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.
[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 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.
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 City, captures 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.
Today, The Huffington Post includes my essay on city gates and gateways of past and present, with a political twist. Read the full narrative here. A snapshot follows.
Now that Mayor Ed Murray has shifted Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) priorities away from changes to single-family zones and back toward Seattle’s traditional focus on density and urban village or urban centers, it strikes me, based on 30 years of experience, that the real work has barely begun.
Writing now from a world of detached simplicity, while on vacation—far away from my hometown’s bombastic debate—I am benefiting from the gestalt of reflection. Suddenly, I remember simpler, yet similar times 25 years ago, and have some cautionary tales to tell about human nature amid the specter of change.
Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.