Reconciling the Sense-Based City

Experiencing London at Canary Wharf. Credit: Charles R. Wolfe

The city is an undeniably human creation, full of our emotions, impressions, and experiences. Yet the policy and regulatory processes that govern the city are often evidence-based. Unless a viewpoint or submittal is validated by experts, these processes may preclude the ability of an individual to have a meaningful impact on urban change. In official deliberations, as elected officials have often told me, the potential human experience is underemphasized in favor of tangible structures, cross-sections, and models.

Accordingly, how can we re-infuse process with all-important attention to the human experience? How to account for the irrational and unplanned, for the juxtapositions that infuse a city with energy, both positive and negative? In a practical sense, how can all this come together in a meaningful way to reform and reframe our process for civic decision-making?

As I have emphasized over the last year since the release of my book, Seeing the Better City, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of possibilities for documenting through our own “urban diaries” and related collaborative efforts, toolkits, smart-city “data-driven” approaches, and new approaches to long-term planning efforts.

Converting idealistic notions of better cities into concrete and discernible results is a significant challenge—essentially demanding a move from plan to action. The more subjective, creative, emotion-based approaches of human experience seldom convert easily to the language of land-use applications, plan review, public hearings, and appeal processes, other than by narrative testimony or photographic exhibits. The rational processes of democratic decision-making often reduce matters to text-laden decision criteria that emphasize code compliance, neighborhood compatibility, and environmental and traffic impacts. In fact, this necessary search for objectivity may purposefully deemphasize emotional response, urban traditions, or equitable outcomes.

The system, therefore, needs to be reinvented from within. This reorientation need not be as daunting as it may sound, especially if, in the end, we are discussing the documentary efforts of individuals as complements, or supplements, to the conventional regulatory process. If visual submittals become public comment, equivalent to written or oral testimony, or are used as submittals for discussion during formal or informal mediation, then they will come into their own as colorful, illustrative, and demonstrative adjuncts to existing forums for decision-making and dispute resolution. Urban observation will then be more than the purview of the dilettante, or fodder for elicited photography or app-based expressions.

Technology provides new tools of participation in our surroundings and a legion of sources and opinions about how best to experience the city. From casual smartphone camera use to participatory photography and mapping, mini-ethnographies, oral histories, and “now and then” nostalgia, ideas and approaches for sense-based documentation can be readily acquired online, at meet-ups, or organizational events. So many approaches, without cross-references, provide no central organization about how our personal urban experiences can meaningfully be put to work; useful precedent from other disciplines is often unacknowledged, and the end game is often unclear.

We may resolve to learn from such technology-based tools, but on the other hand we less often see cohesive organizational strategies for putting “notable/sensational” media and blog stories to work. Raising awareness is good, observation and contextual understanding is better, but the best outcomes will result when we move beyond observation for observation’s sake. We should incorporate more visual urban diary–like documentation of human need and routine into the evidence that forms the basis for civic decision-making.

In legislative hearings as well as quasi-judicial hearings, the use of photographs is already standard. In more-formal settings, rules govern the steps that must be taken to enter such photographs into a record. In law school evidence class, students learn the hearsay rule, which requires a courtroom witness to have firsthand knowledge of the truth of an assertion. Budding lawyers also master the rules for authenticating photographs for use by judges and juries, the principles of which usually apply to the less formal administrative process as well. At the core, the rules often address some elements of authenticity, such as the date and location of the photograph, and the identity of the photographer or source. If a photograph can be reasonably sourced and identified, and has relevance to the matter under discussion or review, then its use is usually not a problem.

We need to better wed the subjective, soft city—the personal, observed city—with the city of decision-makers and the projects presented by the marketplace. This combination presents a considerable challenge and requires that we merge “rationality with imagination, the prosaic with the dream world, the planned with the unexpected. . . .” (Mohsen Mostafavi, “Tale of Cities,” in In the Life of Cities, ed. Mostafavi (Zürich: Lars Müller, 2012), 15. Here, urban diaries can lead the way as exemplary, inspirational, three-dimensional portraits of the most authentic and suitable visions of improved daily lives for the constituents of elected officials—urban residents themselves. And, of course, better cities will emerge when decision-makers see that these portraits align with marketplace proposals.

In 2015, as part of the “Future Freo” visioning process in Fremantle, Australia, I watched Mayor Brad Pettitt present a Powerpoint narrative on potential future development strategies for his city after he’d made a Northern European study tour. Mayor Pettitt’s approach suggests that elected officials could compile—and perhaps present—urban diaries on a regular basis, consistent with the ideas linked above.

In recent years, the real estate market has also seen significant value in the walkable, compact city that is often the inevitable focus of urbanism photographs and associated urban diaries. The internet teems with development-oriented images of streetcars and bicycles, walkable environments and healthy, exercise-oriented urban living, with plenty of shared transportation alternatives.

But is this urbanism the inevitable result of choices made by municipal governments and the real estate marketplace?

In short, can photographic imagery—as both art and archive—indeed help change cities for the better? Such imagery, if presented in context, often provides motivation for policy-makers to undertake their own explorations of how to move from plan to action.

Adapted from Wolfe, C.R., Seeing the Better City, (Island Press, 2017). Image composed by the author in London. © 2009-2018 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

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.