Chuck's World: Five rules for understanding people and place

Studying the different ways we relate to the landscape around us can inform the way we think and talk about building livable places -- and lives.
Studying the different ways we relate to the landscape around us can inform the way we think and talk about building livable places -- and lives.

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.

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Crosscut archive image.





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.

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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.

Lesson: The defining physical and sociocultural origins of today’s cities continue to influence their redevelopment.

Principle 3: We Can See it All in the Company Town, Evolved (Broken Hill, Australia)

The company town is often cited as another one-stop venue for urban planning precedent. While sometimes lumped with utopian efforts, this paternalistic, industry-developed community is also often referenced for its summary inclusion of the common elements of any urban place. These elements include housing, work, recreation, environmental concerns and public safety.

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Today, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia provides a snapshot of a major company town, in evolution from its former dependence on the country’s largest mining concern, BHP. The structure and function of the industry-based daily life is still clear in the layout of the town and in the brown slag outcropping that still dramatically dominates the landscape (photo on left). A thriving artist’s community, contemporary restaurants, retail businesses and social service agencies are also apparent.

In sum, what once was at the center of daily life now merges with present-day artistic and tourism activities in this gateway to the Outback. We should look to such places as bellwethers of cities in transition.

Lesson: Urban places convened around the need for human capital are not new, and remain laboratories for documenting change.

Principle 4: We Can Learn from Simple, Small-Scale Stories of Adaptation (White Cliffs, Australia)

Amid demonstrable instances of climate change worldwide, adaptations to harsh weather show examples of human ingenuity. Not far from Broken Hill, residents of the Australian Outback use alternative forms of shelter (known as dugouts, descendants of the opal mining days) to offset extreme heat. Conveniently, in White Cliffs, the Underground Motel (left) exploits the potential of this local building practice in the form of a novelty tourist attraction.

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Surveying the landscape of White Cliffs and exploring the underground lodging halls may for now satisfy vacation curiosities, but there is a larger message inherent in a visit to such outlier venues. When we see examples of alternative forms of settlement, we also witness the ongoing potential — and likely increasing need — for adaptation in urban environments everywhere.

Lesson: Humans are capable of dynamic change and innovative adaptation — good news for tasks ahead.

Principle 5: Some Universal Urban Icons Reflect Human Nature as Much as Place

Finally, given the rich, authentic relationships between people and places described above, should we be disappointed by the increasingly standardized symbols of urban evolution around the world? For instance, the ferris wheel has reentered the international urban imagination, and is seemingly omnipresent in cities competing on the world stage. The Seattle Great Wheel (next page, bottom), built as a private business venture, but adopted as a symbol of the city’s emerging waterfront, here contrasts with an under construction version in Melbourne, Australia (nest page, top).

Why are these “observation wheels” achieving a kind of landmark status in some places when other, more vernacular gestures might better fit the context of a place?

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Crosscut archive image.

My answer is not to cynically decry these wheels, but to consider them as the same exciting, moving observation points first described by seventeenth century journalists. Understanding their ongoing success — premised on fun and excitement — is consistent with my opening call for more studied reflection about relationships of people and the communities around them.

Lesson: Some urban icons remind us of an important and universal truth about our experience of place — the need for outright enjoyment in the process.

This piece first appeared in myurbanist. All images taken and composed by Chuck Wolfe. Click on each for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and former Seattle land use and environmental attorney.