Are Context Cities the New Smart Cities?

A review of 'Sustaining a City's Culture and Character' by Charles Wolfe.

Cover of book

Charles Wolfe

In this time of climate crisis, cities are facing dramatic changes. There are those who fight over every change and parking spot. And here are others who are trying to figure out what is the essence of the city that needs to be preserved, and what needs to change now. This is not an academic discussion, especially as we recover from the pandemic. What kind of city do we want or need? Urban planner Brent Toderian was asking this recently:

Context and character. Charles Wolfe is a former environmental and land-use lawyer with a love of cities and a good eye with a camera. I met him a few years ago at a conference in Buffalo and described him then as "an attorney by day and an urbanist by night" but now he is a full-time writer about cities. His latest book, "Sustaining a City's Culture and Character," written with Tigran Haas, is about exactly the issue Toderian raises.

Charles Wolfe speaking in Buffalo
Charles Wolfe speaking in Buffalo.

Lloyd Alter

Wolfe introduces himself: "Now based in London and Stockholm, I have been devoting myself to the study of what it means for a city or town to acknowledge and honor its traditional identity, or essence, as it transitions to something new." 

A focus on culture and character rather than buildings makes it easier to manage change. You learn what is important and what isn't, what people love, and what they can let go of. It is hard when everyone hates change and channels their inner Baudelaire, complaining in the mid 19th century about Baron Haussmann ruining his city.

“As Paris changes, my melancholy deepens. The new palaces, covered by scaffolding and surrounded by blocks of stone, overlook the old suburbs that are being torn down to pave wide, utilitarian avenues. The new city’s coils strangle memory.”

It's hard also when everyone has a different idea about their city.

"What is the culture and character of a city, and what does it take to sustain it? How should change be managed in cities? The answers to these questions are partially rooted in our memories, expectations, and attitudes. A lifelong resident may expect the neighborhood of childhood memories, whereas the tourist may expect remarkable inspiration and contrast with everyday experience. A business traveler may only seek comfort, and a child may wish for a dream."

Wolfe notes in the introduction that there are too many pat solutions from smart-city and placemaking advocates, and says “forget smart, we need context cities." He uses what he calls the context keys- familiarity, congruity, and integrity, and sees the book as a tool "to facilitate today’s dialogues on density, beauty, affordability, climate change, and the critical issues of the day."

Many weeks have been lost since I started working on this review, trying to wrap my brain around the more technical parts of this book, mainly his LEARN (Look, Engage, Assess, Review, and Negotiate) tool for studying urban culture and character. So I have thrown up my hands and am sticking to the issues dear to my heart as a former preservation activist and now an urbanist worried about the climate. I am sticking to the questions I have been dealing with such as, "Is it not anachronistic and old-fashioned to romanticize (or attempt to re-create) a lifestyle gone by, or to treat specific city characteristics as if they are endangered species?" 

No, because we are not just talking about buildings, but an understanding of what makes a desirable urban form, what we need to value, and what we have to let go of. What worked and what didn't. Because "understanding a place addresses how equity and climate change issues will be addressed in the locality where people live and feel the repercussion of global trends." That's why one of the nicest places Wolfe describes is a trailer park in France: 

"The homes are nurtured, planted around, and modified in practical ways. A range of services is available nearby, including groceries, produce, a butcher and deli, a hairdresser, and restaurants. Other community assets are an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several pools, boules (or pétanque), and summer events. Most important, there is a “personality,” a sense and pride of place in and around the small, modest homes, from clever retrofits of older structures into today’s “tiny houses.” 

Every single day, urbanist social media is wrestling with the issues Wolfe discusses in this book, from how you move in cities, how you green them, and how you deal with the issues of heritage, preservation, and zoning.

It is not a book extolling the virtues of everything old, and Wolfe is not what is now disparagingly called a Trad. He concludes that "the beautiful, familiar, romantic, poetic, and artistic need to mix and merge with the smart, empirical, technological, and efficient; that blend of all is the sustained culture and character that we seek from place to place." That sounds like a place that I would want to live in.