A Visual Tool for Guiding Urban Change

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Post Was Originally Published April 17, 2017 in Governing

At this moment of epic political gridlock at the national level, localism is back. Increasingly, cities are devising local solutions to the pressing challenges of the 21st century -- from transportation and housing affordability to climate change. But localism can also lead to gridlock, especially in rapidly growing cities.

I have observed this in my hometown of Seattle, where a building boom is dramatically reshaping city life and policy conflicts abound. Across both face-to-face and social-media encounters, it seems ever more difficult to achieve consensus on a form of the city amenable to older and newer residents alike. A new tool -- the "urban diary" -- can contribute to breaking the gridlock by helping to forge a pluralistic vision of the kind of city that people want to inhabit.

An urban diary 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 urban change. By harnessing this visual information, residents, city employees and decision-makers can be better equipped to plan cities and respond to urban change.

An urban diary can be used in multiple ways -- as an introductory "how to see" exercise, for example, or as a way to enhance traditional land-use or design-review processes, which now typically rely on conventional written input. In this way, the urban diary can provide an alternative to abstract, top-down prescriptions by empowering and incentivizing city residents to contribute to civic dialogue.

In my new book, Seeing the Better City, I present several applied examples of the urban-diary approach. They show how the human visual sense and emotional response to the urban environment might be better marshaled, inventoried and purposefully incorporated into policies, plans and regulations.

In Seattle, for instance, 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' apprehension about change. This visual assessment highlighted community perspectives that were valuable to a major real-estate decision-making process.

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Urban Resilience