Urbanism Without Effort

Urbanism Without Effort: Reconnecting with First Principles of the City by Charles R. Wolfe

publication date: 2013
pages: 90
ISBN: 978-1-61091-442-0

Charles R. Wolfe’s 2013 ebook Urbanism Without Effort: Reconnecting with First Principles of the City is interesting but ultimately empty.

Wolfe, a Seattle land-use attorney, wrote this book to further the goal of successful urban development. He therefore presents his ideas about how to best plan a city. As far as I can tell, Wolfe believes urban planning will be successful only when the urban planner, or other interested person, first observes the context of the city that needs changing and then only applies ideas that will magnify what is already happening in the city. If that sounds confusing, I’m with you. One of the problems with the book is that Wolfe’s sometimes-convoluted writing makes it difficult to discover exactly what his ideas about the best way to plan a city are. However, even if Wolfe’s writing was clear, his thesis might not be, because another problem is that his urban planning proposals are vague and almost entirely theoretical.

Further, one of Wolfe’s few practical ideas is that urban dwellers and planners should keep an “urban diary,” a record of what happens in your city, whether it be written, visual, videographic, or any other medium. This recommendation is cute, but completely unrealistic and, I think, unnecessary. I have lived in cities almost my entire life without an urban diary and have perceived and shared many experiences just fine.

Although Wolfe’s thesis is unclear and his main directive is unproductive, his book is still worth a read. First of all, it is a perfect length: only 90 pages, which could be read in an afternoon. Second, the book is full of pleasing and demonstrative photos. Also, Wolfe is passionate about city-living and his passion is charming and alluring. For example, he quotes Lewis Mumford in a passage that: “It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and co-operating personalities, events, and groups into more significant culminations.”

Wolfe also expresses several insights into city living and planning. I love this passage about what it is to live in a city:

For instance, in the quest to define human relationships with the surrounding city, it is helpful to consider typical, everyday journeys within an urban environment. We usually begin every trip on foot, starting from a private place, such as a house or apartment. In order to reach the next place, we often use at least one other mode of transit. Meanwhile, others simultaneously travel in similar ways. Our paths cross and transit modes further diversify. If we stop and look around, we see a system of mutually crossed paths that define the urban experience. The public realm exists amid and between these paths – streets, sidewalks, squares, and parks that are subject to regulation addressing appropriate conduct, health, safety, and land use.

Because of the book’s insights, and its short length, I would recommend it to those interested in urban planning or living. (Especially if you’re one of those people who think your city needs a streetcar.)

4/6: worth reading

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