Urbanism without effort (book discussion), with Chuck Wolfe

effortless urbanism

presented by SCC

Chuck Wolfe is an attorney, author, traveler, and photographer. He lives in Seattle, WA but is quite the globetrotter. He joined Urbanism Speakeasy this week to discuss his new book, Urbanism Without Effort. I recently read the book and would quickly recommend it to anyone on the fence. The section on the human experience [of travel] alone is worth the price. If you find yourself agreeing with the fundamentals of Urbanism Speakeasy, then you’ll definitely enjoy Chuck’s new book.


Human-scale vs. Auto-scale

Human-scale design is part of the tagline of the Urbanism Speakeasy podcast. So obviously I have preconceived notions what that means. The term serves as a mental trigger for me. Chuck writes about human-scale public space bringing a sense of belonging and comfort. People know it when they see it. So what is it that people see?


“Son, take a look at this.”

Reading Chuck’s book gave me the distinct impression that his father had a pretty big influence on the way he observes his surroundings. Most people I know live in or visit places that are 100 – 200 years old. Meanwhile, Chuck’s hanging out in places over 1,000 years old! He talks about moving around the world with his dad, and whether more was caught than taught.


Regulating away great places

The title of Chuck’s new book is Urbanism Without Effort. The “without” sort of implies a lack of regulation, doesn’t it? We talk about whether or not government agencies tend to regulate away the vitality of our cities in order to force-fit what used to happen organically. [Spoiler alert: I absolutely think we regulate away great places!]


What fate for the regulators and enforcers?

Some of the basic observations and opinions in the book are going to be alarming for some readers. If taken to heart, the ideas expressed put a lot of people on notice that their jobs are directly interfering with progress. Interfering with good urbanism. But that alarm can be a good thing. We don’t have as many wagon wheel manufacturers these days, do we?

Chuck talks about how the look and feel of so many great urban places came from randomness. From chaos. So are top-down policies and programming a prerequisite for thriving city life?


Detroit: poster child of government intervention.

Urbanists love the New York City pedestrian plazas. (This podcast host included!) In recent years, the plazas are used as an example of government intervention in placemaking. Most planners and urbanists assume intervention is a requirement for success. (For more on that nonsense, be sure to listen to this episode with Mike Lydon.)

When I hear the phrase “government intervention” I immediately think of Detroit. Ok, that’s not true. First, I think of warmongering. Then I think of Detroit. I think of highways ripping through cities, displacing people, telling the little people what’s good for them, and obliterating local economies. I think of freedoms being limited rather than local culture being celebrated. In his book, Chuck talks about the importance of preserving local values and preferences. How do we accomplish that while de-emphasizing the “expert” city plan? How do we inspire people with ideas that they may not have dreamed possible on their own?


Corners and settlements

Chuck explores 4 factors leading to comfortable places. We spend some time on my favorite – street corners. We don’t have time to explore all 4 — and why would we? You should be checking out the book yourself!

The modern-day phrase for dealing with movement around corners and settlements at corners is “linking land use and transportation”. I find it interesting that intersections or crossroads are the focal point of traffic studies. The idea behind traffic studies is generally to create conditions that pump more vehicles through an intersection in a shorter period of time. What would be the “urbanism without effort” approach to designing intersections? Should we even bother with traffic impact studies?


copy — paste — fail — repeat

In modern cities, especially in America, walking is considered an alternative mode of travel. You talk about Adriatic and Mediterranean towns where walking is both movement and a component of settlement. Travel guides encourage tourists to head to the places bustling with foot traffic. Here in the U.S., transportation professionals call that a degradation of service, but I digress. We can’t expect to just copy-paste a great place in another country to a town in America. And yet we try. The book includes some examples of Rome. Is it possible for American cities to be inspired by Rome without trying to replicate them?


Connect with our guest

Chuck is pretty easy to track down online.



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