From the outset, defining the culture and character of a city is a daunting task. It involves storytelling and study, from within and without; it draws on art and science, religion and myth. It encompasses expectations, fantasy, and reality. Every individual has a different viewpoint based on his or her background and experience. 

Imagine if the city around you disappeared, and everything familiar in your daily life and routine suddenly ceased to exist. Imagine the paths you are so used to vanishing, along with the people and places that are so familiar. How would you recreate this central experience in your life, and how would you help to create your city’s shared essence?

If you were a resident of Rome, Athens, London, or Dublin, you would not recreate the cities of the ancient world, Charles Dickens, or James Joyce. Nor would you elsewhere replicate cities of poverty, discomfort or repression. Most likely you would remember the best and most familiar times, perhaps from childhood, and ponder how to make them look and feel even better, and address carbon neutrality and affordability issues along the way.

For those in cities threatened or destroyed by a disaster or climate change, or for new residents of a foreign place, these are not idle questions. In fact, they are not irrelevant to any of us, because with the ongoing dynamic of city life, the sensations and objective realities of place alter, shift and outright reinvent almost every day. While we can find answers in applied research, data, and technology, the evolution of the city is nevertheless something very personal, observed from within, that escapes strict definition in the external world.

Cities are layers of experience, interaction, tension, culture and a social life that manifests itself in what we see from day to day. There is nothing new in this multiplicity: indeed, some academics would argue that urban form is at least partially preordained. But the means and methods of discernment provide different glosses that compete more than unify. My goal is to unfold the many ways we understand cities and their constituent places, and to better acknowledge the blends that routinely occur between global and local, old and new, planned and unplanned, built and natural, and the many other tensions of urban existence.

While these tensions are in part generic, we inherently know that no two cities are identical, because circumstances do not present identically from place to place. Any significant distinctions should be researched and respected, because differences and juxtapositions are the catalysts for understanding residents’ interpretations of their cities, and how their urban futures will unfold.

The Text City of 221B Baker Street

Nor are cities entirely real in the conventional sense. In London, it is possible to visit 221B Baker Street and Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross. Those who want to view these places imagined for Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter — “text cities” —will find actual, accessible, and popular destinations. Fictional locations have become part of the urban landscape, and allow dreams to manifest, and words to come alive.

Oddly enough, these now-real places—sustained by tourism—embody culture (literary classics) and character (built forms that display the context of their creation). The locations are unique to their blend of circumstances, as are the applicable definitions of these two italicized and confounding words. But tangible forms of text cities are only one aspect of our sophisticated and rapidly urbanizing world; enclaves of over-tourism, such as Venice, are another.

In extreme examples—sometimes called the “Civita effect” in honor of a perilously perched Italian hill town that charges for admission—an evolved reality within a romantic shell beckons tourists to a magical world of restaurants and shops that the uninitiated embrace as iconic, real, and Instagram-worthy. In Civita’s case, the small entry fee has enhanced tourism in the region, and demand for more, similar experiences. 

On the one hand, some cities rapidly rise and reflect the height and scale of the new cities of the Emirates and the Far East. But others evolve organically from the classic urban forms of the Western world. Common to all are the risks of monoculture, duplication, and the loss of local traditions and ways of life embedded in residents’ everyday relationships.

Issues at hand extend beyond whether buildings should be short or tall, or how much they sprawl. One example is the growing activation of smaller urban spaces in tandem with development and regeneration. These placemaking examples present formative opportunities for collaborative and experimental determination of a collective local significance.

One respected scholar of place, Edward Relph, has addressed urban form as far more than an end in itself; he sees it as the application of physical bounds within which societal problems may be solved collaboratively:

I suspect that this era of economic stagnation, electronic interconnectedness, the apparent failure of rational government and growing environmental challenges, could be the beginning of a widespread collapse of expectations about progress, growth, and quality of everyday life. If this is the case, all types of places will have to become more resilient to unpredictable change and more self-dependent. If this is to happen without particular places descending into self-serving exclusionary enclaves, it is necessary to think of place not so much as a desirable urban form as a flexible, adaptable, pragmatic foundation for coping with environmental and social uncertainty. And from this perspective, what is important…is not advocacy for small urban spaces and peopled streets; it is… models for collaboration that might be used to develop more nuanced and critical interpretations for a wide range of types of urban places and communities. (emphasis added) 

Edward Relph

Relph also noted—more than three years before the social distancing of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic—that “places and how we experience them are both in a state of enormous flux, and that the future of places is deeply uncertain.”

While Relph does not mention the personal experience of public space in this passage, it is currently a populist rallying cry and an essential element of urban composition and context. For instance, Tigran Haas and colleagues recently emphasized increased scrutiny of “linkages between urban form and human behavior” to achieve “vibrant and sustainable public spaces.” The form-behavior focus they highlight is reflected in our individual experiences.

In light of these complex, intermingled layers that define the city, I believe that if anyone tries to determine, declare and impose a local urban essence quickly and then sustain it—based only on dogma or as an urbanist missionary—it will escape them and slither through their hands. However, if they apply diligence and reflection concerning the day-to-day realities of urban life, they will gain a more accurate understanding of the blending that is actually underway. Mindfulness, which we are constantly counseled to apply to ourselves, is critical, because the world in an era of technological evolution and climate change is too unpredictable a place for detached soothsayers to prevail.

The above is an adapted portion of the Introduction to Wolfe, C.R., with T. Haas, Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character: Principles and Best Practices, (Rowman and Littlefield, pending, late 2020/early 2021).

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