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.

towards canine equity in the city

Now is the time for the urban dog.


One of the most immediate cultural distinctions a traveler notices in France is omnipresent,well-behaved dogs, often quite unlike their detached American cousins (perhaps including my own). In a matter of a few weeks, I have assembled a mental diary of locational examples that illuminated the integrated role of multi-modal canine life.

Examples included sitting on adjacent train seats, in restaurant diners’ laps and on park benches next to owners. Not to mention my almost tripping over many, child-like, aisle-shopping companions.

These observations remind me, frankly, that we often regulate away the opportunity for certain, traditional life-enhancements in the interest of public health, something that probably made sense in a more feral age.



But if we are truly on the way to inevitable urbanization, I vote for the extension of the mixed use, sharable spirit to enable more equity for the urban canine.

I, for one, don’t mind sitting next to a well-behaved poodle, or shopping with dogs in both the Gucci in Cannes, as well as the Guccy Wawa located a few towns away.

Images composed by the author in Saint Tropez, Cannes and Fréjus, France. Click on each image for more detail. © 2009-2014 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.

on learning from urban immersion


How we experience purchases of coffee and baked goods may sound fairly trivial, and elitist.

But, based on my current immersion in the south of France, I have come to think these simple interactions offer valuable lessons for how to live in neighborhoods and cities.  The rhythm of traditional transactions, with deep cultural roots, offers significant lessons about the role of expertise in daily life.

I saw it in Fréjus this morning in the wisdom of the coffee vendor.  In a transaction that was more consultation than transaction, he custom-ground “moka sauvage” beans after carefully listening to our stated needs, about the flavor we were looking for, and how we prepare our coffee—in an Italian stove-top espresso pot.  We emerged from his small commercial space with an impeccable recommendation.  A fine diagnosis, I thought, from a doctor of arabica.

Similarly, yesterday, while sampling hot chocolate, in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, I watched a man enter and review the lemon pastry options de jour.  After some discussion, reflecting the expertise of the vendor, he chose a lemon tart over a lemon cake.  The dialogue was brief but refreshingly complete, something akin to a computer or camera purchase in another world.  It was as if time had turned back to something that has always been or something that we are always searching for.

Inspired by the tradition of this pastry transaction, it was our turn. How to decide: a green tea sponge cake, with blackcurrant filling, or a dark chocolate mousse cake with coffee filling?


One or both, and if both, when to eat?

Again, the old world, pre-Apple Store suggestion by the shopkeeper: “Un gateau pour aujourd’hui, et un gateau pour demain” (one cake for today, and one cake for tomorrow), we agreed.  And then the punchline, as the young woman switched to English with a beam in her eye:

“And, if you eat both today, you can come back tomorrow”. (She hopes, perhaps).

Lesson learned from this extended time away:  Remember the urban rituals where you can still find them, whether closer or farther from home.

Images composed by the author in Fréjus and Roquebrune-sur-Argens, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 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.

exploring mixed use and the human dimension

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On a walk from Fréjus to Saint-Raphaël last week, an elderly man asked us, in French, why I had just taken a photograph of his house. I offered to erase the photograph, which was intended to show, in modern urbanist visual language, the delight of a stamp and coin shop as first floor retail at an intersection across the world from our hometown.

I re-learned that day what every urbanist should know: The physical city means less without the stories behind building facades.

Sometimes we only learn such lessons while abroad, when acclimating to a new, temporary neighborhood, or when answering a question as simple as the one just stated.  After all, the human dimension, of affinity and conversation is broader, and arguably more important,  than the human scale that we hear so much about.

The story continues with the elderly man acknowledging us as Americans, who were more interested in the storefront than the dwelling above.  Suddenly, we were no longer suspects, not the tax inspectors or police that could have been. There was no need, he said, to erase the photograph.

Suspicion yielded to enthusiasm and affinity, and his tales of visits to Wyoming and Yellowstone.  He provided an introduction to the stamp and coin store proprietor, his son, Roland Spadari.  The younger Mr. Spadari is a regular U.S. visitor, shy about his English, but quietly aware of his commonalities with the people who come through his door.

Father and son invited us into the store, and we became neighbors in a city that spanned an ocean. Conversation spilled forth about American coins from another era—from Indian Head pennies to Buffalo nickels to Mercury dimes.  We commiserated about what these coins once looked like and discussed whether we ever see them anymore back home.

We politely listened as Mr. Spadari, explained, with his father looking on, how he obtained Buffalo nickels and Eisenhower dollars on his annual trip to Las Vegas last year.

And then we said our goodbyes, and thanked Mr. Spadari for his hospitality.  My coin and stamp collection habits ended long ago, so I was in the market for nothing more than continuing our walk.

But the power of the human dimension carried matters beyond their logical conclusion.  On our way out, Mr. Spadari gave me three Buffalo nickels—to keep—at no charge.

It took 30 minutes for suspicions about a photograph to become a thoughtful, affinity-based gift of items that transcended place and time. That’s the power of the real dynamics of city life, the connections behind the built environment that we, at first, more readily see.

Image composed by the author in Fréjus, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 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.

housing, politics and a basic pride of place

Fifth in an illustrated series about place-decoding from the South of France.


What do the politics of urban housing have to do with a seasonal caravan park in Provence? For me, the answer is clear. Our political discussions, mired in jargon and positioning, often lose sight of a human pride of place inherent in even the simplest forms of shelter.

A major American urban theme, today, addresses the challenge of maintaining housing affordability, and determining who should pay to insure available residences close to work and necessary services. Other themes include scrutiny of residential configurations, and debates over how small is too small for today’s dwelling unit size. In Seattle, various stakeholders, from elected officials to developers and nonprofits, continue jousting over an arguably not-ready-for-prime-time housing linkage proposal and new limitations on the size of micro-housing units. A new Advisory Committee will attempt a varied tool-based cure.

I recently keynoted a Seattle housing non-profit’s annual breakfast. There, I had to answer a big question: What, exactly, is affordable housing? My answer simply stated that people need affordable access to the sought-after elements of urban life. To paraphrase, people need affordable access to homes of whatever size and shape that they can take pride in.

When people take pride in where they live, their homes’ appearance shows a bonding with the place, often with considered ingenuity.


This ingenuity is clear at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue (a 53 year-old caravan park near Fréjus, France). From the Domaine, I asked myself last month, why not focus on how to see and decode the expressions of people’s pride in and around the walls and ceilings that protect them?

I am talking about the basic decorator and landscaper within us all, our human tendency to create a sense of comfort with the outside world so that we blend more easily with where we live.


The Domaine du Pin de la Lègue is, in American terms, a seasonal manufactured housing community. Some stay almost all year but most people are in residence for short vacations. Either way, there are a range of services nearby, including a grocery store, a produce store, a butcher and deli, a hairdresser, restaurants and more. There’s an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several pools, boules (or pétanque) and plenty of summer events.

Most importantly, there is the pride of place surrounding the small living spaces in the homes all around, from clever retrofits to landscaping and rockeries befitting the best of single-family neighborhoods.


On a stroll, this pride is clear throughout the Domaine, where caravans become palaces amid dignified grounds. In the ways called for among some urban redevelopment movements today, small-scale innovation is on display—it’s a locale where the plot-based, lean and pop-up urbanism movements of the United Kingdom and the United States merge with some admirable diversity.

Admittedly, it’s more campground than the best of Paris, and that’s really the point, as the illustrations here make clear. But unlike a campground, the surroundings are not disassembled. Rather, like a neighborhood, the homes become nurtured, planted around, and modified in functional ways.


People don’t need expensive building materials, identities or complex regulatory tools to find a pride of place. Rather, we carry with us the ability to mine pride from place, even in places that are, perhaps, least expected to shine.

Images composed by the author in at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue, outside Fréjus, France. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

Coming next: Legible Marseille, via Street Photography.

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