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.

Urbanism Without Effort, one month in

CoverThank you all so much for your support during the first month of putting my new book, Urbanism Without Effort (9781610914420/$3.99), in the public eye.

Whether you’ve read the book yourself, shared it with others, come heard me speak, or simply sent me your thoughts, it means a lot to me to have your company on this adventure.

We’ve had a wonderful release so far. I’ve been thrilled to see the book regularly excerpted in places like Atlantic Cities and Crosscut, and profiled in interviews such as last week’s feature in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, with more to follow soon.I have also been honored to speak at events sponsored by ULI-Northwest, Futurewise and Great City, and to see the book rank as an Amazon top-ten best seller for urban planning (frequently listed as number one in the Kindle Store for urban planning e-books).

 I’m looking forward to sharing more updates with you in the months to come.  In the meantime, Seattle friends, please consider coming to hear me talk at Town Hall-Seattle on Wednesday, June 19 at 6:00 p.m., where I will share many visuals from the book and highlight key elements of interest.

 As a reminder, you, your friends, and your colleagues can download the book at AmazonBarnes & Noble,  iTunesKobo and other electronic vendors. If you’d like to review the book for a publication or website, you can request a review copy at press@islandpress.org.

 If you have any questions or ideas for how to use Urbanism Without Effort in your own work, please get in touch. You can always find the latest information regarding appearances, media and other updates at the book’s website, http://urbanismwithouteffort.com.

gift-wrapping the essence of urbanism

Today’s populist urbanism celebrates the rise of the city, whether documented by census or science. Along the way, some note nostalgia when the long-time “Mom and Pop” store closes and urban places lose their distinction to author Jonathan Raban’s “rootless” feeling of anywhere.

Another facet of urbanism comes from that indescribable human dance of history, people and place that occurs when we simply like what we see. It is exciting when something resonates, such as purposefully preserved fragments of what was–more than Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge–but places which take us back to a sustainable set of circumstances with a simple, irrational gestalt: to live there for a year rather than a day, or to take the places home.

What if there were five neighborhoods connected by a trail? Or better yet, as illustrated from the Cinque Terre in northwest Italy, five towns, all self-contained, but symbiotic, micro-economies also connected by footpath, rail and water? What if they all had the magical amenities of street, square and housing within, terraced agriculture and spiritual retreats in the near-hinterlands?

The Cinque Terre towns of today have, in reality, evolved as a designated world heritage site and a national park with mechanisms to preserve and protect the cultural landscape (including often-abandoned hillside vineyards), and the internationally noted “look and feel” of interconnected towns.

Such regional “artifacts” raise the real question–need such places be facade-based shells, largely touristic, dominated in the summer by strangers rejoicing not just in local wine and pesto, but, ironically, the lack of cars and the wonders of a small-scale, interurban trek?

More than this year’s myurbanist topics of placemaking from ruins, learning from hill towns and chasing utopia, can the “we like what we see elements” be the stuff of daily life rather than a vacation? Similar sentiments dominate comparative blog and article references in recent months by Mssrs. Benfield and Epstein, who evoked ongoing work by Mahron and Mouzon, as well.

At this time of year such sentiments are worth repeating.

Over and above summer jaunts–and shipping home wine and pesto to remember and share–we should all bring home the gift of urban ideas. This gift honors not only of the spirit of the holidays, but also the spirit of implementation.

This article appeared in Crosscut on December 24, in Sustainable Cities Collective on December 20, and was featured by Kaid Benfield in his NRDC Switchboard blog on December 21.

urbanism chasing utopia

Generally speaking, the description of any Utopia that involves many details is apt to be an unconvincing way to present a principle which can be applied effectively in practice with immense flexibility as to details…
(Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to Henry James, July 10, 1924, Papers, Regional Plan Association, Cornell University).

There is little doubt that a cadre of government, activists, academics and popular media are moving forward with fine-tuning today’s effort to reinvent cities in new contexts, with specific lists of attributes and goals. Among the inevitable focal points of any prescription: walkable, mixed-use communities with live-work proximity, green and sustainable features.

But the age-old dance of human and machine provides considerable fodder and fascination from history, including the risks of indiscriminate cliché versus social and market implementation realities.

The Vision, Chasing Utopia

In the 1920’s, planners in the New York region wrestled with how to re-plan cities and suburbs — “community planning”– amid the ascent of the automobile. Like today’s urbanists, they sought to educate decision-makers and ordinary citizens about compact development practices.

They had good ideas, inherited from Garden City thought, planned, compact industrial towns and utopian communities, which by and large have withstood the test of time

Like today, planning activities of a century ago sought improved residential quality, including a scheme which correlated scaled streets according to use, local stores, the community school, parks, playgrounds, open space, and social interaction among neighbors.

Some even thought about how to sell the message, and the intended audience for the neighborhood focal point. For instance, Shelby Harrison characterized the then-nascent neighborhood unit studies of his colleague Clarence Perry at the Russell Sage Foundation:

We need to reach large numbers of citizens who are not thinking very much in social or planning terms—among them builders, real estate developers, and local civic leaders. It won’t be so familiar to them, and the line of thought will have to be presented in some detail if the idea is to be made clear.
(Shelby Harrison to Thomas Adams, December 1926, Papers, Regional Planning Association, Cornell University.)

Voices from History

These principles were later criticized for oversimplicity, “architectural determinism”, and what we would today call a lack of concern for social equity. The community planning tradition attempted to incorporate the social cohesion observed in successful organic communities into new areas, assuming that such cohesion came with the provision of successful communities’ physical facilities. With the provision of churches, local stores, and other structures at the community level, the thought leaders of the time assumed all else would follow.

British sociologist Maurice Broady said it best in 1966. Architectural determinism was given credence in the neighborhood unit, he explained, not because it could be shown to be valid, but because it was hoped it would be so.

Broady elaborated on the British case, where the cohesion observed in low income areas was attempted in planned communities:

Of course people do meet each other and chat in pubs and corner shops. But not all pubs and corner shops engender… neighborliness. It is true that neighborliness is induced by environmental factors. Of these, however, the most relevant are social and economic rather than physical.
(Maurice Broady, “Social Theory in Architectural Design,”Robert Gutman, ed., People and Buildings, (New York: Basic Books, 1972), p. 174.

In 1952, the especially perceptive Catherine Bauer summarized how early planners often failed to understand the broader forces at play in the urban development process, or innocently overlooked the consequences of their actions:

What we failed to see was that the powerful tools employed for civic development and home production also predetermine social structure to such an extent that there is little room left for free personal choice or flexible adjustment. The big social decisions are all made in advance, inherent in the planning and building process. And if these decisions are not made responsibly and democratically, then they are made irresponsibly by the accidents of technology, the myths of property interest, or the blindness and prejudice of a reactionary minority.
Catherine Bauer, Social Questions in Housing and Town Planning (London: University of London Press, 1952), p. 25.

Implementation Today

Do we risk overselling smart growth concepts today, without taking heed of social and market realities? Absent large swaths of single-entity ownership, redevelopment of our current urban landscape is not easy—with limited raw land available for straightforward development without sophisticated mitigation solutions.

Today’s urban redevelopment is often beset immediately with particular expectations or requirements to help solve urban and regional problems such as affordable housing and transportation. As these are elements of cost, a developer must find a way to contribute to resolution of these issues with the allowances of the project pro forma. Allocation of funds towards provision of transportation and affordable housing infrastructure and/or mitigation must be balanced against design and constructability decisions (constrained site construction and demolition challenges, quality of building materials, lighting, etc.), allocations of uses, parking and open/street spaces and vegetation.

The bottom line? Today’s prescriptive goals for sustainable communities–not so different from those of the last century–require reality checks against the challenges of design, regulation and financing, and must be addressed at an integrated, practical level.

After all, as Olmsted said long ago, beware of selling implementation with Utopia.

the myurbanist reader: essays on provocative urbanism

What better way to commemorate one year of myurbanist than to compile ten chapters and play Gutenburg?

Using an online publishing program, and organizing around the theme of “provocative urbanism” from December 5, a paperback and an e-book were born.

For those who want to freely view the myurbanist reader or download a .pdf, see the scrolling, embedded entry below.

For those interested in a paperback rendition, view more information here.

The Myurbanist Reader