Melbourne, Australia, by the author.

Island Press first published an e-book version of the book, Urbanism Without Effort, in 2013, and a released a revised, paperback version last week. This book set the stage for my later book, Seeing the Better City, which was designed to implement my ideas about how to observe and document facets of urban change, and to guide how to put suggested “urban diaries” to work. A short excerpt from the newly revised Urbanism Without Effort paperback follows.


Common, latent characteristics of urban communities contribute to the heterogeneity of interesting, adaptable, desirable places. However, not all characteristics are present in all places at all times — the combination of factors is particular to each place, and what works well for one culture and place is not necessarily right for another.

What are the common characteristics, and how do they interact? How do the pieces work together to create more than just an assemblage

  • Density and street life illustrate the marriage of movement and settlement and activate corners, squares, and streets around the clock, with pedestrian-scale buildings and street furniture.
  • Mixed modes of transit — pedestrian, bicycle, car, public transportation — interact in a way that facilitates safety without strict separation. Pedestrians can navigate and explore easily with signage and paths.
  • Spaces are available to stay, sit, stand, and watch other people. Similarly, places are readily apparent for other human basics — to eat and drink, and to obtain shelter from the sun, wind, rain, and snow.
  • Porous boundaries — fences with gates, changes in pavement and elevations, stairs, doors, windows — demarcate what is private, semiprivate, and public, and allow for movement and views in or out.
  • Landmarks, visually interesting architecture, flora and fauna, color, and water also facilitate participation in the urban environment by all ages.

If this compendium of urbanism has been achieved without effort, it is usually the result of organic evolution over the course of many years. New projects or larger developments that are built at one identifiable date risk sacrificing the often “gritty” visual complexity and richness that result from long-term assembly through the accretion of time.

For example, in Italy’s Puglia region, the dynamism of place is intrinsic to climate and tradition and more naturally occurs amid commerce and curiosity, along streets, beside buildings, and as a component of cross-town strolls. This dynamism can be read in faces, the simplicity of child’s play, and nearby mealtime banter, often without pattern or prescription.

Trani, Puglia, Italy, by the author

In Puglia’s towns and villages, opportunities to interpret the idea of urbanism without effort abound along evolving streets and in public squares that maintain their core integrity. Does a bouncing ball against a venerable door suggest a model for certain types of urban playgrounds? Do windows open to the wind suggest building orientations that work? Do street vendors have lessons for evolving farmers’ markets and “street food” back home? What provides a sense of safety in crowds, at all times of day?

These illustrative questions suggest the inspirational power of onsite personal experience, memorialized by imagery, as a basis for further analysis of diverse urban settings. But such inspiration and inquiry are only the beginning of adapting human-scale lessons to, for example, the younger, sometimes two-dimensional world of American urbanism, or the increasingly pervasive mixed-use redevelopment projects adjacent to transit hubs that seek a traditional neighborhood look and feel. What else is possible? Once this urbanism without effort is recognized, our streets and squares, beaches and byways all have a greater and unrealized multipurpose capacity, ripe for recalibration.

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