Musicians and dancers perform in Rome's Campo de' Fiori, home to a produce and flower market by day, a popular spot for the passeggiata come evening. 

Photo by Umberto De Peppo Cocco via Flickr

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Urbanism without Effort

When a city’s character honors and reflects the local culture, everyone benefits.

Story by Charles R. Wolfe

Published on Feb 25, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Urbanism Without Effort,” by Charles R. Wolfe, published by Island Press. In it, the author uses text and photos to illustrate how unplanned spaces and spontaneous interactions can, in many instances, contribute more to placemaking than carefully planned efforts.

The vignettes presented here are based on my photographs and observations during my travels. They demonstrate how urbanism without effort is premised on common human affinities and varied in expression by cultural context, historical circumstance and other unique factors such as geography and climate. They demonstrate the challenges of creating livable cities that are universal and timeless, and how solutions require careful observation in the context of local circumstances.

The vignettes should act as a catalyst to spur education, creative policymaking tools and thoughtful reflection by individuals seeking a more complete understanding of city life. Surely, the challenges of how to implement ideas presented in each of the following vignettes could generate books, articles and lengthy debates in and of themselves, far beyond the scope of this work. In my case, “Seeing the Better City” provides a next step in applying related tools and techniques beyond the examples set out here.

The vignettes are not prescriptive, nor are they intended as dictated policies or other forms of prescribed messaging. Rather, I include them to illustrate and inspire, as they are, at a minimum, photogenic with a compelling narrative. They also provide an opportunity for ground-up understanding and consensus about how each core idea might be authentically reapplied elsewhere. Any new policy, planning initiative, regulatory reform, or other implementation should first consider the historical, geographical, environmental, cultural, and political contexts presented within each vignette.

Vignette 1: The Inherently Walkable

Walkability is at the center of today’s placemaking and the search for healthier, more sustainable communities. Significant advocacy, research, professional activities and governmental policymaking are now devoted to increasing opportunities to walk in — and between — cities and towns. Yet I have concluded, as a result of observations abroad and many discussions with walkability advocates that an emphasis on urban walking resonates best as a first principle of human life. It is significant to both the marriage of movement and settlement (land use and transportation) and the blending of traditional urban conduct.

The Laetoli Track at Olduvai, Tanzania. These oldest-known, early-human footprints date back 3.6 million years, likely made when Australopithecus afarensis walked through volcanic ash.(Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

East Africa provides a surprising entry, based on a stereotypical museum display of arguably the world’s first walkable place, the 3.75-million-year-old fossilized footprints of the Laetoli track near Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Laetoli underpins the universal dynamic of movement and settlement that matured in villages, towns, and cities. At Laetoli and Olduvai, the germination of crossroads, corners and the inherently walkable place is obvious. The modern urbanist’s search to fulfill desires for “walkability” is rooted here.

One of the best examples of the inherently walkable is the Italian passeggiata, a time-honored tradition that takes advantage of the compact, vibrant cities and towns of the Adriatic and Mediterranean. Not only a basis for exercise, taking a walk is ultimately both a family-oriented and a social event, a chance to reconnect with friends and neighbors, and to see and be seen. As Dr. Richard Jackson has noted in “Designing Healthy Communities,” it is reflective of organic place, and an indicator of a healthy practice that occurred in historic built environments that came into existence long before motorized transport.

The term passeggiata is, in fact, literally translated as both movement (a walk and a stroll) and a component of settlement (a public walk or promenade). It demarcates the end of the workday, enhances health, and historically provided an integral sense of community at the levels of family and town. Travel writers invite tourists to participate, not only for touristic exploration but for immersion in medieval tradition, courtship and other sociopolitical aspects of urban life first learned in the interactions of strolling and mingling en route to piazzas.

For our purposes, the passeggiata is an inspirational example of urbanism without effort and provides simultaneous expression of cultural attributes and coveted urban behavior. But how much does its naturally occurring success depend on climate and the endemic culture that created both the tradition and its facilitating, usually historical, infrastructure?

The holistic, cultural, and physical nature of the passeggiata illuminates the context issue discussed throughout this book and leads directly to whether the cultural nuances of the Italian evening stroll readily translate across the world. Can we achieve in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Nordic climates, what occurs naturally in Siena, Italy? How can we best present inspirational examples that emulate indigenous tradition without overstepping the bounds of reality?

The inherent vitality of the passeggiata lends itself to photography or video and illustrates the cultural tradition and the unique and distinguishable aspects of place. In summary, rather than prescribe a walkable place outright, why not stop short of cause-oriented recruitment and sweeten the prospect with illustration of the effortless nature of such places?

A frozen lake in Stockholm, proof that the  passeggiata translates across cultures and climates. (Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

Comprehensive answers lie in the analysis of local context, including the prospects for a pedestrian plan and policy development and in solutions that range from additional educational efforts to infrastructure improvements (e.g., crosswalks, sidewalks) and safety campaigns.

Vignette 2: Convertible, People-Oriented Spaces

Convertible people-oriented spaces such as Barcelona’s partially reengineered Las Ramblas and more naturally occurring public urban squares such as Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori accommodate a range of different activities and uses throughout a 24-hour period — from market, crossroads of commerce, and dining center by day to social congregating point both day and night, while presenting multiple elements of history and changing use over time.

These spaces often incorporate passeggiata elements or destinations and can easily serve as exemplary spaces for the innate relationships characteristic of urbanism without effort, particularly the interplay of factors leading to comfortable community and neighborhood and related collaboration and safety.

Often, to evoke the vision of an urbanist future, we reflect on images of public spaces borne of a sociocultural tradition, like Campo de’ Fiori. However, given the current generational and marketplace tilt toward such walkable, compact, mixed-use experiences, are we deluding ourselves by presuming a Campo de’ Fiori experience could be applied to every American city? In reality, it might be something dramatically out of context.

In Barcelona, pedestrian promenades such as this one follow the style of Las Ramblas, a 1.2-kilometer course that was, in medieval times, a stream that drained sewage and stormwater.   (Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

My own, filmed walks through Campo de’ Fiori and nearby Piazza at night display the magical confluence of place, commerce, human social activity, conducive climate, and sense of safety. The historic story of the place itself suggests that the context in which a place evolves is key to the actual physical experience and its related urban character. Do we do injustice to a rich history of place by assuming we can re-create the physical form inherent in the “backstory” of a specific place? For example, a former field, once the location of gallows for minor offenses; a juncture of streets surprisingly devoted to trades; a market by day then later a haven of nightlife. Can a newly created place be just as rich in experience without its own backstory?

Context is key to the dilemma of imposing patterns from another history on an urban setting derived from a different cultural tradition. As with the passeggiata, this dilemma may yield more questions than certainty in changing times.

Certainly, such spaces are ripe for first-person observation and inspiration. But should professionals indiscriminately design and program local spaces that only mimic the authentic or original spaces? Should every city have a “High Line” or other reuse of abandoned or now-dysfunctional infrastructure such as an unused ramp or tunnel? Is replication possible without resulting in “Disney-fication,” or is it even wise?

Perhaps the answer lies in the scale of the endeavor and my oft-repeated distinction between inspiration and prescriptive replication. Assuming such an idea is well vetted and public input is underway, review of the linked videos mentioned earlier could be used as an “idea management” step to assess the adaptability of an active Campo de’ Fiori–type space. I have written about such idea management before, from the standpoint of a practitioner, anchored on the “how” to implement new approaches in cities, and I have suggested careful and contextual due diligence before the presentation of visions that risk repudiation and rancor. In this case, rather than prescribe the qualities of the European square, why not display outright the possibilities inherent in naturally occurring city life as an “idea management” tool to assess the realistic value associated with local adoption?

Vignette 3: Building Community

A spontaneous summer evening gathering in a Seattle neighborhood alley reaffirmed my belief that real neighborhood experiences can provide a meaningful gloss on current discussions about how to make cities better and increase the benefits of shared places for all. This led to my position that the best urbanism is that which is already there, waiting to be nurtured. Accordingly, this vignette became the original inspiration for this book.

The best urbanism is that which is already there, waiting to be nurtured. … We can try awfully hard — sometimes too hard — to proselytize and debate ideas and opportunities for the city as though inventing them for the first time, without acknowledging instances in which the urbanism we already have can act as a precursor, leading the way.

These successful neighborhood experiences are based on key innate relationships between humans and the urban environment, which depend on an interplay of factors leading to comfortable community and neighborhood and the related collaboration and safety without significant government intervention.

How it happened: one 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 it was not in the comfort of an isolated home or downtown space, but among some 20 neighbors in an everyday place, hidden and in plain sight: Monica and Michael’s alley entry, against Anne and Jerry’s retaining wall.

Our last summer “alley movie night” was an important reminder that a city neighborhood can experience community without prescription. In the spirit of organic examples from history and the two-dimensional perspective of the city recollected in Jackson’s “Discovery of the Street,” this urbanism without effort was as natural as the organic passeggiata and contextually authentic, unimposed, and self-defined.

We can try awfully hard — sometimes too hard — to proselytize and debate ideas and opportunities for the city as though inventing them for the first time, without acknowledging instances in which the urbanism we already have can act as a precursor, leading the way.

In particular, the general potential for American urban alleys remains in the spotlight. This attention, which is often aspirational, is well deserved given the raw alley palette for remade narrow streets reminiscent of the organic European tradition already discussed: pedestrian in scale, interesting, and a natural focus for greening street life and new small businesses.

In Melbourne's Centeral Business District, the area's laneways have been recast to house boutiques, galleries, cafes and other pedestrian-friendly commerce. (Photo by Charles R. Wolfe)

Many other essays, such as Alyse Nelson writing in Sightline, have recalled alleys’ placemaking role within the urbanist toolbox. Specific, grant-funded work by Seattle’s Daniel Toole (including his self-published book, Tight Urbanism) has emphasized the now-iconic reclaimed laneway precedent of Melbourne, Australia, where underused spaces between downtown buildings were given new commercial and artistic life.

As in the case of other vignettes, the capacity for first-person inspiration and inspirational aspects of reclaimed alleys requires no further discussion. The challenges, of course, come from programmatic and policy eligibility and implementation.

It would be easy for city staff to collate existing instances of activities such as alley movie night in updates to visioning or planning documents, which was suggested after one of my recent speaking engagements on the topic. But how to fund reclaiming and maintaining these alleys? And, as with many instances of infrastructure improvement, we must determine where and how the private sector can make a difference in implementing improvements and maintenance too costly for today’s municipal public transportation and utility agencies. After all, it’s not just about clearing away the dumpsters. As I’ve noted before, public rights-of-way, stormwater system maintenance, pavement resurfacing, and other forms of street improvement may be required in order to materially reinvent desired space.

Admittedly, not all of us have traditional alleys at our back doors (which we often treat as main entries), but those of us who do can readily avail ourselves of the once and future urbanism of alley reinvention. Those of us who don’t might find that a driveway and garage suffice for now, or catalog in urban diaries similar instances of neighborhood-based urbanism without effort that have stood the test of time.

Email, potluck food and drink, equipment setup, and a bedsheet-as-movie-screen can transform public space into a community gathering point, not because of doctrine or dogma, but because it is as natural as seeking out affiliation with the people who live in the place next door.

Adapted from “Urbanism Without Effort,” by Charles R. Wolfe. Copyright © 2019 Charles R. Wolfe. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Wolfe is a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and attorney. He is a Visiting Scholar at KTH University in Stockholm, a Fulbright Specialist in Cairns and Townsville, Australia, and teaches regularly at the University of Washington. Wolfe is also the author of “Seeing the Better City,” and has published articles in CityLab, The Atlantic, CityMetric, Governing, Planetizen and more.