The Dynamic Potential of Urbanism Without Effort

Before applying any prescription, we need to first isolate spontaneous and latent examples of successful urban land use.

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Charles R. Wolfe

Urban stakeholders like to discuss and debate how cities should change to meet new challenges. But when we talk about urbanism, I think we often forget the underlying dynamics that are as old as cities themselves. As a result, we favor fads over the indigenous underpinnings of urban settlement and personal observation of urban change. We focus too literally on plans, model codes, transportation modes, building appearance, economic and population specifics, and summary indicators of how land is currently used. While we might champion the programmed successes of certain iconic examples, we risk ignoring the back story of urban forms and functions, and failing to truly understand the traditional relationships between people and place.

I believe it is critical to first isolate spontaneous and latent examples of successful urban land use, before applying any prescription of typologies, desired ends, or governmental initiative. "Urbanism without effort" is the the basis for a clean, multidisciplinary slate for reinvigorating the way we think about urban development today.

This premise needs a definition and reference point, for all that follows here and in future inquiry. "Urbanism without effort" is what happens naturally when people congregate in cities—based on the innate interactions of urban dwellers that occur with one other and the surrounding urban and physical environment. Such innate interactions are often the product of cultural tradition and organic urban development, independent of government intervention, policy, or plan.

Urbanism without effort is not always initially obvious; it may seem more whimsical than remarkable when viewed from an aerial photo, an online map, or a satellite picture. In fact, it is almost invisible from these perspectives, as the fine urban grain is lost. It is best recognized and embraced from the ground and experienced firsthand, where it is possible to see more than just the physical outline of the city—it is possible to see life flowing through the urban form. This first-hand perspective, often informed by photography, focuses on organic and naturally-occurring urbanism, as distinguished from other purposeful approaches such as tactical, interventionist, insurgent, or "pop-up" urbanism.

While these more purposeful approaches may lead to successful places, I often wonder: Why don’t they always have a meaningful and lasting effect? All too often these approaches are more sensational than not, and temporary by design. And often, the status quo returns after these purposeful installations, such as street-side tables, greened parking spaces, food trucks, or guerrilla gardens, are removed or abandoned. In comparison, urbanism without effort endures beyond a mere installation or exhibition. Because it is latent, it can grow and evolve.

Rather than assume that the popular and touted is readily adaptable, or readily subject to metrics or labels, we should return to first principles and isolate the fundamental, vernacular relationships between city inhabitants and what surrounds them. We need to look, analyze, and discern, until we remember what a basic sort of city life looks like. While we consider these inherent factors that shape spaces and their use, we also must remember that there is a certain, spontaneous magic attributable to good urban places that can awaken them, but will only occur when they are locally relevant and embraced.

This piece was adapted from 'Urbanism Without Effort,' an e-book from Island Press.

About the Author

  • Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.