LEARN-ing to Sustain a City’s Culture and Character

Repurposed space underneath railway arches in London. 

Photo by Charles R. Wolfe

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LEARN-ing to Sustain a City’s Culture and Character

A framework for understanding how a city can honor its traditional identity, or essence, as it transitions to something new.

Story by Charles R. Wolfe

Published on Jul 5, 2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an adapted excerpt of “Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character,” by Charles R. Wolfe with Tigran Haas, published by Rowman & Littlefield. In it, the authors lay out a comprehensive method (heavily dependent on context) for assessing how and why certain places are considered successful, authentic, or unique. As the world, and cities, respond to and grapple with climate change threats, public health crises, and powerful calls for social justice, understanding the through lines that connect a city to its past, to its essence, will be more important than ever.

Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion.
— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

This book goes beyond the visual orientation of my first two books, “Urbanism Without Effort” and “Seeing the Better City,” to explore further dimensions of urban observation beyond my photocentric “urban diary” tool. “Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character” is intended for change makers and thoughtful students of city life. Here, based on comparative experiences around the world, I propose a new tool that I call LEARN (Look, Engage, Assess, Review, and Negotiate) as a way of sustaining urban culture and character in transformative times.

Almost three years ago, I left Seattle after a long career as an environmental and land-use lawyer- turned-author. Now based in London and Stockholm, I have been devoting myself to the study of what it means for a city or town to acknowledge and honor its traditional identity, or essence, as it transitions to something new. Although it is possible to summarize some generic marks of urban culture and character — waterfronts, say; or the appearance of cities from well-known urban bridges — conclusions are elusive without additional information and reflection. The stories behind the Honolulu and Tel Aviv waterfronts, the Charles Bridge in Prague, or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York all vary based on time, place, use, and more. Memories formed by gazing from the Pont Neuf in Paris (pictured here) contrast with those from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Local — as well as personal — circumstances still matter in a digital age.

Urban communities fuse everyday life with notable events and places and mix common custom with the custom-made. Cities are blends rather than absolutes. Authenticity, culture, character, and uniqueness are just words with meanings that depend on who is using them and in what circumstances. They depend on context, so discussing them requires reference to the basic concepts of change and survival.

This book addresses how to enact blended and contextualized urban change, using the past and the status quo as catalysts rather than castaways. It provides resources for the context-vetting process and for understanding how one era, object, or generation informs the next. It illustrates how we can understand — or unlock — a public place, neighborhood, or city. It is about more than monuments, place attachment, how to “love where you live,” or why old places matter.

A shot of the Vancouver skyline. In the city, the Senakw redevelopment of Squamish Nation–owned property — property that had been previously appropriated by settlers — is slated to provide affordable resettlement for members on Native land at densities consistent with Hong Kong and to meet other sociocultural needs. (Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

By means of LEARN, I suggest a patient, interdisciplinary immersion that will help an interested citizen determine the primary attributes of a place, the raw materials that fuse history, the present, and the future. I believe that we must do this core work to develop customized, local approaches to understand the contemporary look, feel, and meaning of a place, and to acknowledge relevant background and reference points for those who describe and sense an ongoing change.

I examine a range of examples from high-end, context-sensitive commercial headquarters in London to the fundamental attributes of a French caravan park that explain a distinctly human pride in the identity of a place. I will consider both organic, natural forces (such as climate change), market, and technological influences in changing urban areas and describe how to recognize them across space, time, and at multiple scales.

I take inspiration from those who elevate the importance of local experience in navigating urban change. I would describe my view as more impressionistic and qualitative, sometimes presented in counterintuitive ways and from nontraditional perspectives. To explain how to adapt and sustain urban culture and character, I offer an immersive mixture of narrative, artistic, and photographic imagery, and diverse, unconventional examples.

The Premise and the Prospect

My goal is to revisit how to gauge — to LEARN — the essence of a city and its constituent parts and how to sustain them in a contextual, blended, and more useful way. I aim to illustrate those principles and potential approaches through the application of the context keys of familiarity, congruity, and integrity. These are both guideposts and filters to sustaining a city’s culture and character and underscore the importance of city residents who solve simple human problems firsthand.

In late 2017, as I was leaving the United States for Australia and Europe, I set out to write a book that demonstrated how cities that honored their distinctive identities would thrive over time and shine brightly — in the eyes of anyone who cared — as “somewhere” rather than anywhere. I suspected that city rankings would be higher for such cities and that they would embody the places that people would seek to visit or live. I even contemplated a “context index” to measure the degree to which an evolving city retained its essence, spirit, or vernacular.

However, the more research I conducted, the more my focus evolved, and I found that high rankings did not always correlate with a strong sense of identity or distinctiveness. I decided that a context index was something best saved for another time.

The Pont Neuf in Paris (Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

I concluded that maintaining a “unique” or “authentic” setting is not usually realistic outside of a rigid heritage or historic preservation framework, and my goal was to commend neither a museum town nor a de facto urban theme park. To understand how to sustain local culture and character, I needed to dissect the signature elements of a city location and hear the real stories that undergird its context.

I elected to prioritize how and why one city or town differed from another — or at least how they are perceived to be different in times of change — and to suggest which individual differences are worth retaining to the degree possible. I was motivated by what I saw as too many “square peg–round hole” solutions offered by smart-city and placemaking advocates, who had not (I felt) considered the holistic circumstances of each city or town or the critical perspectives of affected stakeholders. On a speaking tour in Portugal, I marveled at efforts to reactivate local tourism around regional food and entrepreneurship and took part in extended debates about what “smart city” means. “Forget smart,” I wrote in a Planetizen article; “we need context cities.”

In the early stages of research in Stockholm, I encountered a flood of much-used, ambiguous words, including the core concepts of culture, character, uniqueness, and authenticity noted above. In urban settings across three continents, I was met by an array of decision-making styles ranging from top-down to bottom-up to co-stakeholders working together. Gradually, a focus emerged: how to recognize, sustain, and transition the distinctive attributes of a city or urban place many see as slowly diminishing or lost entirely.

This focus goes to the heart of human settlements of all sizes — not just large, highly ranked cities. Expressions of their underlying culture and character, along with their physical appearance, determine urban identities at once distinct and difficult to pinpoint. Increasingly prominent are the many interdisciplinary ways available to understand the “personality” of urban places — their look, feel, and meaning — and how to determine what might fit best (or best from a contextual standpoint) in a changing city at many scales.

Derya Oktay has summarized the importance of understanding the history behind the multiple environments (natural, social, and built) that cities reflect:

Since cities are constantly changing and evolving new forms, their urban identity is created through the complex interaction of natural, social and built elements. Therefore, the urban environment has to be considered from a historical perspective, not merely by understanding historically significant buildings, but rather through the evolution of the local urban context, with respect to human activity, built form, and nature.

Just as the dynamics of cities and their constituent places cannot be measured only by one component (such as physical appearance) or one discipline (such as architecture), neither can they exist only as arbitrary lists or data sets designed to itemize success. Successful places demand description and understanding through the most incisive and comprehensive means possible. The LEARN method and context keys enable us to see both the big picture and the background principles behind the patient immersion necessary to understand and sustain a city’s culture and character. I hope to simplify rather than confound, yet I acknowledge the inherent challenge of this endeavor. Like many authors and artists, poets and pundits before me, I am attempting to dissect and reassemble city life, to work toward sustainable urban environments, and to brand, or otherwise distinguish, cities from one another.

From Know Thyself to Context Keys

“Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character” offers a multipart approach to discerning an area’s distinct identity to retain or enhance livability. At various points throughout the book we focus on learning, understanding, and assessing local context; understanding the differences between global and regional scales; prompting principles for consideration, through the locally appropriate context keys; and implementing context-sensitive approaches in a balanced and/or cocreated fashion according to local needs. The book illustrates examples through photographs, paintings, and pictograms.

To underscore the importance of critical thinking, we set out several examples of methods employed in various disciplines to understand context, culture, and character. These methods help explain how cities are different and how they are the same. A critical element emphasizes how people — both professionals and affected populations — speak and listen. We should not assume that all residents are technologically inclined or blessed with the communication advances of the smart city.

Campus Martius Park in Detroit. (Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

I advocate for methods that favor individual input, including memories, stories, observations, art, and sense-based contributions. The elements of LEARN allow for impressions, data, and conclusions from both. Cities are collections of experiences, and we need to assure access to forms of communication that enable the negotiated outcomes of contrasting perspectives. Such urban exposures include the cultural heritage that many tout as the key to understanding how the city assumes an identity as a blended whole.

The book explores a selection of approaches, including local consultations, mini-ethnographies, visual documentation and surveys, political discussions and facilitation to achieve projects that the community cocreates, planning and regulatory strategies, business development authorities, designation of artisanal businesses and streets, and reinvestment in locally based goods and services. These approaches are intended to help the reader — and municipal leaders, city planners, and their private-sector counterparts — face challenges specific to their perspectives.

Anyone who addresses the culture, character, and context of today’s cities should note how many people and organizations profess to be doing so already. Professionals offer an endless variety of theories and explanations about how cities should adapt and sustain. I fear that a more comprehensive view is getting lost in a sea of arbitrary labels and movements, all with their particular glosses on similar turfs. The tactical and space-production approaches of today’s popularized placemaking efforts play an empowering role but should fit an integrated and holistic approach such as LEARN.

The principles and context keys in the book are geared toward helping the reader maintain an agenda and sense of awareness about what a city might become, a concept of what is appropriate to local contexts, and a concern for the identities of both well-defined and otherwise “soulless” places and spaces. They also stress and support the importance of “bottom-up” input about local history, building forms, natural and open spaces, cultural assets, and tradition.

We cannot predict how even a well-planned city will evolve, but we can assess a city’s and imagine how and why they may change or combine. Without arguing against change per se, I believe that it should be managed, or at least understood, with local needs in mind. Successful cities are the ones whose policymakers, urban designers, historic preservation professionals, and elected officials make an effort to understand urban change in the context of their cities’ particular blend of characteristics and circumstances.

This book also suggests how to understand urban change — and cities’ unique characters — based on a commitment to the importance of critical, on-the-ground observation, the subjective and objective assessment of local culture, the importance of integration with the world stage, and the dangers of an indiscriminate application of consultant-driven, overly generic, or discipline-specific approaches.

Adapted from Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character,” by Charles R. Wolfe with Tigran Haas. Copyright © 2021 by Charles R. Wolfe. Reproduced by permission of Rowman & Littlefield. Images reproduced by permission of the Author. Next City readers can get a 30% discount on the book by using this link and entering the code 4S21CITY during checkout.

Charles R. Wolfe is a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and attorney. He has been a Visiting Scholar at KTH University in Stockholm, a Fulbright Specialist in Cairns and Townsville, Australia, and has taught regularly at the University of Washington. Wolfe is also the author of “Urbanism Without Effort” and “Seeing the Better City,” and has published articles in CityLab, The Atlantic, CityMetric, Governing, Planetizen and more.

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