using urban universals to frame city life

The two photographs below say both simple and remarkable things about how urban residents interact with each other, and the streets around them.

Neither photograph is more superior or more insightful. In fact, I see them as the same photograph, across the world.

The images suggest differential costs of building materials, streets, sidewalks and associated features. Yet, in each setting, the idle women stand in similar positions, and inferred, familiar stories emerge from observation of the passers-by.

What are the roles of form, function and design in each photograph? What scenes emerge from journeys from home to work, and the locations between? In the end, what really matters in cities, regardless of place and time?

Answers to these lofty questions lie in wait, for review in the images below.


Images composed by the author in Seattle and Arusha, Tanzania. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

how to think about access in evolving Seattle

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.


Images composed by the author in Seattle. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

how urban observation can ghost-bust places


In Seattle, last week, I looked across the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Olive Way, into McGraw Square, and towards the Westin Hotel, noting a Seattle urbanism trifecta—the Lake Union Streetcar, the skillet food truck and one building of Amazon’s new headquarters complex under construction.  What’s not to like about that view?

Well, one thing for sure. I saw a ghost, of a missing building from a boyhood memory—something that Amazon might have retrofitted, today, if it were still there for the taking.

Gone from this layered, contemporary scene was something significant to the history of Seattle, the Orpheum Theater, demolished in 1967, once the largest theater in the Pacific Northwest, and the temporary home of the Seattle Symphony.  Begun as a vaudeville house, the design, by theater architect Marcus Priteca also featured street-level retail, and offices—a reminder that mixed-use development is nothing new.

I specifically remember my last trip to the Orpheum, to view the Batman movie from the original television show; notable because local actor Adam West portrayed Bruce Wayne as the winged avenger.

But this is not a tale of Batman over streetcars.  Nor is this an essay about the retention of historic theaters for the preservationist’s cause.  Rather, this is a manifesto about the role of purposeful observation and sensation in urban environments, and acknowledgement of the undercurrents and overlaps that form cities today.

In capturing the photograph above, as an acknowledged urbanist, perhaps I should revel in the streetcar and food truck scene, with an expanded McGraw Square allowing greater pedestrian use. Instead, I hold that scene in perspective, because I’m old enough to recall what was there before.

I’m also an inductive, first person urbanist, always looking for context in what I see. Amid urban change, I see ghosts of bygone images, wondering, ironically, about their unrealized role in today’s vitality. This approach, allowing for and explaining the stories behind our redeveloping cities, should not be viewed as antiquarian, academic or obstructionist.  For example, similar memories of the native American trail that traveled from Elliot Bay to Seattle’s Lake Union, have spurred the Seattle Parks Foundation-led “Lake2Bay” initiative, which endeavors to create a multifaceted urban innovation corridor.

I’d like to think urban observation and collective urban memory are as important to the authenticity of urban change today as the oral histories among indigenous people who pass on cultural traditions from one generation to the next.


Photos via Lawton Gowey (left, 1967),  and John Thomas (right, 1927)  featured on Seattle Now and Then website, here 

The tool of human memory, discerning eyes and understanding both the pragmatism of the present and the symbolic, collective meaning of a given place are often left behind in today’s discussions of urban solutions. Hence my past adamance, in Urbanism Without Effort and many articles, where I refer to the importance of the urban diary tool, “place-decoding” skills and “reading cities cover to cover“, in holistic fashion.  I have urged urbanists to create urban diaries and to see their surroundings, to gain a real understanding of cities where we work and live.

Of course, in many respects, I’m channeling those involved in the urban realm for years, both as practitioners and academics. For example, former San Francisco Planning Director and academic Allan Jacobs is perhaps best known for setting this tone in the 1980’s, and Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre have recently summarized the value, history, and many examples of why “studies” of public life are essential to urban policy in How to Study Public Life.

While it is increasingly possible through smartphone applications, Google Earth overlays and other tools (see, e.g. Drivedecisions) to compile surveys, aggregate data, and represent such information three dimensionally or numerically for purposes of decision-making or political debate, we often lose the most important human elements when we disallow the importance of looking at cities and their component parts, even if they are no longer there.

Similarly, modern-day toolkits are lacking, in my opinion, because they often don’t fully equip leaders in policy and decision-making to understand the multifaceted urban world. While we have recipes for code-drafting and repairing suburbs and sprawl, we don’t have enough guides for public officials or staff to be confident in legislating many intrinsic elements of a successful urbanism, as once summarized by Jacobs (Allan, not Jane) and the late Donald Appleyard, such as deriving place from placelessness, retaining authenticity, livability, intensity, integration, diverse public spaces and ways.

This is critically important, because project advocacy, both pro and con, is often based on personal perception, observation or visual simulation, stylized in support or opposition to inevitable change.

As Jacobs  wrote in 1984, (in association with his book, Looking at Cities) about the value of simply observing cities and trusting what we see:

Looking at and taking messages from urban environments should be as important a research and analytic method as any other that we choose to use, one used in conjunction with others both as a discrete research act and as a constant part of our professional and personal lives.

In the past, my own attempts to voice this perspective in book talks and on professional panels have surprised some audience members who ask why a lawyer— trained by his profession to give pragmatic advice—is espousing the human messages of urban design, and suggesting that inductive observation and place-based memory can impact the urban environment in a practical way.  I smile and note that I am not centering on architectural style, or mimicry of a remnant historical structure or natural ecosystem.  Nor am I an environmental psychologist, or “placemaking” professional.  Rather, I am talking about how, in the city, human beings wrestle with nostalgia, seek continuity, and observe and face inevitable change.

In particular, what purpose does remembering a now-missing theater—however intangible and historical—play in this Seattle example described here? Is there an essence, spirit, or symbol of the former use that could play a role in urban redevelopment or revitalization?  Does the ghost somehow still have game?

Perhaps, honoring the story entirely missing in last week’s photograph could stimulate more meaningful attention to the uniqueness of the setting and the lost uses of the area’s space.  In this general locus, consider the following enhancements to place:

  • The streetcar terminus could be named “Orpheum Station”, at no extra cost, allowing more objective credence to the memory nearby. This is not an ideal preservationist outcome, and really just the old standby of “naming for what was”, but it provides continuity now not at all clear to passers-by.
  • Might the spirit of the Orpheum reappear through sanctioned activities in dedicated public space within adjacent new development?  Could the vital years of the former theater use reappear in a new light?
  • Similarly, the latent function of the lost space—as a performance venue—could be re-realized in the McGraw Square expanded pedestrian environment adjacent to today’s streetcar terminus.
  • Or, consider McGraw Square as an occasional exhibit space on the Orpheum, and the acts and movies that played there.
  • Finally, a more fantastical idea likely never to be realized: Could the city, or a surrounding business, give life to the place-based ghost, and build a full size, temporary front façade of the Orpheum (or a scale model) as part of a series of galvanizing events downtown?  It happens in blended photo superimpositions online, such as these examples from London, here and here. Especially if full size, consider the festival aspects of it happening for real.

In sum, when framing urban issues, describing cities or developing profiles of a specific place, the detailed variations in the individual perceptions of urban dwellers and observers should not be lost.  These subtle messages are often spurred by ordinary urban landscapes, icons, emblems, symbols and “context clues” within ready view, contributing to an understanding of why a place looks and feels like it does today, and what might now be missing but potentially renewed.

Initial image composed by the author in Seattle. Other images as credited above. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

why cities are meant for reading, cover to cover

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Open a book, read only, say, page 77, and the prose may please the mind or heart, but the richness of the story may suffer. Why? Because the plot is still unclear.

Reading the city is no different, as represented in the “multi-paged” slideshow above (the last 15 posts in myurbanist, under the moniker, “places people go”). In such urban venues, we should first take in each view, with sensation, but not draw any immediate conclusion. Taking pause, and recalling context and any background story, is the first step towards achieving community, neighborhood and a better place.

Urban challenges often first appear as conflicts of ideology, habit or style, without nuance. Yet the irony of underlying commonality is great, and should not be lost.

Once, in Jerusalem, on a sustainability visit to the Middle East, we walked down through the still knee-deep Hezekiah’s Water Tunnel south of the Old City, on the way to viewing controversial housing demolitions in Silwan, part of East Jerusalem. Our tunnel guide concentrated less on history, and more on concern for what we might hear at the bottom of the hill. Later, before presentation from the Palestinian perspective, a Silwan resident proudly showed the same water, farther downstream, in a backyard cistern, with gestures of significance that transcended any religious or cultural divide.

When Charles Montgomery penned The Happy City, he knew that going forward, evolving cities need to honor human emotion.  His follow-up labs attempt to measure what humans want and need in urban environments. The lessons in Jaime Lerner”s recently translated Urban Acupuncture depend on “pinpricks” that alter universal human behaviors in urban settings, based on simple, often incentive-based corrections applied in Curitiba, Brazil.

A recent photograph, shown below, suggests that longstanding human responses in the city can go deeper, for instance, than the successes and failures of transit-oriented development, and can complement and enhance contemporary urban trends.


From the parking lot of Lowe’s Hardware, in south Seattle last Saturday, I captured this near-sunset image of tree-tops, blue sky and clouds. For me, the image served a double-purpose, as it was also located where, as a teenager, I remember sitting in right field to watch major-league baseball during the Seattle Pilots’ short-lived stay long ago.

I said as much in a Facebook posting of the photograph, with a wry stab at the current, “big-box” site of the iconic view that duplicated what I remember from Sick’s Seattle Stadium. While not a rigorous metric, the photograph garnered Facebook “likes” well into the double digits.

A former student made a Facebook comment on the photograph. She spoke of the pending improvements in the area, of pedestrian-friendly enhancements to the nearby light rail station, and “talk of breaking up the mega blocks like this one”.

“Seems like the whole area is going to be changing very quickly”, she said.

Wryly again, I noted in response that “the clouds won’t change”.

In the human spirit of water in Jerusalem, and based on posting other, recent and seemingly popular Seattle views of Mount Rainier, I might have also added another comment: “I hope that someone remembers to enhance the view”.

Whether based on themes of common experience, aesthetics, feelings of happiness, safety or security, there is a basic narrative of the city that page 77 alone just can’t quite capture. A quick read often misses not only the richness of the story, but also, the basis for common foundations and common ground. Maybe teaching the fundamentals of Latin, Greek and core curricula was not such a bad idea, after all.

For any professional embracing urban policy, practice, and as a precursor to innovation, I suggest reading the entire book, the one that tells the important back stories, and sets a universal, human tone.

All images composed by the author, in France, Iceland, Israel, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the United States. Click on each image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

places people go 12.0


A gallery of universal, urban neighborhood scenes often begins with a person and surrounding building layers.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.