Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Observing the City: Exploring Dreams, Not Memes

Charles R. (Chuck) Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as both a long-time writer about urbanism worldwide and as an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law. In particular, his work involves the use of innovative land use regulatory tools in the urban redevelopment context on behalf of both the private and public sectors.  He blogs at and is the author of two books; Urbanism Without Effort, 2013 and Seeing the Better City, 2017.


The participation of diverse voices in city decision-making processes is critical to successful urban change. By diverse, I mean not just professionals, politicians and pundits, but everyday people who live and work in city spaces. But before we can participate, we need to hone the power of personal observation.

Like the Londoners depicted in these photographs, we all have stories to tell.

In June, I completed a book about observing the urban environment, called Seeing the Better City. After much research, many interviews, and sifting through countless experiences and photographs, I concluded that better cities will emerge if city-dwellers really learn to see and understand their urban environment and how human experience intersects with the built world.

In other words, we should strive for a "vocabulary of looking" as the foundation for participation in civic discussion.

A camera and smartphone are great tools for development of this exploration and vocabulary. We can focus on common urban themes, such as street corners, plazas, parks, and other shared spaces, and evaluate what appeals to each of us, and what does not. In my book, I suggest how cities might honor constructive visual input submitted by more than just architects.  Throughout, I provide my own examples, with words and photographs called urban diaries, as sample toolboxes for how to evaluate, narrate and summarize city character and urban change over time.

CWOLFE_ LondonColor

My goal is to find ways to improve civic discussion about what people see in the cities around them. Ultimately, I will be happy if city dwellers learn—with the help of many available resources—how to note carefully their emotional responses to the changes they observe, and premise understanding of urban issues on thoughtful baselines of their own, rather than only the pundit's words.


Images composed by Charles R. Wolfe in London, in 2015 and 2016. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.