We built this city

Paul Constant

September 26, 2017

Seattle writer Charles R. Wolfe’s recent book Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space argues that city-dwellers are more than just passive participants in the urban experience. Wolfe contends that it is everyone’s job to investigate cities, to note changes in neighborhoods, to imagine ways that the city might be improved, to record the interaction between humans and their environment.

In order to facilitate active involvement with cities, Wolfe encourages his readers to keep what he calls “urban diaries.” The idea is fairly simple: city-dwellers take photographs and keep extensive written documentation of their surroundings, preferably as they wander through the city as pedestrians. Wolfe believes that urban diaries will support civic engagement, raise awareness about ignored aspects of city life, and create more walkable, livable, enjoyable urban spaces.

While Wolfe takes examples from around the world and throughout history, Seeing is a very Seattle-centric book. Local politicians like Mike McGinn and Mike O’Brien figure into the book very frequently. McGinn shows Wolfe how the simple act of taking the top half of a wall down transforms an enclosed patio beer garden into a movable feast that is in conversation with pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Wolfe argues that the 2015 uproar over Seattle’s Housing and Livability Task Force Agenda report — the HALA conflict, in which Seattle NIMBYs argued that neighborhoods should be primarily for single-family homes — would not have been nearly as controversial had more urban diarists been on the streets: “I am convinced that if the HALA report had contained residents’ photographs of what many single-family neighborhoods already looked like, this debate about alternative housing types would have been much different.” When we don’t actively look at the city, he argues, we begin to become unmoored from the city’s reality. We begin to argue about ideals that don’t actually resemble the city in which we live.

From urban diaries, professionals such as architects, engineers, planners, and lawyers can infer principles of practice based on human-scale dimension addressing the relation between building and street, and associated pedestrian spaces, as well as best practices for lanes, surfacing, and signage. They can allow for what legendary travel photographer Burton Holmes labeled “film as biography” and create a record of an observed time and place.

You can probably infer from the quotes so far that Seeing takes a more academic slant to its subject. While Wolfe rightfully heaps praise on Charles Montgomery’s modern urban planning classic Happy City, Seeing doesn’t mimic Happy City’s simple language and general-interest approachability. If you regularly read the wonky Seattle Transit Blog, say, you will definitely be able to comprehend Wolfe’s prose, but the book is not nearly as accessible as it could be.

This is a conscious decision on Wolfe’s part. He isn’t interested in a Ghosts of Seattle Past-like lament, choosing to take a more clinical approach. “Beware of nostalgia when observing historic landmarks and places,” Wolfe warns aspiring urban diarists. “It is not surprising to be motivated or awestruck; the challenge is to think about why. What is it about seeing such a place, or otherwise sensing it, that causes any particular reaction?” People get passionate about cities, but Wolfe encourages a more professional, cooler disposition in his researchers.

Still, for people who are interested in the art and science of what makes cities work, Seeing offers practical solutions for how to improve a personal relationship with a city. I like this reminder from a list of tips on how to become a better urban photographer:

Considering the role of people in photographs is a critical first step. Regardless of the camera, the photographic style, or how-to suggestions, this one, universal parameter applies to any urban photography. Unless the message of the image explicitly relies on empty space, be sure to document surroundings during times that people are using streets and other public spaces, or visibly traveling between private spaces.

Given that cities are where people live, it’s surprising how easy it is for us to forget to include people in our thoughts and theories about cities. Look at any architect’s rendering of a new building to see how little people matter; the people in those illustrations are always faceless, anonymized figures who seem almost embarrassed to be in the photo. You get the sense that these bland bodies will soon scurry out of the way, leaving what really matters most — the buildings — to reassume their rightful place, dominating the frame.

Despite the more dispassionate approach, Wolfe clearly cares a lot about his subject. I wonder if perhaps Seeing might be more effective if Wolfe included more examples of his own urban diaries, rather than giving over so much of the book to explaining the how and why of them. A book containing years of Wolfe’s wanderings might be a more compelling example than the prescriptive tone of Seeing.

Wolfe’s interdisciplinary approach to civic engagement is really quite exciting. With urban diaries, Wolfe is democratizing urban planning, putting it into the hands of everyone who lives in the city rather than a rarefied few. Nobody knows what a city needs more than the people who live in the city, and by employing those people as the eyes and ears and immune systems of cities, Wolfe is creating a more accountable model.

By using his 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 for our own personal pursuits. A city is more than all of us combined. A city can be a deeply personal experience, too.

Books in this review:
  • Seeing the Better City
    by Charles R. Wolfe
    Island Press
    February 01, 2017
    248 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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