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Using Urban Observation to 'Ghost-Bust' Cities

Chuck Wolfe champions urban observation, emphasizing "ghosts" that are important to the authenticity of today's urban change, like oral histories among indigenous peoples passing on cultural traditions from one generation to the next.
March 27, 2015, 9am PDT | Charles R. Wolfe | @crwolfelaw
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Using his view of a Seattle urbanism trifecta---a streetcar, a food truck and one building of Amazon's new headquarters complex under construction---Chuck Wolfe reminds us what was there before, and the importance of urban observation to the urban development process.

Wolfe describes the Orpheum Theater that was demolished in 1967, and its street-level retail, and mixed office use.  He advocates the role of purposeful observation and sensation in urban environments, to better understand the undercurrents and overlaps that form cities today.  

This is critically important, he explains, because project advocacy, both pro and con, is often based on personal perception, observation or visual simulation, stylized in support or opposition to inevitable change. In the far-reaching essay that follows, he references pioneers from Allan Jacobs to Jan Gehl.

In another example, he describes how memories of the native American trail that traveled from Elliot Bay to Seattle's Lake Union have spurred the Seattle Parks Foundation-led "Lake2Bay" initiative, which endeavors to create a multifaceted urban innovation corridor. 

This approach—allowing for and explaining the stories behind our redeveloping cities—should not be viewed as antiquarian, academic or obstructionist, he says.  Rather, it enhances the human capacity to simply look and remember:

[M]odern-day tool kits are lacking, in my opinion, because they often don't fully equip leaders in policy and decision-making to understand the multifaceted urban world. While we have recipes for code-drafting and repairing suburbs and sprawl, we don't have enough guides for public officials or staff to be confident in legislating many intrinsic elements of a successful urbanism... such as deriving place from placelessness, retaining authenticity, livability, intensity, integration, diverse public spaces and ways.

He adds several ideas for how the now-missing Orpheum Theater--however intangible and historical--could play a role in urban redevelopment or revitalization and more meaningful attention to the uniqueness of the setting, asking "does the ghost still have game?"

Wolfe concludes:

In sum, when framing urban issues, describing cities or developing profiles of a specific place, the detailed variations in the individual perceptions of urban dwellers and observers should not be lost. These subtle messages are often spurred by ordinary urban landscapes, icons, emblems, symbols and "context clues" within ready view, contributing to an understanding of why a place looks and feels like it does today, and what might now be missing but potentially renewed.


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Published on Thursday, March 26, 2015 in The Huffington Post
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