3 ways your eyes can improve your city

Observation is the key to creating exciting urban areas.

Image Source: CMLC

We hear a lot about vision being the key to change. Charles R. Wolfe takes it literally. 

Wolfe is a writer, land-use consultant and attorney. He is based in London and regularly teaches in the Faculty of Urban Design & Planning at the University of Washington. But he has developed a unique approach to urban issues. He keeps his eyes open and his camera handy.

Wolfe’s photographs serve as the basis Urbanism Without Effort (2013), which has been updated and released as a paperback. Next City recently published an excerpt from that new edition, and it makes for fascinating reading. Wolfe presents vignettes based on his observations and photographs. He is not seeking to present hard-and-fast policies or design approaches. Instead, he seeks to “illustrate and inspire.”

In his Next City article, Wolfe presents 3 vignettes:

  1. Walkability: Wolfe begins his discussion in an East African museum. by contemplating the fossilized footprints of early man. In the footprints, he sees intersections and corners. It gets him thinking that humans are natural walkers. This leads to a discussion of the passeggiata, the evening stroll that is a feature of life in Italy. He says the effortless nature of the walk is what urbanists should tap into when creating walkable areas.
  2. People-Oriented Spaces: In Rome, Wolfe notes the range of people who come to the Campo de’ Fiori to shop and socialize in the evening. The square is a model of people-oriented design, but Wolfe says urban planners should not seek to recreate it. Instead, they should consider how the traits of the place might be replicated.
  3. Building Community: Wolfe writes that his observation-approach came about one night in Seattle. His neighbours were showing a movie in the alley, and invited Wolfe to drop by. The relaxed gathering reminded Wolfe of the virtues of organic urbanism. These are casual events or gatherings that feature the elements urbanists seek to create with large projects. As Wolfe writes, “the best urbanism is that which is already there, waiting to be nurtured.” 

So, rather than imposing urban interventions or transplanting them from other countries, we should be doing what comes naturally. Sometimes that means taking a stroll. And sometimes it means watching a movie in the alley. But, Wolfe argues, whatever you do, it’s vital to keep your eyes open.

March 7th, 2019

An urban thinker says we should look before we build.