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Urbanism: What inspiration can we bring home from our travels?

Even when places are defined by the dance of history, people, and place, there are parts of our experience that can help shape urban life elsewhere.

Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre towns in Italy

Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre towns in Italy Chuck Wolfe

Today’s populist urbanism celebrates the rise of the city, whether documented by census or science. Along the way, some note nostalgia when the long-time “Mom and Pop” store closes and urban places lose their distinction to Seattle-based author Jonathan Raban’s “rootless” feeling of anywhere.

Another facet of urbanism comes from that indescribable human dance of history, people, and place that occurs when we simply like what we see. It is exciting when something resonates, such as purposefully preserved fragments of what was —more than Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge — but places that take us back to a sustainable set of circumstances with a simple, irrational gestalt: to live there for a year rather than a day, or to take the places home.

What if there were five neighborhoods connected by a trail? Or better yet, as illustrated from the Cinque Terre in northwest Italy, five towns, all self-contained, but symbiotic, micro-economies also connected by footpath, rail, and water? What if they all had the magical amenities of street, square and housing within, terraced agriculture and spiritual retreats in the near-hinterlands?

The Cinque Terre towns of today have, in reality, evolved as a designated world heritage site and a national park with mechanisms to preserve and protect the cultural landscape (including often-abandoned hillside vineyards), and the internationally noted “look and feel” of interconnected towns.

Such regional “artifacts” raise the real question: Need such places be facade-based shells, largely touristic, dominated in the summer by strangers rejoicing not just in local wine and pesto, but, ironically, the lack of cars and the wonders of a small-scale, interurban trek?

More than this year’s myurbanist topics of placemaking from ruins, learning from hill towns and chasing utopia, can the “we like what we see elements” be the stuff of daily life rather than a vacation? Similar sentiments dominate comparative blog and article references in recent months by Mssrs. Benfield and Epstein, who evoked ongoing work by Mahron and Mouzon, as well.

At this time of year such sentiments are worth repeating.

Over and above summer jaunts — and shipping home wine and pesto to remember and share — we should all bring home the gift of urban ideas. This gift honors not only of the spirit of the holidays, but also the spirit of implementation.

Charles R. (Chuck) Wolfe, is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use, environmental law and permitting. He is also an Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land use law at the graduate level. He serves on the Board of Directors of Futurewise and Seattle Great City, the Management Committee of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) Northwest District Council and has held leadership positions for the American Planning Association and the Washington State Bar Association. Chuck is an avid traveler, photographer and writer, and contributes regularly on urban development topics for The Atlantic, The Atlantic Cities, Grist, The Huffington Post, seattlepi.com and others. His book, Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013), was released in May. He blogs regularly at myurbanist.

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