Seeing The Better City

How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space. | Charles Wolfe

The book opens up with the quote from Jonathan Raban (Soft City), “That living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exist in the continual creative play of urban living”.

The book brings to light the importance of inter-disciplinary aspects of human experience as a valuable resource to making the  city. The visual and experiential attributes can make a contribution to understanding the urban environment and its relationship with the society and its people. In that sense, the book attempts to set an approach towards fresher ways of seeing the city.  The built environment has competing interest and it presents complex and often contradictory visions. These are often in a dynamic state and they do not allow for singular experiences to set in. The ways of seeing the city goes beyond the design domain and planning processes and it requires a distinct visual sense.

The introduction chapter takes the basic argument about “Why Urban Observation Matters?”. The organised two-dimensional controls or regulatory approaches do not allow for a complete communication of the reality or of the day-to-day experiences of the city. The argument was further augmented with classical readings from Kevin Lynch, Malcom Rivkin, who wrote about the urban perception as an important aspect of unfolding the urban experience. This is evident in the excerpt as quoted by the author “Inspirational oral histories, myths and creation stories were rich with imagery and often tried to particular location and landmarks”. The author also writes about the role of human perception in a data-driven world, and how human observation is also seen as a data that are unique to place.

The Chapter One on “How to See City Basics And Universal Patterns” attempts to articulate, what comes naturally, what could be readily observable, indigenous facets of urban settlements (Jan Gehl & Birgitte Svarre). The process of sensing the city or place decoding requires fundamental questions and processes of documentation. The author advocates, better cities are a result of learning how to sense the city first, within which he propagates the tools (Urban Diary) for documentation. The Urban Diary model could perhaps be central to place decoding and locating indigenous roots of dynamic urban reality.

The Chapter Two argues on “Observational Rules” learning about how to recognise the pattern of the city life. The author gives a rich account of literature, reinforcing the identification of  unique patterns of the city. Tony Hiss assembled the book on “Simultaneous Perception” and “Experience of Place” or “Psycho-geography” (probably by Simon Sadler, the Situationist City) or John Montgomery “Happy City”, where attempts have been made to discern, how we look at and feel about urban spaces around us. The modern writers like Lewis Mumford and J.B. Jackson often described human-urban relationships as richly engraved into the urban history. The framework of seeing the city, as he suggested are firstly, unconscious search of order and familiarity, secondly, experience of critical elements, worthy of ongoing look and finally, discerning a syntax, or a language of form as code.

The Chapter tThree on “Seeing the City through Urban Diaries” brings about the importance of representation within the vast disciplines of architecture, planning, geography and anthropology. The chapters summarise the traditional approaches along with the Urban Diary which would adopt the method of LENS (Look, Explore, Narrate and Summarise). The author cites several important excerpts from the Urban Diary, describing cities to exemplify the connection to place with various types of documentations and inter-disciplinary arguments. It also deals with how the Urban Diary can decode the change in everyday life.

Chapter Four on “Documenting our Personal Cities” articulates ways of thinking about ‘urban observation’ through a personal observation approach. This includes ways of documentation of visual characteristics of urban spaces through various influencing factors as navigational hints, which brings about naturalness, blending of open and defined spaces, historical significance and order (coherence, congruity, legibility, clarity).

Chapter Five takes the Urban Dairy’s  agenda forward to policies, plans and politics. The authors states that the city is undeniably a human creation, full of our emotions, impressions, and experiences, while policies and regulatory processes are purely empirical based. Accordingly, the need of the day is to know how to re-infuse processes with the all-important attention of human experience and to be accounted for in the planning policies. The subjective ideas, emotional or associative understanding require tools to induce them into the planning processes. The probable way forward is to wed the subjectivity of the citywith  the urban spaces and its public realm.

Seeing The Better City provides important insights into the world of human experiences from multiple perspectives and most importantly deals with the human relationship to cities. This book is a must read for students working on their architectural thesis research pertaining to urban questions and for post graduate students of urban studies.

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