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Using Urban Diaries in Times of City Change

Almost 50 years ago, thanks to Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs and many others, the Parisian flâneur tradition of "looking around" cities became a central aspect of academic inquiry about, and activist response to, urban change.

In the changing city of today, during these divisive political times, I am often asked how this looking around (what I now call "seeing the better city" in my new book title) can make a difference. Reporters, audience members, friends, and colleagues wonder how compiling visual, "urban diaries" (composed of photographs that capture what we like and dislike, what is working and what is not) might change our cities for the better.

In short, how can urban diaries influence effective city planning and development outcomes?

My answer, first of all, is that using the time-honored words of designer George Nelson, "to see is to think." Observing, and thinking more visually can enhance our ability to understand and contrast differing points of view about the cities we want, and better equips us to intelligently discuss—rather than provide a visceral response to—inevitable changes in the urban landscape.

For example, I repeatedly notice many assumptions buried in public debate in my hometown of Seattle about how the city should redevelop. Newcomers and long-time residents, as well as different generations, offer varying perspectives and often disagree. Discussions, both online, and in city-convened meetings, frequently focus on the nature of single family versus multifamily or mixed-use neighborhoods. While participatory websites and facilitators may use maps and visual examples, the process has not yet fully embraced bottom-up, visual submittals as part of consideration and fine-tuning of policies, projects, and plans.

Amid our increasing capacity to photograph with smartphones (over and above conventional cameras), one of the most simple and empowering things we can do is to record and communicate our observations and impressions of where we live, work and travel each day. These urban diaries can occur on multiple levels–from introductory, "how to see" exercises, all the way to incorporation of citizen-based photography into city planning processes and development project input.

In short, I believe that urban diaries are one key to a more inclusive and empowering approach as our cities change around us. An online Seattle publication, The Evergrey, has agreed and encouraged readers to create, share and annotate urban diary examples.

After all, urban diary topics are as varied as the inspiration that we find in cities. The urban diary interprets the intersection of the public and private realms, the boundaries of the built and natural environments, the relationships between land uses and transportation, and issues of adaptive reuse and public safety.

Interested? Give it a try, with the following concluding suggestions gleaned from Seeing the Better City on how to start thinking more visually in urban settings. Here are five tips  to help read and frame urban surroundings and the way people connect with the places around them:

  • Choose the diary tool and type. Will you photograph, write in a journal, sketch, record audio, tweet, or do a combination of each? Pick a medium that best fits your diary's purpose, whether your aim is to explore, document, or advocate for change.
  • Plan your path. Decide whether to follow a prescribed path or wander. Where will you start and end? Will you walk, bike, use public transit, or drive? Use maps (paper or digital) to gain perspective and define initial goals.
  • Select what you will focus on. Examples include the role of transportation, nature, color, the overlap of public and private space, height and scale of buildings, street features, spontaneous expression (e.g. graffiti), and feelings of safety or discomfort.
  • Use the LENS (Look, Explore, Narrate, and Summarize) Method. Here are some easy examples: summarize the walk from your home to a chosen destination in one to two paragraphs, videotape a walk, bike trip, or other focused activity along a street, or use continuous shutter or "burst" mode to photograph street life that you observe from a passing car, bus, streetcar, or tram.
  • Finalize conclusions and use. Assemble and present photographs and other diary media in a way that will inspire and show what is possible and what might be adaptable to your city or neighborhood. Most importantly, address human character and opportunity, no matter how the diary will be used.

Seeing the Better City is available now from Island Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookseller.

Images composed by the author in Paris and Seattle. © 2009-2017 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.