Seeing the Better City
6 x 9
6 x 9
Finalist for a 2018 United Kingdom National Urban Design Award • A 2017 KUOW Public Radio 2017 End-of-Year Book Choice
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.
"A toolkit for fine-tuning your observational acumen...this type of close, thoughtful looking is a way to snap out of the stupor of the daily grind and parse the details that are so easily overshadowed. But, Wolfe writes, it's also a way to think about how to shape the future."
"Absorbing...[Wolfe] encourages readers to think with our eyes and communicate with visual imagery in order to improve our cities."
"A book of insightful urban observation...works well as a detailed how-to instruction manual on capturing the essence of place."
"With this book Wolfe has created a detailed how-to for personal observation, for whatever reason the observer chooses."
Landscape Architecture Magazine
"As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own."
ASLA's The Dirt
"A comprehensive toolkit for helping us reintroduce the human experience into urban planning."
"Touching on historical examples, from Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York series from the '30s, to neighborhood debates of today's changing modern metropolis, Wolfe outlines a philosophy that reflects his multihyphenate nature, blending the artistic approach of a photographer with the rigor of a lawyer."
"Seeing the Better City offers a fecund trove of examples, drawing on the author's extensive travels and offering readers a rich storehouse of insights by which to fashion their own urban diaries."
Journal of Planning Education and Research
"Argues that city-dwellers are more than just passive participants in the urban experience...By using [Wolfe's] urban diary method, pedestrians can change a city just by walking through it and taking note of what they see. Wolfe is arguing for more than just strength in numbers—he's training us to become better city-dwellers—to advocate for the things that would make the city better."
Seattle Review of Books
"Easy to read and rich with inspiring detail, Seeing the Better City marries prose with imagery to show how anyone who engages with a city can log their experiences and impressions and how these observations can contribute to better urban planning and design decisions...Wolfe provides an original and impassioned perspective on cities."
"An intriguing and earnest manifesto for a better city that celebrates the role of human observation of the people-place relationships in urban life. Through the advocacy of author-composed photographic images that capture what is seen and witnessed, the book sets out a strong agenda for ways of recording authentic representations of personal daily urban experiences."
"Highly recommended...It challenges the reader to become an engaged observer of the urban milieu rather than just a passive passerby, and to actively describe the impressions, notes, and feelings that a particular urban space may generate...An urban diary can be a great tool to help make our cities and neighborhoods better places for the next cohorts of their users."
Journal of Urban Technology
"This is a book that should be of interest to planning, urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture faculty and students. Public agency planners and planning consultants may pluck some provocative ideas regarding the possibilities of incorporating the urban diary into their own planning processes."
Journal of Planning Education and Research
"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.
Seeing the Better City: A Discussion with Chuck Wolfe
Tue, Mar 28, 2017 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM EDT
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. 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.
Join Next City and Island Press for this exclusive webinar featuring Chuck and Next City President, CEO & Publisher Tom Dallessio. Next City readers who support their spring membership campaign at the $60 level may receive a copy of “Seeing the Better City” along with a 30 percent discount on Island Press’ entire catalog.
Webinar registration: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4206886900194332674
Presentation + Discussion, followed by reception
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
5-6 pm / Gould 322
Department of Landscape Architecture + Department of Urban Design & Planning
College of Built Environments / University of Washington
Celebrating three new books produced by CBE faculty focusing on understanding the city in the past year: Learning from Bogotá: Pedagogical Urbanism and the Reshaping of Public Space (by Rachel Berney), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (edited by Manish Chalana and Jeff Hou), and Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space (by Chuck Wolfe).
at Center for Architecture & Design
The Main Streets America program helps to empower grassroots efforts to take on major placemaking efforts, building vibrant downtowns that reflect and serve local communities. As our urban spaces change ever more quickly, we find it easy to talk about the changes we do or do not want to see, but the urban landscape is largely experienced visually.
Local author, urbanist and land use lawyer Chuck Wolfe believes that this realm of missing visual expression helps citizens, design professionals and elected officials alike get to the heart of what matters to them in changing neighborhoods. In his new book, “Seeing the Better City,” Wolfe details his urban diary technique, using close looking and photography from Seattle and international venues to see and understand their urban environment and how human experience intersects with the built world.
Wolfe will present a brief talk, based on his book, followed by a walk through CfAD's surrounding neighborhood demonstrating his urban diary techniques and inviting participants to begin their process to envisioning a better Seattle.
Attendance to the talk will be limited to 50, attendance to the walk is limited to 25. Participants are encouraged to bring a camera – or phone! – on the walk.
Despite the widespread use of big data, GIS and 3D modeling, personal observation is still a critical tool for understanding what makes places successful. Without it, any analysis may overlook the key local contexts that make our cities unique. Join us as we learn about Seeing the Better City, a new book that focuses on how looking at the sights, sounds and experiences of a place can help create the policies and plans that will shape better urban environments. Co-presented by Island Press.
+ Chuck Wolfe / author
SPUR Urban Center
654 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105-4015
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
See map: Google Maps
The State of Being Equal is a forum intended to make sure we trump Trump politics by exploring how society can be more equitable and just, rather than divisive and bellicose. Each event in the series will examine a new title that is relevant to global and sexual politics.
Charles R. Wolfe’s Seeing the Better City is an invaluable tool for constructive, creative discourse about improving urban space. Wolfe demonstrates how we might better catalog the influences of city elements such as urban form, neighborhood dynamics and public transportation, as well as shares insights into how they can use those observations to contribute to better planning and design decisions.
Wolfe will discuss his research and book with The Urbanist’s Alan Davies.
Free, but please book 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 is the Publicity & Marketing Associate 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 is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
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.
Continue reading on Governing...
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.
"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
"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
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
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.