Charles R. Wolfe

Charles R. Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London and Seattle-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and attorney. He is a Visiting Scholar at KTH University (Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm, and a long-time Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land-use law at the graduate level. Wolfe is author of Urbanism Without Effort and Seeing the Better City, which informed his work as a Fulbright Specialist in Cairns and Townsville, Australia. He has contributed regularly on urban development topics to several publications, including CityLab, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, CityMetric, Governing, and Planetizen. He blogs at

#ForewordFriday: Can Urbanism Be Effortless?

Before we can create vibrant, sustainable urban areas, we need to understand what naturally happens when people congregate in cities.

In Urbanism Without Effort, Charles Wolfe, a respected voice on urbanism, brings a unique combination of skills as a writer, photographer and land use attorney to present a thought-provoking, practical, and well-illustrated narrative aimed squarely at rapidly evolving cities today. He says that with all of today’s buzzwords—e.g., pop-up, insurgent, green, transit-oriented, new—we lose sight of the fact that the most enduring, vibrant aspects of city life aren’t engineered by professionals. They are the natural result of people coming together in an urban environment. He contends that city life shouldn’t feel like work; it should be effortless. It shouldn’t feel designed; it should be spontaneous.

Wolfe argues that before we can create vibrant, sustainable urban areas, we need to understand what happens naturally when people congregate in cities. He offers numerous personal photographs and vignettes carefully selected from lessons learned during a life spent studying how city dwellers interact naturally with each other and the urban environment. Urbanism Without Effort is a strikingly illustrated, lively, and uncomplicated read that serves as a poignant reminder of the innovative history and promising future of human interaction with the urban form.

Check out Chapter 1: The Dynamic Potential of Urbanism Without Effort below, or download the PDF here


With an "Urban Diary," Everyone's a City Planner

Everyone – regardless of background, disposition, or profession – can use their senses to explore and observe urban space. 

We may inhabit the same city, but we live in different worlds.

Each of us sees our city from a slightly different angle, the view filtered through lenses of race, class, and circumstance. Even when we encounter the same scene, we experience it differently. Consider this: for a young professional in a gentrifying neighborhood, a new gastropub looks like an inviting place to knock back a few pints. But to a long-term resident facing skyrocketing rents, that same pub looks like the beachhead of an invading army. Or, imagine the imposing view of an iconic cathedral’s stone steps – to someone in a wheelchair.

These all-important individual perceptions are valuable data points; together they form a trove of information that could be used to create better cities for all. But, that information does not often inform urban planning and policy. Instead, our cities are usually shaped by a rather homogenous group of designers and planners, who typically speak the bloodless language of blueprints and building codes.

Old, largely top-down habits can change. Fortunately, we all have within us the capacity to perceive what we like and dislike about our surroundings; to respond with delight, sadness, fear, or anger, and to discover how best to improve the world around us. When crafting urban policy, plans, and related urban design, we must do a better job of finding a role for these perceptions.

To that end, in my book, Seeing the Better City, I offer a tool – the “urban diary” – that can harness the power of perception to transform how our cities evolve. An urban diary is more than either abstract idealism or the “citizen participation” of old.  It takes advantage of what many of us are already doing with our cameras and smartphones: recording what we see, and what we like or dislike, about the cities we inhabit. Indeed, many of us are regularly creating urban diaries, of a sort, on our Facebook and Instagram feeds.

We can take it a step further, by intentionally observing and documenting our experience with photographs, sketches, or notes – and utilising what I call the LENS method (Look, Explore, Narrate, and Summarise.)

It’s easy to start. For example, visit your five favorite neighborhoods and record the sights and sounds you encounter. Or write a couple of paragraphs about your morning commute.

The information collected in an urban diary can be used in multiple ways – as a scalable tool to become more mindful of our surroundings, for example, and hence better advocates for thoughtful urban planning. Or it can be used to enhance traditional land-use or design-review processes, which now typically rely on conventional oral comment or written input from affected neighbors.

The urban diary can provide an inclusive alternative to abstract, top-down prescriptions by engaging a diverse range of city residents in civic dialogue. It can be used, in the words of planner Yuri Artibise, “to reintroduce the human experience into urban planning.”

The trick, of course, is to implement the all-too-frequent lip service to equity and inclusion, and apply the information from our urban diaries to the real world of decision makers and developers. Some pioneering cities are using similar approaches to do just that. In my hometown, Seattle, the Yesler Terrace Youth Media Project used the Photovoice platform to catalogue students’ concerns about a then-pending large-scale redevelopment of their public-housing community. Otherwise-overlooked voices provided Seattle Housing Authority project managers and city officials with invaluable image-laden insights about younger residents’ perceptions about change.

In Adelaide, Australia, personal storytelling through photography became a critical element of planning the city’s future. Stage 1 of “Picture Adelaide 2040” centered on gathering 1,000 stories and photos from citizens on how they use their favorite places. The project’s summary report explains how these perceptions were integrated into planning goals and objectives.

And in Austin, Texas, “Community Character in a Box” was a city-initiated do-it-yourself toolkit that suggested ways for community members to capture images of the assets, constraints and opportunities for improvement in their neighborhoods. Significantly, the process not only taught citizens how to document their perceptions through photography but also allowed project professionals a greater understanding of neighborhood qualities and character.

Other photo- and observation-based examples show the importance of preserving culturally important everyday activities, such as fishing from urban piers or congregating in streets for regular social events. And some architects and developers – who increasingly understand the critical roles for our innate visual sense and storytelling tradition – have incorporated community input into interactive design processes that foster a sense of community empowerment in site-development efforts.

The urban diary and similar approaches can set aside the buzzwords, identity politics, and academic jargon that saturates our discussions of cities, providing a universal language for all. By capturing the perceptions of city dwellers, decision makers will be better equipped to plan cities and respond to urban change.

Everyone – regardless of background, disposition, or profession – can use their senses to explore and observe urban space. We can record what is inspirational and evocative, what seems to work in fostering an equitable, livable, inclusive city, and what does not. In this way, we can envision the better city from every angle.

Ask Island Press: How Could Buses Be Better?

Buses are having somewhat of a moment.

Buses are having somewhat of a moment. This spring, the Washington Post asked if riding the bus is finally becoming cool, while Lyft is beta-testing a shuttle service that many have compared to the bus, albeit one that may perpetuate problems of inequity. At Island Press, we're fans of public transportation, or anything that gets people out of their cars and reduces the need for parking. But buses are not above critique. To find out how buses can be better, we asked bus-commuting Island Press staff and authors: What would you change about the bus system? Check out their responses, and share your ideas for improving buses in the comments below. 

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

"A reliable schedule app—one that really woks and shows when the bus is coming, weather-protective bus stop furniture that helps riders feel safe, too, and direct routing whenever possible."
Chuck Wolfe author of Seeing the Better City and Urbanism Without Effort 

"More attentive to folks waiting around the bus area. Sometimes while waiting for a bus I go under the shade of a tree or sign and the bus driver drives past because he doesn’t look anywhere but the bus stop itself, dedicated bus lane, and more routes while Safetrack is happening."
—Kyler Geoffroy, Online Marketing Manager

"On major arterial streets I would love to see dedicated bus lanes that would make the bus more reliable, faster, and easier to figure out where it goes; like rail with physical tracks. Also, smaller busses in neighborhoods that are size appropriate and more flexible in pickup and drop off. Last, a simpler naming system so it was more clear where the bus went, and a digital interface with simple payment, trip planning and transfer."
Gabe Klein author of Start-Up City

NYC Transit New Flyer 840.jpg
A Flyer C40LF public transit bus in Brooklyn, New York, via Wikimedia Commons

"I would like accurate tracking of incoming buses (the current app estimations are not always correct), and perhaps a visual of the buses along the route to help understand how far away they are."
—Megan MacIver, Development Associate

"Bus service needs to be legible and frequent, and forming a connected network (including with Metro). Then, to the extent feasible, it needs to be protected from traffic. European buses are also generally better than US in terms look-and-feel and amenity. These things can all be gotten right, to deliver a 'rail-like' experience without the expense and operational hassles of rail tracks in the street."
Jarrett Walker author of Human Transit

"Better bus tracking, no more ghost busses. Watching a bus vanish from the list of upcoming arrivals, with no new busses coming for a half hour or more, is the single most frustrating thing about bus travel for me."
—Rebecca Bright, Associate Editor