Why respect the distinctive character of cities?

We invariably are products of our upbringings, which in my case has led me to write a third, well-illustrated book on understanding city life and form. The focus on sustaining culture and character has become even more relevant to me after moving abroad and watching how quickly central issues of urbanism have evolved over the past 10 years and how they manifest in different cities, especially in pandemic times.

Ten years ago, as an attorney in Seattle, it was not clear to me that unprecedented change was afoot; that redevelopment and an ongoing shift to a more technocentric city would…


How do we unearth and rediscover landscapes which we can no longer see?

Personal and collective memories in defining a place’s culture and character have tremendous value. Notably, the built environment is not today’s focus. Instead, with Shannon Nichol, we discuss the landscape environment’s “buried” memories.

Shannon is a founding partner of Gustafson, Guthrie, and Nichol ( GGN) in Seattle. Her resume includes several national projects, including Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago, Boston’s North End Parks, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Campus project, and the India Basin Shoreline in San Francisco.

Sustaining a City’s Culture and…


The human memory is so powerful that a place on pavement suddenly can trigger a stream of imagery from the distant past, or a meaningful story of something that once happened there. We should champion such keys to the context of a place.

Some argue that tall buildings disrupt architectural scale and cause potential environmental and climate change impacts (Image in Brisbane, Australia, Charles R. Wolfe)

When discussing the appearance of a city, particular urban issues, or profiling a specific place, the variations in individual perception and understanding should not be lost. Differences in place experience are based on a variety of focal points, including landscapes, icons, emblems, symbols, and context clues within ready perception. In sum, they explain why a place looks and feels to us like it does today.

Those same signs may point to what we might now miss but can be revived, along with arrival stories of familiarity-”this reminds me of.” In my new book Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character, I…


Today’s episode in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, recalls the look and feel of urban blends discussed in Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character. First, I return to a venue discussed in the Introduction (available in the link at the end of this entry). Second, I describe several often-hidden facets of a city.

The video amplifies basic concepts that the book illustrates in the Richmond town center through a single photograph. The photograph and related sections illustrate how sustaining an urban place-at many scales-requires blended, interdisciplinary attention to many place-specific junctions.

As the Introduction notes:

These include…


Who says that place is all about engineered or built environments? It isn’t, a point I emphasize many times in Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character. If you need more convincing, listen to Trish Hansen in the video below. I spoke to her on March 15, as she embarked upon a 15-month consultation in South Australia.

Trish is the Founding Principal of Urban Mind Studio in Adelaide, where she works to enrich the creative and cultural life of places, neighborhoods, and cities. She is increasingly influenced by the immersive, experiential, and relationship-based approaches of First Nations around the world.


Is there a predicate to “placemaking” where a place is analyzed and mastered? Is that process of immersion, which I so love to emphasize, part of the placemaking process, or should it be called something else? To many, the question poses a distinction without a difference.

Nonetheless, in talking about Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character during these past few weeks with people from all walks of life, one theme recurs. Many wonder how we take the places we have and understand them before plotting their improvement.

But wait. I’ve written about this before, seven years ago, in my old…


Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character begins with the notion that communities reflect the fusion of everyday life with the various forces and environments common to urban settings. One example is the overlap of built and natural environments, and the inspiration inherent in their combined appearance. I focus on water-influenced environments from the outset.

In the video, I reassert the book’s narrative that although it is possible to summarize some generic marks of urban culture and character-waterfronts, say; or the appearance of cities from well-known urban bridges-conclusions are elusive without additional information and reflection.

In place of the book’s…


When Sustaining Place began late last Spring, I wrote several pieces about the emergence phases from the first English lockdown. There are parallels today, as the third lockdown begins to unwind. I wanted to revisit hints of resilience through a video essay on the changes to the commercial fabric of Newbury.

Today, using the lens of Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character, I illustrate certain post-pandemic city issues in real-time.

I add a common theme from many passages from the book: urban places carry memories-and reassurances-that regeneration will occur.

The video roams Newbury’s town center, documenting blended streetscapes, closed…


Today, we pose questions based on Vodaphone’s world headquarters in Newbury (and the “Shaw Valley” housing development next door). Post-pandemic, will what is now empty-or under construction-remain? As Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character implies, these questions don’t have ready answers. They require careful assessment and review of corporate productivity policies, what is best for the environment, and much more.

This episode has two inspirations. The first is recent announcements by other technology companies that post-pandemic, working from home will be much more commonplace. The second is housing patterns that sprawl into idyllic environments-will they continue or alter in form?


Like idiomatic phrases that say similar things in a variety of languages, urban environments are customized adaptations to different conditions. Sustaining culture and character is more than a black or white proposition. It requires a careful blend that depends on local circumstances, meticulous research, and self-knowledge.

Whatever our role in managing urban change, we must remain mindful of the underlying context of the place at hand. Place-specific considerations suggest the inadequacy of a “one-size-fits-all” mindset. Priority and process may vary based on ethnicity, national heritage, generation, or profession. It is not just a question of whether “what worked there will work here,” but the existence of different mechanisms for resolving issues of social justice and change.

A wealth of materials-conferences, studies, books, articles, renderings, installations, policies, plans, and regulations-help define the local context and relative role of core issues relating to cities and places. …

Chuck Wolfe

Author Charles R. Wolfe founded the London-based Seeing Better Cities Group to improve the conversation around how cities grow and evolve across the world.

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