Capturing the Post-Pandemic City: The Power of 'Visual Prosecution'

Have you ever tried immersive photography to show how urban landscapes, with their ever-evolving stories, are changing post-pandemic? A three-time author of books about understanding the innate identities of urban places updates his perspective.

6 minute read

September 5, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Charles R. Wolfe @crwolfelaw

A view from among the high0rises in Downtown Seattle.

Downtown Seattle on September 2, 2023, from Belltown. | Charles Wolfe

While topographical features, climate, and location often dictate urban development, the lived experiences within cities and towns tell a richer story. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, reshaped our urban narratives in profound ways. In the pandemic's aftermath, platforms like podcasts have spotlighted our urban spaces' evolving stories, histories, and aspirations.

Meanwhile, our cameras capture the essence of now-institutionalized auto-limited streets and surviving outdoor dining structures. From city to city, this revised urban mosaic varies with local flavor and panache.

For over a decade, I've passionately believed that we should immerse ourselves in our environments, genuinely experiencing and understanding them, before championing the prevailing trends. Many cameras have been an invaluable tool in this journey.

I've used the camera—whichever kind is accessible—as an immersion-forcing device to experience city life. I've been in this effort, defining themes and goals. Since introducing my techniques in Seeing the Better City, I've observed an increasing number of individuals embracing photography to advocate for ideas like Netherlands-style biking, urban redesigns, and tactical urbanist interventions.

‘Visual prosecution’ in practice in San Francisco by Charles R. Wolfe
'Visual prosecution' in practice in San Francisco by Charles R. Wolfe

After my five years overseas, I recently embarked on a West Coast "road trip" dedicated to personal observation of urban resurgence themes, summarized in Planetizen on August 30. Now, I suggest we engage in "visual prosecution" of the contemporary urban landscape at multiple scales. "Visual prosecution" means that looking as doing is more meaningful than passively receiving others' words, provocative stock photography, AI imagery, or third-party video. 

Here, I'll reflect further on the experience and my belief that a purposeful camera-based immersion remains a meaningful task.

The Living Organism

Many equate the city to a living organism, a habitat, a locus of bio-mimicry, or a laboratory for laws of physics. For others, a town blends geography, politics, culture, economy, and technology to create a vernacular fingerprint.

Patterns, by Charles R. Wolfe
Patterns, by Charles R. Wolfe

We can visually discern resulting patterns. Purposeful photography—not just travel posts boasting where we've been—helps decode this vernacular, highlights differences between cities, and reveals what may not be at first readily apparent. We see feats of engineering, architecture, art, vignettes of people in action, and places where the built and natural environments intersect.

My recent road trip had a theme of resurgence for a reason—it forced me to observe and comment about urban change. 

I saw and recorded how remnants and ruins regenerated with new market dynamics. I repeatedly noticed how some buildings stood empty, new uses replaced old uses (often with limited alteration), new restaurants morphed from closed eateries, and some traditional downtown stores (e.g., upscale retail) survived, but only with obvious security onsite. 

A contemporary mural by Charles R. Wolfe
A contemporary mural, by Charles R. Wolfe

In particular, I noticed how graffiti, innovative sculpture, and murals reflected a freedom of expression that flowered during years of social isolation and protest. In this way, American cities have become more European; from street murals to public installations, urban art seems to be on the increase. America seems more aware of the enigmatic UK street artist Banksy, who uses graffiti to prevailing themes of city life, creating a canvas for sociopolitical dialogue.

This highly personal and interpretive approach to photographs is not the only way to create a biography of cities. Newer tools offer additional perspectives, and the work of others via legacy coffee-table books remains. I briefly list some examples below.

Drone Scale, by Charles R. Wolfe
Drone scale, by Charles R. Wolfe

Photography as Biography at Different Scales

Over and above what we document on the ground from day to day, other resources address grander scales or examples from different times.

  1. Aerial Shots: These evolve bird's-eye view maps and renderings from past eras, highlighting spatial patterns, city planning, and the interplay between artificial structures and natural features. Through these images, we realize the expanse of New York's Central Park or the serpentine flow of the Thames through London. I've started using drones to capture cities around Seattle, which mix skylines with water-dominated views.

  2. Street Photography: Capturing street life is a medium that has regained popularity and is highly documented through the work of Parisian and New York flaneurs of the past and modern counterparts. Serendipity, human connection, and the rhythm of daily life tell stories beyond urbanist memes.

    • Vivian Maier: As one of the more recently celebrated contributors to the "street" genre, this reclusive nanny-turned-photographer chronicled mid-20th-century urban America. Her work is a masterpiece of human emotion and interaction.
  3. Time-lapse Techniques: Documenting change, from shifting skylines to evolving street scenes, time-lapse is a compelling way to capture how cities change. The technique is increasingly available on cameras and mobile phones in addition to familiar examples.

The Post-Pandemic City: Visualizing Resurgence

One change is apparent from my most recent travels--the COVID-19 pandemic has forced an urban introspection, revealing vulnerabilities but inspiring opportunities and reference to the vocabulary of the in-between, such as "Iiminal" and "resilience."

As cities grapple with change, the "visual prosecution" I reference above becomes a transformative medium, capturing the appearance of post-pandemic reemergence and helping us articulate what seems most appropriate: If you could redesign the city or town you live in, what would it look like? How would the traffic circulate, what type of new housing should go in which locations, what kind of green spaces would you have, and how would you ensure it accommodates the pressing needs of climate change and social justice? 

Here are a few relevant examples:

  • Massimo Vitali: Vitaili's pandemic-era photographs portray human adaptability, especially in Italian public spaces and beaches. His images provide a subtle balance in showing current life compared to past eras and invite interpretation of the "new normal."

  • JR: Based east of Paris, JR's murals are massive in scale and impact, far beyond pandemic recovery messaging. His "Chronicles of Clichy-Montfermeil" transcends art and photography around the resilience theme. I list him here for the scale his inspiration provides. His participatory art approach has solicited communities worldwide to illustrate their most essential projects through photographs and highlight the universality of urban experiences.

  • The Urban Diary: In my books, I adopted Walter Hood's term, "urban diary," and have proffered a method for exploring the city in the fundamental ways suggested here. This has been central to my advocacy for photography's role in urban betterment. Summaries appeared in Planetizen and CNU Public Square in 2017.

Visualizing resurgence in Santa Monica? By Charles R. Wolfe
Visualizing resurgence in Santa Monica? By Charles R. Wolfe

Conclusion: A Journey of Multifaceted Exploration

To fully immerse in a city's narrative requires a variety of approaches. But I remain convinced that photography is a potent starting point to chronicle everyday life, current events, change, art, history, sociology, and more. Embracing this gateway to an interdisciplinary approach will ensure that we do not just observe but also understand, engage with, and envision solutions.

The power of this visual storytelling lies in its accessibility. We need more affirmative identification of the many aspects of our cities' post-pandemic renaissance. I'm thinking of a new hashtag for social media,  #UrbanDiary2023. If you like, join me in collective action by diving deeper into your surroundings and sharing your findings of nuanced transformations. 

Charles R. Wolfe

CHUCK WOLFE is a multinational urbanism consultant, author and influencer, Visiting and Guest Scholar in Scotland and Sweden (2014 and 2017-22), a recent Fulbright Specialist in Australia for an award-winning project, and a long-time American environmental/land use lawyer. In addition to his law degree from the University of Oregon, he holds a graduate degree in regional planning from Cornell University. He has 38 years of experience in environmental, land use, and real estate law. He has held leadership positions in both the legal and planning professions.

View of Interstate 205 bridge over Columbia River with Mt. Hood in background.

The Unceremonious Death of a Freeway Expansion Project

The end of an Oregon freeway project didn't get much fanfare, but the victory is worth celebrating.

September 19, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

A derelict sign on a barbed wire fence reads “Golf Course, Private, No Admittance.”

Converting Golf Courses to Housing Never as Easy as the Market Would Like

Thousands of golf courses have closed in recent years, but the obvious redevelopment opportunity represented by many defunct courses isn’t always easy to realize.

September 19, 2023 - The Business Journals

Close-up of red Houston BCycle bike share bikes parked at a station

Houston To End Bike Share Program

Lacking the funding it needs to continue, Houston’s BCycle bike share system will end operations in the coming months.

September 18, 2023 - Houston Chronicle

Close-up of Unalakleet, Alaska on map.

FTA Announces Tribal Transit Program Grants

The agency awarded close to $10 million to 22 communities around the country for transit improvements.

3 hours ago - Mass Transit

View from inside glass top floor of Amtrak passenger train with Rocky Mountains scenery outside.

Making Colorado’s Front Range Rail a Reality

Local leaders are scrambling to bring together the funding and political support to create new intercity rail service in the fast-growing region.

4 hours ago - Governing

Students walking on sunny walkway on college campus.

How College Campuses Fulfill an Urbanist Dream

Most college campuses in the United States are inherently walkable, mixing various uses with diverse housing options and transit networks.

5 hours ago - The Daily

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.