Understanding cities through urban diaries
by Chuck Wolfe
My "urban diary" walk in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood Credit: Chuck Wolfe
“Reading the City,” the late 2012 column from urbanist Allison Arieff, is stuck in my head.
Arieff's year-end piece for The New York Times described with style and subtle irony how she escaped a “smart city” conference in Barcelona, and explored the urban spaces around her, armed with only a conventional map. She ended her column with a recommended reading list of books that tell stories about cities. The kind of stories that happen outside of conference halls — experiential, first-hand stories.
There’s nothing novel about suggesting that people get out and explore a city as a way to learn about how the urban fabric works. Walking a city’s streets is a time-honored, human thing to do, and it helps us get back in touch with the first principles of people and place.
Like Arieff, the late journalist-turned-urban writer Grady Clay championed this way of reading cities in his books and articles. Contemporary urbanist articles and blog posts often promote walking, biking or taking public transportation as a way to discover and experience a city’s unique nooks and crannies.
Websites have celebrated the narrow streets in Los Angeles, the alleyways of Seattle, the walkability of Dallas, the legacy of Jane Jacobs’ urban spaces. Kasey Klimes’ essay on bicycles as keys to better cities focuses on “experiential understanding” of place. Small-scale multimedia producers such as Streetfilms document notable examples, inspiring cities from around the world.
Defining the urban diary
The premise is simple: Cities are hubs of human interaction, and the best way to experience their urban energy is to throw yourself into it — and (my own advice here) record what you experience. “Urban diaries” are an important ongoing source of documentation and understanding.They can take many forms: notebook, scrapbook or a digital file displayed by computer or tablet that reflects changing views of the city over time. Urban diaries can be narrative or figurative; they might capture actual events or record internalized memories or intuitions. They can document details of the history, culture and climate of a particular urban place, and note instances of what I have termed “urbanism without effort” at work.
My own urban diary has always been photo-centric, and I have followed this approach in my articles for Crosscut.
The urban diary backdrop
We usually begin our trips on foot, starting from a private place, such as a house or apartment. We like to use at least one other mode of transit en route. At the same time, other urban wanderers are traveling in similar ways. Our paths cross and transit modes multiply. Before long, we can imagine an invisible web of movement that defines the urban experience. The public realm exists amid and between these paths, on the city’s streets, sidewalks, squares, alleys and parks.
This urban fabric holds the embedded patterns that we can discover, read and reinterpret. The urban diary is the repository for this “evidence,” a place to collect “experiential understanding” of a city.
Creating an urban diary is a kind of archaeology that involves more than unearthing distinct artifacts from another era. While urban diaries can be figurative or memory-based, we are also tangibly recording our explorations with whatever tool we choose — a pen, keyboard, camera. As we make note of some building or object or underlying relationship, we are actively engaging with a place. For me, this engagement involves observing the place-based impacts of four interactive factors:
- The intersection of the built and natural environments;
- The evolution of transportation modes;
- The application of associated land use plans and regulations; and
- The continuation and/or evolution of surrounding land uses.
From vantage points to diary pointers
One of the most compelling aspects of an urban diary is finding vantage points in the city where people watch people, essentially, small-scale human observatories. From such places, we can sit on the edge of the public realm and gaze at the goings on through so-called “urban mirrors.” Using these mirrors, we can observe human conduct much like our own, and be reminded of who we really are.
Urban mirrors are often found in safe public environments, including active streets, corners and squares. They are particularly prevalent in cultures where neighbors readily interact, and the boundaries between public and private life blur.
Documenting and contemplating the journey from place to space — crossing and intersecting and embracing the edges of the public and private realms — may be the best way to understand where we live, the choices we make and the choices that are made for us. Recalling Allison Arieff’s “read” of Barcelona, I offer five suggestions for reading and framing your surroundings:
- On your next walk from your home to a destination of choice, summarize the experience in one paragraph.
- Take five photos of your favorite neighborhood locations.
- Pick an ideal location, maybe a place you wish was closer to where you live, and write about it, or photograph how you would travel from here to there.
- Videotape a walk, bike ride or other activity along a street.
- Using burst or continuous mode on your camera, photograph street life that you observe from the window of a passing car, bus, train, etc.
Through such urban diaries — whether written, captured in photos, or merely careful mental observations — each of us can learn more about cities as they are or could be.