January 16 2014

Rethinking Placemaking: Book Review of “Urbanism Without Effort”

Ideas about cities are always changing, but the fundamentals of urban living stand the test of time. Urbanism Without Effort, written by Seattle native Chuck Wolfe, suggests that we consider the basics when faced with the complexities of planning cities. Using illustrations of various urban environments around the world, it articulates an idea that I have always pondered, and adds the missing piece to today’s tactical urbanism.

Alley Way Movie Night - Seattle

City planning is a fine balance of art and science, people and place. Too often, buzzwords and trending ideas dominate, while the fundamentals are missing from the dialogue. A look back to our innate sensibilities, put in a localized context, and executed with professional expertise, will yield the best results. Wolfe says that to do this, it’s as important to observe as it is to intervene. He suggests that we keep an “urban diary,” whether it be physical or mental, to gain this wisdom.

This isn’t new by any stretch; we have probably been tackling these ideas long before placemaking was a professional endeavor. This may excite the anti-regulation types, but Wolfe isn’t suggesting that planners need to get out of the way. The crux is that the regulatory environment needs to take a holistic approach, understanding the human relationships with cities that have always existed. Without it, the result could be superficial or imposing. Another policy failure is land-use patterns that limit creativity and potential. Why can’t a restaurant exist in an industrial building? Finally, changes that are made at a policy level should be contextual as well. What works in Croatia may not work in Seattle. However, all places have their own topography, sociocultural realities, or historical assets.

Urbanism Without Effort is a good read for those who like to romanticize urban living, but it is also grounded with solutions. It’s not a “how-to” book, but it sets the tone for future projects. Adaptive reuse is a common theme, arguing that we should build off of the strengths that exist in places, rather than creating new ones. Wolfe uses the example of a mossy Seattle bridge that was converted into a pedestrian connection, which created an aesthetic and practical part of the landscape.

Places that are “human-scale,” such as walkable blocks, alleyway restaurants, or dynamic mixed-use areas, also reoccur in Wolfe’s “urban diary.” A simple picture can express this most aptly. Consider the picture of London’s Covent Garden shown below, where walkability (or Wolfe’s term, “sit-ability”), historic architecture with various uses, and a local touch create an inviting and cultural environment. What you are seeing is urbanism that isn’t trying too hard. This wasn’t done deliberately; people just like to live this way.

London's Covent Garden

At its core, Wolfe is critiquing modern day efforts of “placemaking.” Too often, we take what works somewhere and assume it will work at home. Inevitably it comes off as contrived. A premiere example of authentic urbanism is Wolfe’s description of an alley-way movie night in a Seattle neighborhood. The spontaneous and creative venue was iconic of the book’s general message.

The jargon-free text makes this book a good option for anyone, but the substance of the message could make for academic reading as well. I enjoyed reading this book for its vignettes of urban living from around the world. Understanding how these places came to be is key to discovering the untapped potential in our own city.

Have you noticed examples of effortless urbanism in your travels?

Urbanism Without Effort is available in ebook format. Visit urbanismwithouteffort.com for more information.

Credits: Written by Colin Poff.  Images courtesy of Chuck Wolfe.

Colin Poff

Colin Poff is a recent graduate from Western Washington University where he studied Political Science and Economics. He currently interns at the City of Redmond, where he is providing research and analysis for the long-range planning department. While traveling in Europe and in China Colin became a critical observer of modern cities, and curious about how policies can be crafted to facilitate economic development with community values in mind. In his career, he would like to make cities more dynamic and livable by encouraging mixed-use areas and people-focused design. Next fall, Colin intends to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning. When he is not in the city, you can find him in the mountains, skiing with his friends.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 16th, 2014 at 9:12 am and is filed under Architecture, Book Review, Colin Poff, Community/Economic Development, Environmental Design, History/Preservation, Land Use, Landscape Architecture, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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One Response to “Rethinking Placemaking: Book Review of “Urbanism Without Effort””

  1. Chuck Wolfe Says:

    Just a quick note from the author’s perspective. Colin, your review is among the most insightful thus far and I very much appreciate how you took the time to understand what I was up to. Not all reviewers do that and at least from my perspective your own perspective really shines through at a substantive level. Again, many thanks!

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