Book Review

Urbanism Without Effort

Reconnecting with First Principles of the City
Charles R Wolfe

This update of an earlier e-book, carries an important message on the essential need to view urbanism within its historic and wider context, and to avoid overly prescriptive and top-down approaches.

The author refers to urbanism without effort as the organic process by which places have always evolved naturally, which includes the unplanned, the spontaneous and the human scale. It highlights the key principles of a successful community, appreciation of local values and preferences, the need for experience, and close observation over time.

Wolfe’s method for achieving this urbanism is very human: the urban diary, the personal experience of place by observation. A diary can take many forms from mere internalised perception to a tweet or an essay. The book is in effect the author’s diary; there are no plans, graphs or diagrams, but black and white photographs and commentaries with a global sweep.

In a series of slightly nostalgic vignettes, Wolfe captures his best urban diary examples, but in each case he highlights how the success of the place is derived from context, and cannot be simply replicated elsewhere. He notes how Matera in Italy evolved from its cave dwellings, and how the Croatian town of Split evolved from a Diocletian Palace. The diaries draw upon the common characteristics of desirable places that urban designers will be familiar with: walkable, people-orientated, evolved over time, fostering re-use and adaptability. Corners, ground floor activity, and perceptions of safety matter as well.

The implication is that a lot of urban planning by regulation and zoning destroys vitality and is susceptible to inappropriate replication. Wolfe reflects on a request he encountered to recreate Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori within a 1960s US shopping mall. By contrast, his own enjoyment of an outdoor movie night set up in a back alley of his Seattle neighbourhood, was spontaneous and naturally built a sense of local community.

You could quibble with how unplanned the best places are. Nonetheless the book makes the case well for an authentic urbanism, based on a depth of experience. Essential checks are needed to relate policy proposals to their context and the people who live there. The book concludes by recommending a five-part inquiry process that allows urbanists to embrace future change in a way that happens more organically. Too often city politics, regulation and economic constraints dominate. The city of tomorrow needs to be an adaptive re-use of the city of today

URBAN DESIGN 152 Autumn 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 152 Autumn 2019

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Urbanism Without Effort  Publication Urban Design Group
Island Press
Reviewed By
Tim Hagyard