Cities are undergoing significant change as a result of the climate problem. Some people battle over every parking space and change. And here are others who are attempting to determine what aspects of the city’s character should be retained and what urgent changes should be made. Particularly as we begin to recover from the pandemic, this is hardly an intellectual debate. What sort of city do we require or want? Recently, urbanist Brent Toderian posed the following tweet:
Charles Wolfe is a former environmental and land-use attorney with a passion for urban life and an excellent eye for photography. He was “an attorney by day and an urbanist by night” when I first met him at a conference in Buffalo a few years ago, but he is now a full-time writer about cities. The topic Toderian brings up is covered in his most recent book, “Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character,” which he co-wrote with Tigran Haas.
In his biography, Wolfe states, “Now located in Stockholm and London, I have been devoted to the study of what it means for a town or city to recognize and honor its historic identity, or essence, as it transforms into something new.”
It is simpler to manage change when culture and character are prioritized over physical structures. You discover what people value, what they can let go of, and what is crucial and unimportant. It is challenging when everyone resists change and channels their inner Baudelaire, griping about how Baron Haussmann ruined his city in the middle of the 19th century.
“As Paris changes, my melancholy deepens. The new palaces, covered by scaffolding and surrounded by blocks of stone, overlook the old suburbs that are being torn down to pave wide, utilitarian avenues. The new city’s coils strangle memory.”
It’s challenging when everyone has a unique perspective on their city.
“What is the culture and character of a city, and what does it take to sustain it? How should change be managed in cities? The answers to these questions are partially rooted in our memories, expectations, and attitudes. A lifelong resident may expect the neighborhood of childhood memories, whereas the tourist may expect remarkable inspiration and contrast with everyday experience. A business traveler may only seek comfort, and a child may wish for a dream.”
Wolfe states in the opening that “forget smart, we need context cities” because there are far too many pre-packaged solutions from proponents of smart cities and placemaking. As a tool to “enable today’s debates on congestion, beauty, affordability, climate change, and the vital challenges of the day,” he employs what he terms the context keys of familiarity, congruity, and integrity.
Since I began writing this review, several weeks have passed while I struggled to understand some of the more complex concepts, particularly his LEARN (Look, Engage, Assess, Review, and Negotiate) technique for examining urban culture and character. As a former preservation activist and current urbanist who is concerned about the climate, I have thus thrown in the towel and am sticking to the topics close to my heart. I’m still debating issues like, “Is it not archaic and old-fashioned to romanticize (or strive to recreate) a way of life from the past, or to treat particular aspects of a city as though they were endangered species?”
No, because we are also discussing what constitutes a desirable urban form, what we should value, and what we should let go of. We are not simply talking about buildings. What was effective and what wasn’t Due to the fact that “understanding a place addresses how equity and climate change issues will be addressed in the area where people live and feel the consequences of global trends,” A trailer park in France is one of the best places Wolfe describes because of this:
“The homes are nurtured, planted around, and modified in practical ways. A range of services is available nearby, including groceries, produce, a butcher and deli, a hairdresser, and restaurants. Other community assets are an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several pools, boules (or pétanque), and summer events. Most important, there is a “personality,” a sense and pride of place in and around the small, modest homes, from clever retrofits of older structures into today’s “tiny houses.”
Urbanist social media is grappling with the topics Wolfe covers in this book on a daily basis, including how to travel about cities, green them, and handle history, preservation, and zoning difficulties.
Wolfe is not what is sometimes derisively referred to as a “Trad,” and the book does not celebrate the merits of all that is ancient. He comes to the conclusion that “the continuous culture and character that we seek from place to place is a synthesis of the smart, empirical, technological, and efficient with the beautiful, familiar, romantic, poetic, and artistic.” I’d like to live somewhere that sounds like it.