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.

How to Document Cities, Away from Home

Westlake Park, Seattle. Credit: Charles R. Wolfe

In the era of Instagram, documenting our “personal cities” has become second nature.

For some, this effort is as simple as the ready use of a smartphone and social media sharing of one or more photographs to document daily urban life. Others, while on regular walks,  document potholes, land-use application notices, or track various stages of new construction. Finally, for those who think beyond present boundaries, concerns about urban life depend on more poignant events faraway, especially those that occur in iconic, international urban places central to the interpretation of city life and urbanism.

For instance, In post-2015 Paris, London, Nice and many other cities, the emotional reclaiming process after multiple terror events is part of the inevitable urban dynamic and our human capacity to rebuild. Often this dynamic, when on display, shows uniting rather than divisive themes in the urban landscape. Visiting and photographing cities can stress these positive dynamics, and can inspire rebuilding and healing processes as needed.

In these instances, qualitative and interactive experiences, along with comparison, seem more important than assembling smart city “data points”. The qualitative and experiential also adds necessary personal dimensions to media representations of cities undergoing change or facing urban-planning challenges. For instance, actually visiting a place you have read or heard about—such as the changing face of East London—provides a firsthand reference for comparison with the impact of similar “gentrification” back home.

Another facet of photographing away from home comes from that indescribable human dance of history, people, and place that occurs when, while traveling, we simply like what we see. It is exciting when something resonates and invites a photograph—perhaps a special urban space, or a building, or a fragment of what was, preserved either purposefully or inadvertently. Sometimes these experiences produce a simple, irrational gestalt: a sudden wish to live in the vacation venue for a year rather than a day . . . or at least to take the places home.

As an example, in Urbanism Without Effort I wrote about the Cinque Terre in northwest Italy, five towns now preserved as “artifacts” in a designated World Heritage Site, connected by footpath, rail, and water. Their magically photogenic amenities of street, square, and housing are, in reality, far more than facade-based touristic shells, dominated in the summer by strangers rejoicing in local wine and pesto, the absence of cars, and the wonders of a small-scale, interurban trek. As photocentric urban diary subjects, the towns’ inspirational “we like what we see” elements—walkability, vibrant color, active waterfronts, and seamless interface with terraced landscapes— allow us to import the gift of urban ideas for potential implementation.

However, as I later noted in Seeing the Better City, an excited emotional response to an urban place while traveling does not always require an overseas journey to a place like the inspirational footpaths between the Cinque Terre towns. Recently, I was highly motivated to photograph the revitalization of downtown Detroit, now proceeding rapidly. On a visit to San Francisco in 2011, during a walk from the Financial District to Telegraph Hill, I encountered a series of urban diary scenes so evocative that they seemed at first staged for the camera. These views emphasized people, bright color, and active settings; in contrast to “worse city” views, they show the “better city”, meaning the positive and dynamic side of urban perception and the full range of emotions away from home.

Urban Documentation Considerations Away from Home

Generally, consider the following when compiling photo centric urban documentation, or “urban diary,” while traveling:

1. If you are traveling to a place with a venerable urban history, be on the lookout for inspirational examples that, if applied in context, might improve an urban space at home. For instance, the idea for New York’s High Line came first from Paris.

2. Beware of nostalgia when observing historic landmarks and places. It is not surprising to be motivated or awestruck; the challenge is to think about why. What is it about seeing such a place, or otherwise sensing it, that causes any particular reaction?

3. Use a camera shutter as a reflexive tool. Snap when feelings dictate a sensation; composition need not always be the initial goal.

4. Consider annotating why something seems significant in a text or voice note. This is very important when traveling, as it may not be easily possible to retrace steps or return to a place that seems significant in order to verify details about the location or the circumstances of a given photo.

5. Guidebooks are helpful, but linear or literal travel is not necessarily the most authentic experience. Recall the role of the dérive and Situationist interpretation. If it’s safe, follow curiosity— sights and smells. On the other hand, be mindful. I once followed graffiti through narrow passages in Jerusalem’s Old City and ended up in a courtyard, surrounded by a group of men. Even though the courtyard was “public,” I was promptly asked to leave.

6. If traveling outside your home country, consider how juxtapositions seem different. Private and public space, pavement surfaces, natural and built, transportation modes, eras of construction on infrastructure and buildings, to name but a few, all may overlap in unaccustomed ways. It is often worthwhile to ponder why.

7. Looking at redevelopment projects reveals good focal points, as these projects tend to be emblematic of change, yet can seamlessly blend with existing conditions. Reinvented urban space need not be controversial for failure to honor existing fabric and context. Track responses carefully. In Nice, France, I am constantly aware of the blended interplay among pedestrians, buses, automobiles, and trams downtown in the posttramway era, without the need for signage or traffic direction.

8. Follow basic human needs as starting urban diary themes. They will define what you see along the way. They may be as simple as the characteristics of where people live, or where the less fortunate find a place to sleep, or the locations available for a trip to a store, restaurant, or café. Depending on distance, these factors will likely influence the chosen mode of transportation and the way crossings occur with other people’s paths. At home, similar choices may create journeys (and diaries) that look entirely different.

9. Center on people and, as already noted, attempt to include them in photographs, even from afar. How we see people interacting with the physical environment, in combination with other factors, will influence what we take away from exploration and observation.

10. Consider how light guides perception. Depending on climate and color, an urban diary may assume a different mood.

11. Emphasize the role of scale of the built environment and its appeal for street life. Many have written about the way that areas with diverse commercial street life and windows open to view (or other forms of soft edges) will create a different response than blank walls or other forms of limited accessibility.

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

 

urban diary dispatch–a tale of two mornings

In areas along–or somewhat proximate to–the path of the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, the day essentially presented us with two mornings. First came the original sunrise, and then, some hours later, the obscured sun emerged again.

Rather than look skyward, I trained two cameras on Bellevue, Washington (the city across Lake Washington from my house) throughout the eclipse, because I expected that my perception of the Bellevue skyline might change as a much-revered natural process unfolded above.

Would the awe of the eclipse display a city in (no pun intended) a new light?

Perhaps, surprisingly, the answer was no. During the day of two mornings, from my perspective, the Bellevue skyline did not change much at all. In the Seattle area, we did not see a drama of dark and light, but rather the regular, eerie, and murky shade of a short Icelandic winter day. I became far more interested in the sudden quiet, the cool air, and the strange and unique shadows nearby.

I also focused on a sailboat and crew watching the eclipse while anchored in the lake. The in-water viewpoint reminded me of what I have said repeatedly since 2015, when I started writing Seeing the Better City: It all depends on who’s looking at what, and from which angle.

I tell this story to introduce a new series that will unfold as I live, write and speak from at least 15 cities in North America, Australia, and Europe between now and the end of 2017.  I’ll be contributing short articles, photos. audio clips, and videos, each with a theme or sub-theme about urban issues around the world.

In each “urban diary dispatch” I’ll focus on multiple perceptions of the subject at hand, and how our preconceptions and first impressions of a place are often replaced with something more dramatic, or interesting. These dispatches, which will sometimes appear in “pen-pal editions” prepared with others back home, will suggest ideas from afar, inspirations, and potential resolutions. Each will build on this tale of two mornings, with narratives about what happens when we take the time to go beneath our assumptions, and really look around.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. © 2009-2017 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

‘seeing the better city’ now available

Seeing the Better City is now available.

The book highlights and celebrates the role of human observation in capturing a greater diversity of perspectives to create better, more equitable cities. The book presents  a comprehensive toolkit for cataloging the influences of day-to-day life in a city, and gives examples of practical tools that can help make city planning and design more inclusive, including the role of cameras, smartphones and sketchpads. From city-dwellers to developers to elected officials, the book is an invaluable tool for constructive, creative discourse about creating better neighborhoods.

For those in the Seattle area, Chuck Wolfe continues to share the ideas in this book at a number of events, including a February 28 Urban Land Institute live interview based on a January 27 Puget Sound Business Journal article.

In addition to the Island Press book page, you can get updates and article links about the book and scheduled events, as well as view a “book trailer” video at www.seeingthebettercity.com.

The book is available from Island Press, with a 20% discount by entering the code 4WOLFE. You can also order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookseller. And this month only, you can get the e-book for just $14.99!