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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Urbanism without effort: sometimes the best places are created instinctively

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 25, 2013

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  alley movie night, seattle ((c) Charles R. Wolfe)

In Urbanism Without Effort: Reconnecting with First Principles of the City my friend Chuck Wolfe posits that today’s city planners “underemphasize important cues from the rich backstory of urban history, including naturally occurring aspects of city life and foundational examples of non-American venues.”  In other words, while conscious city planning can be good, the instinctive organization of city life can be even better, and the world is full of examples if we look for them.  Chuck admonishes us to look beneath the surface at these historical examples, and some contemporary ones, too, and avoid “merely catchy ideas, plucked from a catalog of trendy, oversubscribed options.”

Properly applied, that’s a heck of a good idea.  I have long felt that what passes for smart growth and good urbanism these days has become too formulaic and lacking in depth.  While my own pet peeve is the absence from most current smart growth advocacy of deeper concepts of sustainability, one can make the same observation about the absence of genuine examination of instinctive human behavior and needs from much city planning.  Urban density, walkability, and transportation efficiency are good things, necessary signposts to a more sustainable future, but they also are not enough if our aspiration is not just to achieve better numerical performance but also to make matter places.

Chuck believes that the authenticity of “organically evolved places” provides some of the best lessons for making new places or improving existing ones, and Urbanism Without Effort, published this spring as an e-book by Island Press, is his explication of that thesis:

“As we rethink approaches to urban planning and redevelopment, such organically evolved places—both past and present—offer striking examples of how to reshape the urban environment authentically.  cover, Urbanism Without Effort ((c) Charles R. Wolfe)Yet, contemporary discussions tend to underemphasize the fundamental tension that occurs when the imprecise wonders of a naturally changing city are exchanged for programmed approaches to place, such as formulaic development proposals, fashionable land use initiatives, or targeted, theme-based populist campaigns.  In fact, whether unintentionally or outright, today’s ‘placemaking’ professionals often—with regard to the smallest parklet or the largest plaza—ponder how the prescriptive, planned, and programmed can achieve what used to occur naturally and without intervention.”

That prompts the question, of course, of whether we have so messed up the workings of the organic, human process in the past several decades of highways, sprawl, and urban disinvestment that we no longer live in a world where positive organic change is possible without substantial planning intervention.  Places that evolved naturally in, say, Matera (Italy, which Chuck cites with approval) centuries ago may be difficult to achieve in today’s Dallas without strong planning prescriptions.

Chuck would be unlikely to dispute that.  Rather, I believe he would argue that planners in Dallas should study places like Matera in order to be fully informed as to what might work best in a newer place that must satisfy basic human instincts and needs in order to achieve lasting success.  Practices of the past and, indeed, spontaneous practices today provide important clues as to how people prefer to organize themselves and their environment.  The website supporting Urbanism Without Effort explains:

“Successful community, Wolfe argues, is among the first principles of what makes humans feel happy, and therefore city dwellers invariably celebrate environments where and when they can coexist safely, in a mutually supportive way.

“Wolfe believes such celebration is most interesting when it occurs spontaneously—seemingly without effort. He contends it is critical to first isolate these spontaneous and latent examples of successful urban land use, before applying any prescriptive government policies or initiatives.”

The book is full of examples and illustrations, including lots of Chuck’s excellent photography (he is one of the two or three best built-environment photographers I know), much of it taken from his extensive travels.  He has a gifted eye for extracting the extraordinary and meaningful from the seemingly ordinary, and providing just enough translation so that our reaction to evocative images is informed and guided, but not so much that we aren’t allowed to experience the images directly.

Urbanism Without Effort also is full of references to the intellectual underpinnings of planning theory, but always to illuminate the context of particular places.  And, being an e-book, it contains lots of links to the various references cited.   

I was particularly struck by a section titled “Factors Leading to Comfortable Community and Neighborhood.”  Here are some essential elements that, Chuck argues, we have to get right in order to have successful cities for people:

  • San Francisco ((c) Charles R. Wolfe)Street corners that reflect “the marriage of movement and settlement”
  • “Fusion businesses,” for example, cafes in laundromats
  • Perception of safety in cities at night
  • Storefronts that create dynamic and interesting street uses

He illustrates these with "organic" places both abroad and in the US.

I’ll close this review with a passage describing a scene I remember from reading Chuck’s blog, myurbanist, a couple of years ago.  It describes an informal event in his own neighborhood that, as it turned out, planted the seed that grew into Urbanism Without Effort:

“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 . . . We can try awfully hard—sometimes too hard, in my opinion—to extol the virtues of the city by proselytizing and debating ideas and opportunities 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.”

Nicely put.  If you like thinking about the intersection of people and place, you may like this attractively priced book a great deal. 

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Juris GresteJun 25 2013 06:41 PM

I have not read Chuck Wolfe's book. However, on the basis of your review, I expect I would not have many misgivings about Chuck's thesis. However, perhaps he overlooks a couple of factors which frustrate the 'Urbanism without effort' notion.
1. Urban places today, certainly in the developed world, are too politicised. There is too much 'planning', regulation and restriction to protect various interests. Informal retailing in Australian cities is almost impossible because the larger formal retailers see it as a threat. Buskers have to be auditioned and approved for reasons that are hard to rationalise.
2. The city / town is an economic machine / medium. So many desirable things are stopped from happening in residential areas because there is a perception that it might diminish property values.
We need to see some other radical changes in our mindsets, governance and economic structures before we can give 'Urbanism without Effort' a fair chance.

Thomas LofftJun 28 2013 07:39 AM

Organically evolved places have unfortunately led to some of the greatest mass casualties in our history due to location for proximity to convenient transportation or waterfront amenities or simple availability of open land in flood plains, fault zones and tsunami and hurricane sensitive waterfronts. Planning to avoid extreme climate change hazards is more important in the current era than ever.

Kaid @ NRDCJun 28 2013 09:38 AM

Thanks for the perspectives. I don't disagree, but I think you misunderstand the thesis of the book. Chuck isn't advocating some sort of libertarian view of land use that eschews regulation. Rather, he is arguing that regulation be more informed by how people congregate spontaneously, so that we can do a better job of protecting environmental and, where appropriate, urbanist values. Regulation that takes good measure of human instinct will be more honored with good compliance than regulation that doesn't.

Chuck WolfeJun 28 2013 11:06 AM

All, thanks for the comments, and Kaid, thank you for the review and comment above.

Thomas, Kaid's summary just above is correct--the point is to learn from the organic, not necessarily prescribe it.

More specifically, the idea is to note the organic underpinnnings of who we are and to use wise interventions in context--to real understand the problem before prescribing solutions. I think reading the book as a whole makes that very clear.

In book talks I like to explain how I came to write the book partially based on my law practice and learning the core concerns that people have and must be spoken to in the regulatory process. The most detailed talk so far was at Town Hall-Seattle last week, and can be accessed at

And Jusris, I think you'll see some of your perspective in the book itself.

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