prequel website for pending book expands

See the new sustainingplace.com website for more on the themes and messages gleaned from Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character (Rowman and Littlefield 2020), by Chuck Wolfe with Tigran Haas. The book publication has been delayed by the COVID-19 crisis, and a schedule will be announced soon.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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

About Perceptions of Place

As a so-called expatriate, I’ve been enmeshed in the task of learning to relate to new surroundings.  I have two recent guideposts, Plamen and Pope.

On Saturday, Plamen, born in Bulgaria, came to paint a ceiling in our Flat in Twickenham.   “Where are you from,” he asked.  “The United States,” I replied.

We talked about place.  “Everywhere, there is home, work, and food,” he said.  We both smiled at the same time as he added, “each place, they mostly have the same things, but what changes is which one of these is better”.

On Sunday, I passed through another part of Twickenham, just a 20-minute walk away, where the great poet, Alexander Pope, used to live.

In a much-cited passages from his mid-18th century “Epistle to Burlington,”  Pope called for a more real-time, contextual use for beauty and art:”Consult the genius of the place in all; That tells the waters or to rise, or fall…”

Pope pre-dated Plamen by a few hundred years, so they never met to trade wisdom, or to fuse their perspectives. It remains for me to bridge the two, and that may take quite awhile.

But here’s an early summary.   Many of the issues surrounding today’s cities–and our perceptions of them–are unabashedly universal and timeless, no matter how they are labeled or described.

Reconciling the Sense-Based City

Experiencing London at Canary Wharf. Credit: Charles R. Wolfe

The city is an undeniably human creation, full of our emotions, impressions, and experiences. Yet the policy and regulatory processes that govern the city are often evidence-based. Unless a viewpoint or submittal is validated by experts, these processes may preclude the ability of an individual to have a meaningful impact on urban change. In official deliberations, as elected officials have often told me, the potential human experience is underemphasized in favor of tangible structures, cross-sections, and models.

Accordingly, how can we re-infuse process with all-important attention to the human experience? How to account for the irrational and unplanned, for the juxtapositions that infuse a city with energy, both positive and negative? In a practical sense, how can all this come together in a meaningful way to reform and reframe our process for civic decision-making?

As I have emphasized over the last year since the release of my book, Seeing the Better City, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of possibilities for documenting through our own “urban diaries” and related collaborative efforts, toolkits, smart-city “data-driven” approaches, and new approaches to long-term planning efforts.

Converting idealistic notions of better cities into concrete and discernible results is a significant challenge—essentially demanding a move from plan to action. The more subjective, creative, emotion-based approaches of human experience seldom convert easily to the language of land-use applications, plan review, public hearings, and appeal processes, other than by narrative testimony or photographic exhibits. The rational processes of democratic decision-making often reduce matters to text-laden decision criteria that emphasize code compliance, neighborhood compatibility, and environmental and traffic impacts. In fact, this necessary search for objectivity may purposefully deemphasize emotional response, urban traditions, or equitable outcomes.

The system, therefore, needs to be reinvented from within. This reorientation need not be as daunting as it may sound, especially if, in the end, we are discussing the documentary efforts of individuals as complements, or supplements, to the conventional regulatory process. If visual submittals become public comment, equivalent to written or oral testimony, or are used as submittals for discussion during formal or informal mediation, then they will come into their own as colorful, illustrative, and demonstrative adjuncts to existing forums for decision-making and dispute resolution. Urban observation will then be more than the purview of the dilettante, or fodder for elicited photography or app-based expressions.

Technology provides new tools of participation in our surroundings and a legion of sources and opinions about how best to experience the city. From casual smartphone camera use to participatory photography and mapping, mini-ethnographies, oral histories, and “now and then” nostalgia, ideas and approaches for sense-based documentation can be readily acquired online, at meet-ups, or organizational events. So many approaches, without cross-references, provide no central organization about how our personal urban experiences can meaningfully be put to work; useful precedent from other disciplines is often unacknowledged, and the end game is often unclear.

We may resolve to learn from such technology-based tools, but on the other hand we less often see cohesive organizational strategies for putting “notable/sensational” media and blog stories to work. Raising awareness is good, observation and contextual understanding is better, but the best outcomes will result when we move beyond observation for observation’s sake. We should incorporate more visual urban diary–like documentation of human need and routine into the evidence that forms the basis for civic decision-making.

In legislative hearings as well as quasi-judicial hearings, the use of photographs is already standard. In more-formal settings, rules govern the steps that must be taken to enter such photographs into a record. In law school evidence class, students learn the hearsay rule, which requires a courtroom witness to have firsthand knowledge of the truth of an assertion. Budding lawyers also master the rules for authenticating photographs for use by judges and juries, the principles of which usually apply to the less formal administrative process as well. At the core, the rules often address some elements of authenticity, such as the date and location of the photograph, and the identity of the photographer or source. If a photograph can be reasonably sourced and identified, and has relevance to the matter under discussion or review, then its use is usually not a problem.

We need to better wed the subjective, soft city—the personal, observed city—with the city of decision-makers and the projects presented by the marketplace. This combination presents a considerable challenge and requires that we merge “rationality with imagination, the prosaic with the dream world, the planned with the unexpected. . . .” (Mohsen Mostafavi, “Tale of Cities,” in In the Life of Cities, ed. Mostafavi (Zürich: Lars Müller, 2012), 15. Here, urban diaries can lead the way as exemplary, inspirational, three-dimensional portraits of the most authentic and suitable visions of improved daily lives for the constituents of elected officials—urban residents themselves. And, of course, better cities will emerge when decision-makers see that these portraits align with marketplace proposals.

In 2015, as part of the “Future Freo” visioning process in Fremantle, Australia, I watched Mayor Brad Pettitt present a Powerpoint narrative on potential future development strategies for his city after he’d made a Northern European study tour. Mayor Pettitt’s approach suggests that elected officials could compile—and perhaps present—urban diaries on a regular basis, consistent with the ideas linked above.

In recent years, the real estate market has also seen significant value in the walkable, compact city that is often the inevitable focus of urbanism photographs and associated urban diaries. The internet teems with development-oriented images of streetcars and bicycles, walkable environments and healthy, exercise-oriented urban living, with plenty of shared transportation alternatives.

But is this urbanism the inevitable result of choices made by municipal governments and the real estate marketplace?

In short, can photographic imagery—as both art and archive—indeed help change cities for the better? Such imagery, if presented in context, often provides motivation for policy-makers to undertake their own explorations of how to move from plan to action.

Adapted from Wolfe, C.R., Seeing the Better City, (Island Press, 2017). Image composed by the author in London. © 2009-2018 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.