A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Is ‘Urbanism Without Effort’ the Best Urbanism of All?

by Chuck Wolfe


Real neighborhood experiences can provide a meaningful gloss on current discussions about how to make cities better and increase shared places for all.


On Saturday night, in response to an email, I went to the movies by walking 100 feet from my home. Admission was free. And it was not in the comfort of an isolated home or downtown space, but among some 20 neighbors in an everyday place, hidden and in plain sight: Monica and Michael’s alley entry, against Anne and Jerry’s retaining wall.

Our last “alley movie night” of the summer was an important reminder that a city neighborhood can experience community without really trying—an “urbanism without effort” that needs no thought leadership nor sound bytes—and is as natural as European street life in places we sometimes wish we were.


We can try awfully hard—sometimes too hard, in my opinion—to extol the virtues of the city by proselytizing and debating ideas and opportunities. In particular, the potential for American urban alleys remains in the spotlight. This attention, often aspirational, is well-deserved given the raw alley palette for remade narrow streets in the organic European tradition, pedestrian in scale, narrow, interesting and a natural focus for greening street life and new small businesses.

Recently, additional essays (e.g., Alyse Nelson writing in Sightline), have recalled alleys’ placemaking role within the urbanist toolbox. Specific, grant-funded work by Seattle’s Daniel Toole has emphasized the now iconic, reclaimed laneway precedent of Melbourne and beyond.

The challenges, of course, are how to pay for reclaiming and maintaining these alleys. And, as with many instances of infrastructure improvement, we must determine where and how the private sector can make a difference in implementing improvements and maintenance too costly for today’s municipal public transportation and utility agencies.

After all, it’s not just about clearing away the dumpsters. As I’ve related before in contributions to the urbanist dialogue (in myurbanist  and on Seattle’s KUOW radio), public rights of way, stormwater system maintenance, pavement resurfacing and other forms of street improvement may be required in order to materially reinvent desired space.


Yet, in the meantime, there are ready and simple victories in residential alleys less known or described, where neighborhood is there for the taking.

Admittedly, not all of us have traditional alleys at our back doors (which we often treat as main entries), but those of us who do can readily avail ourselves of the once and future urbanism of alley reinvention. Those of us who don’t might find a driveway and garage to suffice for now.

Email, potluck food and drink, equipment setup, and a bedsheet-as-movie screen yield public space for community, not because of doctrine or dogma, but because it is as natural as the place next door.

The best urbanism is that which is already there to be nurtured, a practice that I highly recommend.


All images composed by the author


About Chuck Wolfe.  Charles R. Wolfe, M.R.P., J.D. is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques on behalf of both the private and public sectors and the successful redevelopment of infill properties under federal, state and local regulatory regimes. He is an accomplished speaker and author on growth management and innovative zoning, “transit-oriented development”, and brownfield/sustainable development topics, regularly participates in regional and national seminars and serves as a reporter for the national publication, Planning & Environmental Law. He is also an Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land use law and a range of planning and development courses to planners and future design professionals and is a contributor to major research efforts addressing urban center, transit oriented and brownfield redevelopment. Additionally, Chuck serves as Vice Chair, Fund Development for the Urban Land Institute (ULI), Seattle District Council, is a Member of the Boards of Futurewise and Great City, and is a King County Trustee of the Cascade Land Conservancy. He contributes regularly on urban development topics for several publications including The Huffington Post, seattlepi.com, and Crosscut.com. He blogs regularly at myurbanist.com.



from myurbanist, September 11, 2011


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