at a major “21st Century City” conference he helped organize in 1988 in Phoenix, my father (late Urban Planning Professor Myer R. Wolfe) quoted Alcaeus in his holistic conference keynote remarks.

How, he asked, can interdisciplinary forces be marshaled to make an accessible urban form (citing Alcaeus’ human “opportunities”) for the 21st century? “The question has to be asked—opportunities for what?”, he noted, pointing to, inter alia, limitations on quality of life inherent in long commutes and related life choices,  issues of density v. intensity, as well as urban character across both urban and suburban patterns. (See The City of the 21st Century, M. Pihlak, Ed., Arizona State University, 1988).

In reviewing those remarks just yesterday, his references both to Greek oratory and his predictive questions about this century sent me searching for universal, human imagery. Because it’s the people who define the city, we should look at them, closely.

It’s the People, Stupid

I have compiled 25 photographs for this essay—taken in multiple locations since 2009, including cities on four continents.  The photographs are presented in black and white, to better show the contrast between the human and built environment, yet also emphasize the undeniably symmetry between.


My intentions are simple:

First, I want to straightforwardly illustrate fundamental traits of city dwellers across cultures, distance and time. Such traits include talking, eating, singing, watching, shopping, walking, sitting, learning, growing and aging, seeking shelter from climate, and blending with technologies of communication, travel and illumination.

Second, beyond the other ample media available to assess city life and prospects, I want to challenge the reader to think about how best to maximize the opportunities for those pictured, and those around us, and to realistically assess what we see.

As explained here, this story of “urban inevitability” has traveled through sophism—a once-revered (albeit privileged) form of teaching, across the ages. But the very point of such sophism—defining the city on human terms—should not morph to “sophistry”, a more modern term reflective of deceit and specious debate.

Finally, Just Look at the People and Learn

Here’s hoping that the interspersed photographs above and below will illustrate what Alcaeus meant long ago, as revisited in 1988 by my father and in new forms, through the gatherings and events today.

I would venture that to be “able to use the opportunity” of the city is a perpetual challenge best observed in the conduct of the users themselves.















More Carmelite Market--on Shabat









Images composed by the author in Antibes, Arles, Frejus, Grasse and Nice, France; Tel Aviv, Israel; London, UK; Aveiro, Lisbon and Porto, Portugal; Arusha, Tanzania, and Seattle, USA. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 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.