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Alley Movie Nights: Can you say urbanism without effort?

Contemporary urban planning pros often ignore the naturally-occurring spontaneity of city life.
Alley movie night in Madrona

Alley movie night in Madrona Chuck Wolfe

Neal's Yard, London, an 'effortless', evolved human-scale experience

Neal's Yard, London, an 'effortless', evolved human-scale experience Chuck Wolfe

Cities today present a sense of excitement and renewal, and an undeniable focus on more sustainable ways of life. A new generation of urban stakeholders is boldly experimenting with walkable, compact, and mixed-use neighborhood settings, including both public space and nearby transit. In the most dedicated urbanist circles, bikes supplant cars, “pop-up” places and uses expand, and other creative efforts such as “parking day” challenge conventional ways of thinking about urban land use and transportation.

Urban stakeholders — residents, developers, politicians, pundits — care deeply about cities, and frequently discuss the virtues of urbanism. While I find these discussions illuminating and commendable, I often note that even the most ambitious references to transit-oriented development, complete streets, walkability, or carbon neutrality ignore the basic underpinnings of urbanism. They underemphasize the rich backstory of urban history, including the many naturally-occurring aspects of city life.

What would we gain from a more deliberate inquiry into "urbanism without effort" and the fundamental principles of urban history? Understanding what lies beneath an enticing, well-scaled urban setting — a comfortable sidewalk café, children playing safely in an alleyway — can inform policy and planning efforts in ways that more fully resonate with the particular culture and context of a place. Without this historical backdrop, we are left with merely catchy ideas, plucked from a catalog of trendy, oversubscribed options.

Perhaps ironically, traditional and active close-knit spaces that encourage spontaneous human interactions are reemerging as key components of a more lively urban future. Contemporary discussions in America inadvertently embrace approaches that have worked for centuries elsewhere in the world. In the spirit of both déjà vu and amnesia (concepts combined by American actor/writer Steven Wright), past precedents implicitly live on. Once considered – but often forgotten – they remain core principles ripe for rediscovery.

Why not make today’s urbanist efforts even bolder by better explaining their basis and context? We achieve the most effective evolution of our urban landscapes only if we first challenge ourselves to fully understand the historical lessons of the world’s most successful cities, towns and neighborhoods.

This should come as no surprise. Successful community is among the first principles of the human condition; city dwellers invariably celebrate environments where they can coexist safely, in a mutually supportive way. Such celebration is most notable when it occurs spontaneously in what architectural theorist Christopher Alexander called the “natural” versus “artificial” city in his landmark 1965 article, “The City is Not a Tree.” It occurs more often in organic old world environments than in the new. It is premised on the successes of the unpredictable, disjointed and overlapping, rather than the prescriptive or planned.

Here’s an example.

On a recent Saturday night, in response to an email invitation that was unrelated to any city-sponsored program or effort of any organized community group, I went to the movies by walking 100 feet from my home. Admission was free. And the film was not shown in the comfort of an isolated home or downtown space, but in an everyday place, hidden and in plain sight: Monica and Michael’s alley, against Anne and Jerry’s retaining wall.

This “alley movie night,” which attracted some 20 neighbors, was an important reminder that a city neighborhood can experience community without prescription. We can try awfully hard — sometimes too hard, in my opinion — to extol the virtues of the city by proselytizing and debating ideas and opportunities as though we were inventing them for the first time, without acknowledging those instances in which the urbanism we already have can lead the way.

It would be easy for city staffs to collate existing instances of "alley movie night”-like activities in updates to visioning or planning documents. (This suggestion was made about an organic tradition of “ice cream feeds" in the City of Shoreline after one of my recent speaking engagements on the topic). But how do we reclaim and preserve this example of organic urbanism?


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 9, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Brilliant article. So much of importance said in just a few lines...and the issue really is waking up all the commissions whose job it is to revitalize urban areas. One of those areas is Harbor Steps; or the new South Lake Union. Animating an urban neighborhood or project is a collection of small things, "tells" that signify human activity. With so many new projects in Seattle this element of bringing the life back to a place slathered in concrete will become more and more important. Will the committees listen? Probably not. Will the artists and neighborhood activists continue without public support. Indeed!

chapala21

Posted Thu, May 9, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

When I mentioned Harbor Steps I mean to include the Art Museum steps and the Symphony steps as well. Dead zones in the heart of the city.

chapala21

Posted Thu, May 9, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Too bad there isn't some "naturally-occurring spontaneity" inside Chuck Wolfe's head. If some award exists for turgid jargon-larded prose, this guy wins it.

woofer

Posted Thu, May 9, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

'It would be easy for city staffs to collate existing instances of "alley movie night”-like activities in updates to visioning or planning documents.' Yikes, then it will be codified with specific funds earmarked for only the approved and proven. Bean counters and planners don't deal well with human messiness :)

More seriously, I believe these kinds of community creating activities are the intent of the small and simple DON grants. Not that everyone would need some monetary help, but the opportunity is there. The list of what those dollars have supported, and neat things that may not have needed a grant, are something that would be encouraging to have a record of. Not for including in generic prescriptions, but to celebrate and recognize that people make our places.

A current incredible 'temporary' use: http://www.hopscotchcd.com/

More broadly, when I see a call for context and culture, it resonates with me as an important subtext of what we often hear that seems to be dismissed, and such dismissal creates great fear and loathing of all development and change: "Listen to the neighbors." or " Look at these beautiful old buildings that have no historic protection."

It is in and from the very specific, very particular, and very local, places and people that evolution of our urban environment will occur well. It is in a specific context where we people who are there adopt and adapt and improve.

Posted Fri, May 10, 12:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow, woofer, that's some civil dialogue there. Unless you have an alternative proposal or a serious comment on the substance of this piece, why bother writing anything at all? The easiest job in the world is being a naysayer.

small_d

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