Anyone who knows Chuck Wolfe, author of Urbanism Without Effort, knows he has an agile mind an encyclopedic knowledge of local land use law and lore. But you’ll also know that he is not one who seeks attention by taking the extreme view or throwing bombs. There are others in this town that do that.
But in his new e-book, Wolfe in his own subtle way and at his own pace, unfurls a view of planning, land use, and the future of what has been called “urbanism,” that might be radical. And by radical I don’t mean revolutionary, a departure from current practice to something entirely new, speculative, or made up. Instead, I mean radical as in to the root of the matter.
Wolfe’s book is short and full of pictures, a practice of illustrating ideas and examples he took from his late father Meyer “Mike” Wolfe, a pioneer in urban planning at the University of Washington. Wolfe argues, as his father did, that such illustration is essential to explaining what works in creating good cities but also required to make those solutions work.
But what is Urbanism Without Effort? Wolfe describes it as
What happens naturally when people congregate in cities—based on the innate interactions of urban dwellers that occur with one other and the surrounding urban and physical environment.
Wolfe makes the point throughout the book that planners spend too much time trying to impose urban planning structures on cities with the intention of making them places people want to be instead of looking first at the places people already want to be. Those places are instructive when asking, “What do we do?” It might be better to ask, “What do we not do?”
At it’s roots, urban planning is what happens after planners experience time in cities learning what supports and facilitates great places, filled with people interacting happily, and even making a profit and creating art and music. What planning becomes is an abstraction of forms and policies extracted from principles and then imposed on an urban environment.
Perhaps the best local example of this is Seattle’s waterfront. I can’t think of another place where everything is so totally backasswards when it comes to an urban process. The premise of what Seattle is trying on the waterfront has to do with “weaving the city back into the water” or some variant of this kind of Plannerese. The fact is, last time I checked (yesterday) the waterfront is a vibrant and bustling place full of people.
There is a bizarre, self-conscious and sentimental effort to “restore” something that never was simply because the viaduct is going away. The viaduct never did cut people off from the waterfront; they simply walked under it. Graduates of the University of Washington’s planning school sketched out an absurd vision of the waterfront complete with people lowering their canoes into the water at the end of Madison and children chasing beach balls.
Now, millions are being spent to turn areas opened up by the deep bore tunnel to create a waterfront park. Hello Seattle! We already have at least three waterfront parks at Alki, Myrtle Edwards, and Golden Gardens. Each of these places allows one to take off one’s shoes and “connect with the water.”
The waterfront effort, well intentioned for sure, ignores that the waterfront works fine. What’s needed is a plan to support the development of real estate previously consumed by the viaduct for more housing, which means more people, which creates the opportunity for spontaneity, a term that I am sure Wolfe had no intention of connecting with Hayek’s “spontaneous order.” But it’s an association I will make. Yes, people will make oodles of money developing the waterfront for housing. So what! Good for them. It gives us the base ingredient for what every great city needs: more people.
Instead we have an out of control academic exercise trying to reinvent the waterfront using principles being applied without any reference to the success that is already there. What will result is likely to be wind swept plazas with a scattering of food vendors. “Such places,” Wolfe points out, “end up as little more than a hollow reminder of their authentic inspiration.”
Wolfe joins the chorus of those of us who say regulation is our friend outside the city walls, but within, we need to simply “let it be.”
The copyright cops got to the Youtube version of the Beattles roof top concert that I think is so emblematic of what Wolfe is talking about when he writes about Urbanism Without Effort. You’ll have to click on this link below since Word Press won’t allow an embed of video unless it’s from Youtube. And you may have to watch a 60 second birth control advert on Daily Motion first. So much for spontaneity.