Seeing the Better City
6 x 9
6 x 9
In order to understand and improve cities today, personal observation remains as important as ever. While big data, digital mapping, and simulated cityscapes are valuable tools for understanding urban space, using them without on-the-ground, human impressions risks creating places that do not reflect authentic local context. Seeing the Better City brings our attention back to the real world right in front of us, focusing it once more on the sights, sounds, and experiences of place in order to craft policies, plans, and regulations to shape better urban environments.
Through clear prose and vibrant photographs, Charles Wolfe shows those who experience cities how they might catalog the influences of urban form, neighborhood dynamics, public transportation, and myriad other basic city elements that impact their daily lives. He then shares insights into how they can use those observations to contribute to better planning and design decisions. Wolfe calls this the “urban diary” approach, and highlights how the perspective of the observer is key to understanding the dynamics of urban space. He concludes by offering contemporary examples and guidance on how to use carefully recorded and organized observations as a tool to create change in urban planning conversations and practice.
From city-dwellers to elected officials involved in local planning and design issues, this book is an invaluable tool for constructive, creative discourse about improving urban space.
"Absorbing...[Wolfe] encourages readers to think with our eyes and communicate with visual imagery in order to improve our cities."
"If we want to create the places of our dreams, we need to observe our cities more clearly. Seeing the Better City is both a thoughtful guide and an enticement to take up this challenge."
Charles Montgomery, Author of Happy City
"We experience cities through what we see. Not since the legendary Kevin Lynch has an author opened our eyes to the power of observing urban space. This book masterfully illustrates how to understand and capture moments in time, see present-day patterns and layers of history, and gain visual insights into the urban space that shapes our daily lives. Chuck's images and words will truly inspire you."
Mitchell Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner and former president of the American Planning Association
"With Seeing the Better City, Chuck Wolfe accomplishes what few have tried—to actually bridge multiple disciplines in order to help people effectively see, understand, and improve urban spaces. He provides us with an invaluable, accessible roadmap for a place-led future."
Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President, Project for Public Spaces, NYC
"We need to be incessant students of place. In Seeing the Better City, Chuck gives us this mandate as well as the tools to succeed in the endeavor. This book is a valuable contribution to the place conversation by championing 'place ethnography' for the betterment of cities and their people."
Dr. Katherine Loflin, "The City Doctor"
Introduction: Why Urban Observation Matters and Tools for Seeing the Better City
Chapter 1: How to See City Basics and Universtal Patterns
Chapter 2: Observation Approaches
Chapter 3: Seeing the City through Urban Diaries
Chapter 4: Envisioning our Personal Cities
Chapter 5: From Urban Diaries to Policies, Plans, and Politics
Conclusion: What the Better City Can Be
Webinar: Seeing the Better City
March 2, 2017; 1:15 pm to 2:45 pm EST
Personal observation remains as important as ever to understand and improve cities today. While big data, digital mapping, and simulated cityscapes are valuable tools for understanding urban space, using them without on-the-ground, human impressions risks creating places that do not reflect authentic local context. Join SSF and Island Press in a webinar featuring Charles Wolfe, practicing Seattle land use/environmental attorney and Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and renowned urbanism writer.
The webinar will be moderated by Tom Mayes, Vice President and Senior Counsel at National Trust for Historic Preservation. Chuck will be joined on the panel by Lynn Richards, President and CEO of The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).
Chuck Wolfe at Urban Land Institute NW
February 28, 2017
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
1101 Second Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101 United States
Join ULI NW for a lively discussion of themes from Seeing the Better City, the new book by Seattle-based writer, photographer, and land-use attorney Chuck Wolfe. Marc Stiles, writer for the Puget Sound Business Journal, will moderate this interview-style program, which will also include time for audience Q&A.
Seeing the Better City presents a toolkit for city dwellers—from residents to developers and municipal officials—to become active participants in the improvement of cities through refined attention to our visual sense and perspective. Learn about the art and science of urban observation, and how simple actions—like taking pictures with your camera or phone—can lead to better understanding and implementation of urban and neighborhood change.
Charles Wolfe, author of Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe and Improve Urban Space (Island Press), shares insights about the ways in which city dwellers can take into account the influences of urban form, neighborhood dynamics, public transportation, and other elements impacting their daily lives and use our observations to contribute to better planning and design decisions. Tonight he will focus on addressing changes and concerns we face in our city and how these relate to other cities and examples from urban history. He'll draw upon his experiences in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, the Central Area and Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine corridors. Charles Wolfe, a land use attorney, author and photographer, serves on the Board of Directors of Futurewise, and serves as an Affiliate Associate Professor of Urban Design an Planning at the University of Washington.
1521 Tenth Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122
Date: Monday, February 13, 2017 - 7:00pm
Charles R. Wolfe at Town Hall Seattle
February 9, 2017 at 7:30PM
Doors open at 6:30PM.
Downstairs at Town Hall
1119 Eighth Avenue (enter on Seneca Street)
Seattle, Washington 98101
In Seeing the Better City, Seattle-based writer, photographer, and land-use attorney Charles R. Wolfe presents a toolkit for city dwellers to become active participants in the improvement of their cities. His position? That while big data, digital mapping, and simulated cityscapes are valuable tools for understanding urban space, the real understanding of city spaces come from day-to-day human interaction. Wolfe encourages an “urban diary” approach and offers practical tools and techniques for cataloguing neighborhood dynamics like land use and traffic patterns. His vision is to make participation in city planning and design more inclusive and accessible to populations whose voices are often excluded from the conversation. Wolfe envisions a future in which the whole community participates in the work of fostering an equitable, livable city.
King County Sustainable Cities Roundtable: Winter Walk with Wolfe
Thu, February 9, 2017
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM PST
Kirkland City Hall
123 5th Avenue
Kirkland, WA 98033
Join King County GreenTools for a special two hour Roundtable and walking tour of downtown Kirkland. Island Press author Chuck Wolfe will discuss and demonstrate the value of visual sense, immersion, and real world observation as tools to create lasting positive changes in the urban environment. The walking tour will include a participatory exercise stopping at various points of interest in downtown Kirkland and cataloguing observations, photos, and ideas for improvements in the urban landscape. The tour will conclude at Kirkland’s local independent BookTree bookstore with a book signing at 2 pm. Books will also be available for sale at City Hall before the Roundtable.
Join Futurewise and Chuck Wolfe – land-use and environmental law attorney, and author of the forthcoming book Seeing the Better City – for an interactive tour of the West Central neighborhood and an evening talk on observing the urban form.More info here.
This blog originally appeared on myurbanist.com and is reposted here with permission.
My Twitter stream is alive with the sound of placemaking. While those are not the exact Sound of Music lyrics we remember, I am as guilty as anyone for hyping Placemaking Week in Vancouver, British Columbia (which begins September 12), using the increasingly popular twitter hashtag, #placemaking.
Three initiatives, under the umbrella of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), will come together this week for overlapping conferences (including the PPS Placemaking Leadership Council, Future of Places and ProWalk/ProBike/Pro Place). The common themes address how to create accessible urban places that are useful, meaningful and enjoyable to a full range of residents and visitors alike–qualities that help people decide where they really want to live.
Food trucks and human scale, sit-able places (consider the chair interventions that we now see in public spaces around the world) are just part of the focus. Another is breaking free of the car and walkability. Most clear is a spirit of empowerment in how the public realm develops, always contrasting with “starchitecture,” rigid design or top-down plans. For PPS, a carefully studied, bottom-up approach is often the secret sauce of successful urban places. This long debate about managed design versus the verbiage of democratic placemaking recently reached a zenith with a controversial essay on “bogus placemaking” by architectural critic James S. Russell last year, and the illuminating comment chain that followed.
However, like imposed urban design, conference agendas also impose a direction and control, which is ironically anathema to a bottom-up approach . So, hearing that over 1000 people will attend (and preparing for my Future of Places presentation), I’ve been perusing the program and schedule for the week’s Placemaking Leadership Forum, full of creative, equity-centered language and ideals, in direct preparation for the United Nations’ Habitat III Conference, which follows in Quito, Ecuador in October.
The placemaking movement is hitting stride, and its principles are embraced by a number of professional organizations—from architects, to planners, to new urbanists—under different labels but with similar livability goals. I’m not so interested anymore about who owns the ideas, or whether a design professional is needed to implement a livable city. While not a design professional, I am more concerned—but without Russell’s biting prose cited above—that a place-based approach remains more than pablum, and truly honors the latent needs of urban inhabitants and the findings of those well-versed in the academic discipline of place-attachment.
For some years now, I have also focused a critical eye on the role of spontaneity and authenticity in successful urban outcomes. I examined a city of celebration—with new, shared uses of closed streets and vantage points—amid the “placemaking lessons learned” as 700,000 people watched the 2014 Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl Parade. I mused about, and wrote a book surrounding the “urbanism without effort” experienced in neighbor-generated, summer evening “alley movie nights” behind my house.
My conclusions usually stress that authentic “placemaking” with a purpose is often best, how one-time events can help crystallize potential alternative uses of urban spaces and how real neighborhood experiences offer a meaningful gloss on how to make cities better and increase shared places for all.
Because I think success often emerges from urbanism that we already have–which is readily observable, and already there to be nurtured—I’ll be going to Vancouver with an informal metric in mind: how many of the panels, proceedings, talks and strategies avoid immediate prescription without critical analysis? Will they remember to look first for what people have, want and need?
If nothing else, the overall program looks diverse, interactive and sensitive to the Vancouver locale. Just outside, Vancouver will provide the perfect sort of people-centric observatory at the heart of the #placemaking song.
Images composed by the author in London and Vancouver. © 2009-2016 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved.Do not copy.
In honor of the first presidential debate tonight beteween Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we asked Island Press authors: "If you were advisor to the president, what would your top priority be and why?" Check out their answers, in their own words, below.
I'd urge the President to act on every possible opportunity to reduce the influence of money in the political process, because until that happens it will be increasingly difficult to make progress on anything else.
-Dan Fagin, Toms River
Maintaining and extending the collaborative relationship with the Republic of Mexico over the shared waters of the Colorado River should be a sustained priority. The 2012 agreement known as "Minute 319", signed in 2012, included important water sharing provisions and for the first time allowed water to be returned to the desiccated Colorado River for the environment and the communities of Mexico. The deal was an important milestone, but it was only a temporary agreement. We need permanent solutions to the overuse of the Colorado River, and sustaining our partnership with Mexico is a critical piece.
-John Fleck, Water is for Fighting Over
1) Ending farm subsidies and other protection/promotion of food crops.
2) Embracing GMO neutrality.
3) Ending federal support for state unpasteurized (raw) milk bans.
4) Reining in the FDA.
5) Ending the federal ban on sales of locally slaughtered meat.
6) Ending federal policies that promote food waste.
7) Improving food safety and choice by requiring good outcomes, rather than mandating specific processes.
8) Ending the federal ban on distilling spirits at home.
9) Deregulating the cultivation of hemp.
-Baylen Linnekin, Biting the Hands that Feed Us
For more elaboration on these bullets, see Linnekin’s full article on Reason.
My advice to a presidential candidate would be to recall the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that its true whether or not you believe in it.” Natural forces are at work that will have adverse consequences, many of which are diametrically opposed to our national interests. Global climate change, the spread of vector borne diseases, and the rampant overuse of nonrenewable and renewable resources are just three such forces currently in play. The decisions that you make during your tenure will be pivotal relative to the health and well-being of our citizens, as well as the citizens of the world. Recognize the fact that you are governing, just as Lincoln did, during a period of history that will resonate for centuries to come. Make wise environmental decisions even if they are not necessarily politically advantageous. Our futures depend upon it.
-Alan Kolok, Modern Poisons
“I would urge the President to take strong action to pass climate change legislation in Congress. The form that climate change legislation would take would depend on the politics, but it is imperative that the U.S. begins to lead the world to action on climate change. Climate change isn’t even my own professional issue of focus (I would love to talk to the President about how to make our cities more resilient, green, and livable), but it seems to me clearly the crisis issue. Every major scientific study that is coming out is pointing toward serious consequences of climate change, happening now. Rather than thinking about climate change that will impact my kids’ lives, I am realizing it will deeply impact my own as well.”
-Rob McDonald, Conservation for Cities
If I had a chance to sit face-to-face with the winning candidate, my advice would be something like: Think about the welfare of our grandchildren when you make decisions on energy and environmental issues. Consider not just the short-term impacts but the long-term consequences of sea-level rise, extreme weather events, droughts, and loss of agricultural land. Set an example for reducing carbon emissions based on energy efficiency and renewable energy that can serve as a model for developing countries. Listen to our climate scientists and heed their warnings. Trust their advice on global warming in the same way you trust the advice of your physician with regard to your personal health.
-Charles Eley, Design Professional’s Guide to Zero Net Energy Buildings
I would push for the next President to try again (yes, again!) to work on bipartisan climate action, perhaps with a revenue-neutral carbon tax like the Initiative 732 campaign that I’m a part of in Washington State. We’re proud to have endorsements from three Republicans in the state legislature as well as from a bunch of Democrats. The short-sighted opposition from some left-wing groups (including some mainstream “environmental” groups) highlights the risk of making climate change a partisan wedge issue for electing Democrats instead of an existential issue for all Americans. We need to try harder to build a big tent for lasting climate action, and that’s one one reason I’m so fond of the quote at the end of this NYT story (about the failed attempt by enviros to win control of the Washington State legislature for the Democrats in Nov 2014): “The most important thing is to normalize this issue [climate change] with Republicans,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. “Anything that makes it more partisan makes it less likely that there will be legislation, until such time as Democrats take over the world. Which according to my watch, will not be happening anytime soon.”
-Yoram Bauman, Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change
I would urge the President to reassert cross-departmental efforts such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to further empower local governments and constituents to meet ongoing challenges of urban development, because those challenges of land use, transportation, affordability will not be entirely met by private market solutions. I would also advise that the new administration investigate further centralizing resources relevant to urban areas, and evaluate (as was once proposed by Richard Florida) a new cabinet-level position focused on cities and rapidly urbanizing areas. Finally, I would suggest to the President that the federal government should lead by example by illustrating methods to elevate civic dialogue, including program development and funding to encourage individuals to obtain firsthand knowledge of the cities around them through careful observation and input into urban political and regulatory processes.
-Charles Wolfe, Seeing the Better City
Challenging as this will be even to try, much less accomplish, the next President should work to return a spirit of compromise and cooperation to the American political conversation. On the current course, no real progress toward environmental or social sustainability is possible. The impacts of climate change and demographic pressure are now becoming obvious to people of all political persuasions. Growing awareness may eventually offer room for fresh policy ideas: a carbon tax with proceeds turned into dividends and a universal basic income for all citizens, access for all to comprehensive sexuality education and reproductive health services, and humane and sustainable migration law.
-Robert Engelman, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want
As much as climate change will affect the United States, we likely have the capacity to adapt more effectively than most other countries—at least in terms of human welfare. At the same time, US demand for foreign goods and services is not going away; I, for one, don’t care what you say about the damn environment—I’m having my morning cup of tea or coffee come hell or high water (the latter an increasingly distinct possibility). If my personal recalcitrance is at all reflective of our national attitude, we nonetheless ought to be striving for a broadly-defined international stance that fully and coherently accounts for climate change. Specifically, in a world where the actions of our friends and our enemies will be increasingly defined by surging resource constraints (as well as “releases”—think Arctic oil…), our next President should focus on integrating foreign aid, fair trade, free trade, and military/security policy in a way that anticipates the incoming tsunami of threats—and opportunities—posed by climate chaos.
-Charles Chester, Climate and Conservation
In general terms, I believe the wealth of the nation lies in two areas: natural resources and human resources. As a matter of national defense priority, these areas require policy attention at the national level. Attending to these issues requires commitment and collaboration among all political, ethnic, religious and socio-economic affiliations—it is time for the adults to take charge. In particular, it will be necessary to harness their combined strengths in a public and private partnership initiative. An outline of my top priorities topics includes the following:
Natural Resources/Climate Change:
-Michael Murphy, Landscape Architecture Theory, Second Edition
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read Glenn Beck’s recent commentary in the New York Times. “The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others, and even try to understand and empathize with one another,” he wrote. He took the words right out of my mouth. And so, Glenn and I urge the next President to do exactly that, reach across the aisle, connect with the great diversity of people and views in this country, and with respect and empathy seek to understand.
-Lucy Moore, Common Ground on Hostile Turf
Given the evident impact of rampant development pressures and climate change on our nation’s wildlife populations and diverse ecosystems, I urge the next President to endorse and promote a strong federal leadership role in collaborative landscape-scale planning efforts among federal, state, tribal, and private landowners in order to ensure our natural heritage is conserved for present and future generations.
-Robert Keiter, To Conserve Unimpaired
Dear Future POTUS,
The U.S. must be consumed with the urgent goal of retooling the energy infrastructure of our country and the world. Cooperatively mobilizing with other nations, our government—we, the people—must immediately, using all just and complementary means at our disposal—e.g., directives, incentives, and disincentives—close down fossil fuel operations and facilitate replacing coal, oil, and gas dependencies with cradle-to-cradle manufacture and ecologically and socially sensitive installation of ready, climate-responsible technologies, including locally scaled wind turbines, geothermal plants, and solar panels.
No less urgently, as a globally-responsible facilitator, the U.S.—members of all administrative branches together with the citizenry who have chosen them—must, with forthright honesty and transparency, support a matured narrative of progress that is alluring across political spectrums. This story must redefine power to integrate economic prosperity with other commonly held values—such as equality, justice, democratic liberty, and skillful love for land that interpenetrates with human health and flourishing. It must recall people to ourselves and each other not as mere individual consumers, but as diverse, empowered, capably caring members—across generations—of families, neighborhoods, and of the whole ecosphere of interdependencies—bedrock to sunlight—the source of Earth’s life.
Julianne Lutz Warren, Plain member of the U.S. and Earth, and author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.
Creating cities that work for everyone means seeing them from different perspectives—literally. In Seeing the Better City, urbanist writer, photographer, and land-use attorney Charles R. Wolfe takes urban observation beyond design review and zoning codes, charting a future where all city-dwellers can contribute to the improvement of their city.
While big data, digital mapping, and simulated cityscapes are valuable tools for understanding urban space, Seeing the Better City emphasizes and celebrates the role of human observation in creating spaces that reflect authentic, local context. In the book, Wolfe presents a comprehensive toolkit for cataloging the influences of neighborhood dynamics, public transportation, urban form, and other elements that impact day-to-day life in a city.
Wolfe calls this the “urban diary” approach and emphasizes how the perspective of the observer—including their cultural identity and past social experiences—are key to understanding the dynamics of urban space. Through clear prose and vibrant photographs, he gives examples of practical tools that can make city planning and design more inclusive, including the role that cameras and smartphones can play in making urban observation more accessible to communities whose voices are often excluded from these discussions.
Check out an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the book below.
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.