The Best Ways to Portray City Life Around the World

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Rankings and photographs often need greater context like that provided by Robert Kunzig in the new issue of National Geographic issue -- removed observation that allows for practical understanding

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Media attention to urban life continues, day by day, but to my mind, characteristic rankings, photographs, and metrics often need greater historical context, and more robust, real-life punctuation.

While Tahrir Square and the Occupy Movement parlay the daily urban tensions of democracy and authority, cities remain focal points of celebration, as demonstrated in Robert Kunzig's latest city-as-solution retrospective and accompanying imagery in the December 2011 National Geographic.

2RomulusRemus_ChuckWolfe1.jpgKunzig's article is, in fact, closer to the holistic focus called for above. By using Ebenezer Howard's "large and lingering impact" as a foil, Kunzig contrasts the zeal of economist Edward Glaeser, the perspectives of David Owen, and a mini-history of sprawl and South Korean density. His approach recalls journalist-turned-urban authority Grady Clay's treatment of Howard's Garden City ideals (and largely misplaced American implementation) in a famous 1959 Horizon Magazine article, "Metropolis Regained".

Two years ago, while granting Clay its Athena Award, the Congress for the New Urbanism brought renewed attention to Clay's article -- as early documentation of back to the city principles.

Clay's 1959 conclusion still holds:

All these ideas of the New Urbanists spring from their conviction that the city can be saved, but not by denying its nature. The city, they believe, generates innumerable devices for ameliorating the human lot, and we would do well to study these -- even where at first glance they look disorderly and disreputable -- before abandoning them. Cities have been around too long for our generation to desert them so precipitously. As that admirable humanist Leon Battista Alberti put it in his Deiciarchia, "The necessary things are those without which you cannot well pursue life. And as we see, man, from his emergence into this light to his last end, has always found it necessary to turn to others for help. But then cities were created for no other reason than for men to live together in comfort and contentment."

Kudos to Kunzig for his artful use of Howard's life-long quest for a livable urbanism, especially in the context of my memories of Clay's writings.

But the Kunzig article invites more.

Like Clay's observations in his later writings (e.g., the "Vantages" chapter in Close Up: How to Read the American City), in the last few months I have pondered how best to further communicate urban preferences amid a changing landscape. As shown by both Kunzig and Clay, history can supplement two forms of documentation: straightforward photography with authentic -- and ordinary -- personal experience.

3LondonBikeshare_ChuckWolfe.jpgTo put this into practice, why not develop a simple test to measure a city (over and above complex rankings or metrics) that takes advantage of history, imagery, and experience, including daily life? I offer, in short form, an emphasis on a creative reference, an icon, and the hope to stay, as follows, and invite others to offer their own criteria.

The value of a creative reference. The founding story of a city is often an influential basis for prominence and evolution. The most famous founding stories derive from creation myths, such as that of Rome. Romulus and Remus, fathered by Mars, the God of War, abandoned at birth on the Tiber River by a threatened king, rescued by a wolf, and raised by shepherds -- Romulus becomes ruler after prevailing in the "duel of the titans."

In my measure, good lore is essential to a successful city.

The helpful role of a visible icon. Among the most photographed and touted elements of a city is a central place or object that can become a focal point for distinction and pride. Once religious or military in nature, modern cities display several exemplary civic monuments or places for ready reference of implied success.

Perhaps the most famous is the Eiffel Tower, which acts as a symbol of Paris in the opening photograph, above.

Most particularly, a compilation of completed statements about "why I hope to stay" can offer qualitative input on livability. For example: "I hope to keep living here because I feel like I can walk safely to where I need to go."

These answers would not be uniform -- some may champion transit, bicycles, parks and open space, good schools or night life -- but the "why" question probes at the "comfort and contentment" referenced by Clay in "Metropolis Regained," or Kunzig's conclusion.

After saying goodbye to his interviewee, British planning academic Peter Hall, Kunzig explains:

With that he disappeared into the Underground for his ride home, leaving me on the crowded sidewalk with a great gift: a few hours to kill in London. Even Ebenezer Howard would have understood the feeling, at least as a young man. When he returned after a few years in the U.S. -- he'd flopped as a homesteading farmer in Nebraska -- he was jazzed by his native city. Just riding an omnibus, he later wrote, gave him a pleasantly visceral jolt: "A strange ecstatic feeling at such times often possessed me.... The crowded streets -- the signs of wealth and prosperity -- the bustle -- the very confusion and disorder appealed to me, and I was filled with delight."

The key point: Kunzig, in National Geographic, shows how as popular writing on urban topics matures, we move closer to meaningful issue statements about urban life. A narrative once the province of "specialists," such as Clay, is now mainstream.

But with just a few more questions and answers of the sort proposed here, removed observation is more likely to result in practical understanding of urban solutions and success.

Images: Charles R. Wolfe.


This article also appears on My Urbanist, an Atlantic partner site.

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Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.

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