Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of inspirational pieces about people and urban places from author Chuck Wolfe (Urbanism Without Effort, Island Press, 2013). The series will illustrate first principles of urbanism and suggest how Seattle could benefit from them. Chuck's book will be available in April.
In my own writing, I enjoy finding layered, historical illustrations of how people relate to the built and sociocultural environments around them. This is not merely an academic exercise, but a useful supplement to today’s urbanist dialogue and sustainable placemaking efforts. The following freestanding principles and companion lessons are drawn from my snapshots and observations of people and place.
Principle 1: When Placemaking, Account for Authentic, Visible Evolution (Lisbon and Porto, Portugal)
The story of Portugal is not always well-known, and it is a mistake to cast the Iberian Peninsula as a lump sum proposition. Placemakers everywhere would benefit from a look beyond across-the-border gems such as Barcelona to the complex and unique history that hides behind Portuguese cities.
These places project an organic, under the skin reality that can only be experienced by a visit and exploration. This is especially true in Lisbon (left), which I believe offers an instinctual urbanism that avoids much analysis, circumventing the brain for a direct hit on the soul.
Lisbon’s history and topography create an urbanity without pretense that seems best learned on-site and on foot. Porto (right) is similar, with ample windows into how people of character blend with a venerable urban core.
Both cities, with their authentic voices, provide the best organic examples. Their context explains how color and sound frame large and small spaces alike, and concentrations of mixed uses offer a model for the compact central city that many have in mind today.
Lesson: The evolved look and feel of an urban place is not an overnight proposition.
Principle 2: Look for the Physical and Cultural Shells that Define Us (Malta)
Other places are more tangible. They display the shell of the city and visible pieces of the urban puzzle — the underlying parts that make up the whole. The baselines of buildings, roads, names and language all provide context for new initiatives that address repair, replacement and evolution of infrastructure and in-fill development. In fact, I wrote last February how we can find inspiration from the physical artifacts of place to help retrofit for the future. But in this instance, I refer to understanding not only old buildings or physical “ruins,” but other sociopolitical precedents that make a place unique.
An unrivaled example is the island country of Malta, located about 50 miles south of Sicily, at the marine crossroads of Europe and Africa. Historic Maltese cities, such as Mdina (right) and Valletta and nearby icons such as the Red Tower (above left), present a reality quite unlike any other. Inhabitants speak a language derived from the Arabic left behind by long-departed medieval rulers. Present-day residents live in a built environment that still reflects the 300-year rule of the Knights of the Order of St. John, as well as a mid-16th Century siege against the Turks that remains one of the more prominent events in European history.
This is not an obscure antiquarian story. It illustrates a highly contextual place, a small country where the cycles of human history are readily experienced in little more than one day. All around are reminders of a shell framed by the only Semitic languages written in Latin script, and by the physical and cultural remnants of vanished nobility. While local examples will be more subtle and likely less dramatic, we should remember and champion places with these kinds of dramatic, definitional shells as sources of inspiration for understanding the modern-day city and its redevelopment potential.
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