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How to Observe Your City

A new book offers a toolkit to help urbanites look closely and carefully.

Matt Dunham/AP

On a walk through the Madrona neighborhood—one of Seattle’s most historic, stretching toward Lake Washington—Charles R. Wolfe studiously noted what he saw, and what those sights conjured. First-floor retail shops recalled, for him, pockets of Glasgow or Edinburgh; a waist-high wall partitioning a community space from the street reminded him of outdoor seating in Lisbon.

Wolfe, a writer, photographer, and attorney, is a passionate proponent of indexing and dissecting urban landscapes. His new book, Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space ($30, Island Press) is a toolkit for fine-tuning your observational acumen.

He suggests that city-dwellers keep what he calls an “urban diary”—maybe a pencil-and-paper notebook, or an array of digitized images.

This isn’t an exhaustive cataloging of one specific and isolated feature (no matter how much you love exuberantly decorated manhole covers). Instead, the urban diarist looks for patterns that emerge when people interact with space.

(Courtesy of Island Press)

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.

The urban diarist, Wolfe writes, performs “visual archaeology, recording the successes and failures of present-day urban settings for both clues about the past and ideas.” If a pop-up plaza feels particularly welcoming—and residents are flocking to it—careful observation might offer clues to how it could be scalable.

Wolfe’s imperative builds on the rambles celebrated by Jan Gehl, Birgitte Svarre, William Whyte, Jane Jacobs, and others. Conversations about designing cities for the people who use them, Wolfe argues, will be more successful if those folks are actively engaged in them. To do so, he adds, those “recipients of change” ought to put feet to pavement and think about what they see.

They might look for answers to any number of questions: Where are people pausing as they move through the neighborhood? What seems to be drawing them in? Taking notes while traveling can spark innovation back home; New York’s High Line, Wolfe notes, was animated by an idea that germinated in Paris.

When working on the urban diary, Wolfe suggests an approach he calls LENS: looking, exploring, narrating, and summarizing. Although maps can help you plot out your route and get your bearings—and Wolfe recommends getting a lay of the land before setting out—he champions a sensory approach in which scribblers allow themselves to be pulled by the tug of curious sights and smells.

This is the kind of observation we’re inviting you to practice for our weekly Navigator newsletter, in which we’re issuing little challenges like scavenger hunts to help you peer a little closer at the nooks and crannies of your city. Sign up for the next installment here, and go on and get out there.  

Seeing the Better City is out now from Island Press.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.