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.
Click here for the rest of today’s essay in Seattle’s Crosscut.
Questions and answers about accessing cities and neighborhoods once spoke the language of exit ramps, street widening and parking adequacy. Now, different conversations, and varied imagery, create diverse story lines, where urban policy and citizen activism converge. Photographs are one tool to illustrate the diverse meanings and examples of “access” to urban settings today.
Access now means many things—depending on context—including transportation modes; sustainability and the shared economy; public safety and particular approaches to community participation; and aspects of social equity.
The following photographs address a small cross-section of access examples. I have chosen to focus on my home city—Seattle—rather than a showcase of national and international illustrations. Even with only four photographs, a single-city focus shows a sampling of access challenges and solutions within one geographic area.
The Streetcar Mode Makes Neighborhood
The Lake Union Streetcar has evolved from a low-use ambassador for redevelopment of South Lake Union into a bonafide transportation mode between downtown Seattle and a mixed-use neighborhood. The Streetcar provides color, flair, and distinct contrast with new construction and adaptive reuse of pre-existing buildings. These characteristics offer a photographic symbol of transportation access and the virtues of mixed use in a rapidly changing city.
Shareable Movie Night in Madrona: Urbanism Without Effort
A sustainable city need not depend on governmental programming—or private, shared economy vendors—to rediscover the benefits of a neighborhood accessible to all. In a residential alley in Madrona every summer—premised only on a group email between neighbors, and innovative use of a driveway cut and a retaining wall—people gather for potluck food and a double-feature movie night. In an era of bucket-list, prescribed solutions, we often forget the strength of spontaneous community expression.
Public Safety Through Proximity on Pine Street
Redeveloping storefronts along Pine Street amplify the walk, and access, from Capitol Hill to Seattle’s downtown core. Here, a literal version of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” blends the public and private domains and enhances the pedestrian and restaurant experiences. This photograph shows how sidewalk activation becomes both “way” and “way-station”.
Design for Equity Near MOHAI
Finally, in a new City park next to Seattle’s recently relocated Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), a well-used water feature, accessible to all, drives community. The linear water route provides a “here and there” for participants. Meanwhile, unpredictable water-jet timing provides a spontaneous adventure along the path.
One inspiration for my new book, Urbanism Without Effort, came in 2010, from an unexpected find in a Seattle used bookstore. This discovery led to interviews and exposure to incomparable photographs, some over a century old.
Given the passage of almost two years, and the considerable number of new readers interested in cities and urban history, the story is well worth a rerun, as slightly updated below.
Here, for new readers and old, is the stirring work of Burton Holmes, a continued and motivating force in my work, and by inference, a catalyst for us all.
the old is new again
“100 years from now I wonder if those in the future who view these images will appreciate the value of … pictures as a means of recording life as is lived in this century… photography is in the truest sense biography –is it not the writing of life in a truly universal language?”
-Burton Holmes, Seoul, Korea, 1899
The Great Recession, climate change and the quest for carbon neutrality have reoriented how we look at cities, the distance between home and work, and the role of the automobile.
A simultaneous, street-based nostalgia targets simpler times, a more human scale and an elusive world of accessible neighborhoods often lost in the memories of earlier generations.
Consider imagery which restores such lost urban memories for those who did not witness modern urban history, and recreates what political writer Alexander Cockburn has termed “the lost valleys of the imagination”.
Such “lost valleys” often grace nearby bookstores and online forays, but quality varies, and frustrates our romantic search to turn back time.
Of all available resources, amid blogs and information byways, no visual record is more compelling than the archived work of seldom remembered, but innovative documentary pioneers, who left breathtaking records of camera artistry: pictures revealing moments when people hardly understood the camera as it recorded the profound change which surrounded them.
One such pioneer, Burton Holmes, preserved imagery in unparalleled human scale, first with black and white, glass negatives, often hand-colored with fine, single hair ermine brushes and through parallel use of motion pictures from the time of their invention.
He showed all that a city can be—while also depicting the changing form and appearance of infrastructure, public spaces and the impact of this change on urban residents.
Holmes was not an intentional urban historian. He became a famous stage presenter, who, from the late nineteenth century until the 1950’s, inherited a showman’s tradition from earlier travel lecturers and became synonymous with the new word, “travelogue,” which he favored to stimulate vicarious interest in his art. He brought the first motion picture cameras to the Far East, recorded Tolstoy and the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and otherwise roamed the world–often to places of danger where a camera had never been– and brought home both organic, natural portraits of life abroad and entertaining still and cinematic visions to halls across America.
However, over and above Holmes’ published travelogue narratives, a particularly intentional urban documentary purpose flows from his photos, as depicted above and below. Photo-archivist and biographer Caldwell has shared hints of this perhaps subconscious resolve in quotations she has compiled in the over 30 years she has devoted to her research. An example of one reference she has found that holistically describes urban ambiance addresses Berlin in 1907.
Holmes noted Berlin as a city of contrasts, where the traveler feels the unseen presence of something fine and beautiful, and it is cleanliness, he said, that pleads most eloquently for Berlin. There, he described how the art of municipal housekeeping is practiced in perfection: “Berlin is the best-kept great city in the world–there are no backyards in Berlin, [and] balconies filled with flowers ornament the buildings, [while] outdoor cafes give impressions of cheerful sociability, and the traveler is confirmed in his impression that Berlin is a city beautiful.”
Holmes’ cameras captured far more than the order he saw in Berlin; he chronicled the impact of new forms of transportation as they were introduced to classical environments, and the resulting evolution of streets and ways of life.
BeIow is a sampling of the collection maintained by Burton Holmes Historical Collection (BHHC), reprinted with special permission and under copyright of BHHC. Caldwell has archived 1700 of an assemblage which once numbered 30,000 photos, the rest lost to the poor condition of time. A range of movie footage, from 200 film cans rediscovered in 2003, now resides at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.
a mode we have lost?
A captivating horse and buggy amid Sydney’s clouds shows a morning routine now lost in Western culture today. Holmes was fascinated by the expanse of the Australian continent and the impact of colonization on native people and place.
a mode to regain
A grand Austrian urban stroll provides a model for emulation. Holmes regaled in the “superb edifice” of Vienna’s Grand Opera House, while his camera prioritized the pedestrian view.
street scenes and carriage jams
Traffic congestion took different forms, often without protection from the elements. Holmes’ photographs were rich with street scenes in world cities. Consider the different social nature of traffic interactions without doors or windows and the different sounds that graced the street.
the ascent of the car
Early in the last century, Holmes toured Denmark by car. Here, a rare car-sighting south of Copenhagen in 1902 yields to a predominant auto culture on Seattle’s Marion Street by 1934.
Note the human interaction in a public place as captured by Holmes in Italy and France, countries he repeatedly visited in times of war and peace. Today’s increasing attention to sidewalk cafes and public gathering spaces attempts to achieve the ambiance of the photographs below.
change in the holy land
Jaffa Gate, in the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, shows the evolution from animal to motorized transport at the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. The Jerusalem chronicled by Holmes is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s narrative in Innocents Abroad.
a town with a purpose
The gold rush town of Dawson City, Yukon Territory was assembled in weeks with all the vitality of an urban place. Holmes’ many photographs there documented a new town built on speculation with a surprising sense of permanence, amenity, and not least of all, sidewalks.
the romance of the bicycle past
In Rome and Naples, Holmes captured the function and charm of the bicycle mingling with urban forms.
Holmes’ work offers a central place to rediscover the look and feel of Cockburn’s “lost valleys of the imagination” and provides models to facilitate the regeneration of a classic model of urban life–a full experience shaped not just by where one could drive in a car, but by where one could walk or ride by animal–or access by public transportation. His photographs provide gloss on features to include in new development and the planning of today’s complete streets.
The implications from the photographs are more than academic, as inferred principles of practice for regulation and design emerge. The architect can derive the relation of building and street. The traffic engineer can see inspiration for lanes, surfacing and signage. The lawyer and planner can react to setbacks, and ways to encourage pedestrian spaces while assuring light, air, acceptable noise levels and governance of private use of public spaces.
Perhaps most of all, the child in all of us is transported by time-travel to a fantasy world better than the Wizard of Oz, because the world in the photographs was real and foundational. In the end, the “film as biography” foretold by Holmes in 1899 draws us in, and challenges us to reclaim and relive the best of the city. It is a biography we should read as precedent, both for inspiration and for lessons learned from the consequences of change.
Republished in Grist, on June 29, 2011, in edited form, here, and in Crosscut on September 18, 2010, here. Thanks also to Kaid Benfield for republication in his “Village Green” column in The Huffington Post on September 8, 2010, and his Natural Resources Defense Council Blog on September 9, 2010.
As a survey text in visual form, Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized is a frank introduction to the buzz about cities in our age of right-minded sustainability. Lurking amid the narration and vignettes is a scalable world view where the car is no longer king, and community priorities rather than government mandates often set the agenda for change.
Seattle had the chance to view Hustwit’s new release last night, and in my estimation, the audience saw local issues reflected back from the screen, as will city-dwellers everywhere who attend an Urbanized presentation. Hustwit clearly succeeds in highlighting a universal cast of diverse and sometimes conflicting stakeholders who must balance and integrate ideas, technology and economic forces characteristic of an urbanizing world.
Other articles about Urbanized have set the stage well, among them a Hustwit interview in TheCityFix, a review by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times (who notes Southern California is missing in Hustwit’s lexicon) and a concise entry by Nate Berg on the new Atlantic Cities site.
In short, Hustwit, while not an architect or urban planner, aptly synthesizes the hottest urban issues—from carbon neutrality to safety to human-scale transportation. He employs voices of the well known, the lesser known, and fast-moving urban imagery, which guides the film from Mumbai to Santiagp, to Brasila, Bogota and around the world.
I’ve written lately about the value of imagery in conveying the messages of cities. In this context, Urbanized gives rich meaning to street scenes, infrastructure, and the single building as part of an urban framework.
Through the film’s masterful editing, reality abounds.
Santiago slum dwellers participate in the design of new dwellings, and choose bathtubs over water heaters to escape the communal shower left behind. Brasilia is a planned joy from the air, yet a disconnected trek for the pedestrian. Beijing, with narration by architect Yung Ho Chang, becomes a city of wide avenues no longer a place where friends cross paths. Adjacent to Cape Town, in the township of Khayelitsha, a community project team builds safety through light and other urban design features.
Hustwit also honors his cast and blends them skillfully with their environments.
Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is one with the bus rapid transit and bicycle infrastructure which made his reputation. Landscape Architect James Corner hears the noises around him on New York’s High Line and acknowledges them as an undeniable piece of the urban experience. And the camera is loyal to the anthropological perspectives presented by Danish urban designer Jan Gehl as he suggests angles of view characteristic of evolved homo sapiens in their urban habitat.
While some have said that Urbanized is more primer than graduate seminar, it is still a must-see as a one-sitting wonder. Seldom do we get to see the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz espouse optimism for cities as opportune laboratories for reinvention and competition, within moments of dramatic scenes of tension between citizens and government. Hustwit has a knack of mixing and matching, and merging problem with opportunity.
A visual triumph, Urbanized could nonetheless feature more cities, reference more history and, sometimes better blend the film’s talking heads with the community they espouse.
Yet the film says more than meets the eye, and in my view, issues an undeniable challenge to all who embrace cities: capture ideas, and make better urban places going forward.
Initial image composed by the author at the Egyptian Theater, Seattle.