Seeing the Better City:
How to Explore, Observe and Improve Urban Space
“A toolkit for fine-tuning your observational acumen…this type of close, thoughtful looking is a way to snap out of the stupor of the daily grind and parse the details that are so easily overshadowed. But, Wolfe writes, it’s also a way to think about how to shape the future.”
The Atlantic’s CityLab
“Absorbing… [Wolfe] encourages readers to think with our eyes and communicate with visual imagery in order to improve our cities.”
“A book of insightful urban observation…works well as a detailed how-to instruction manual on capturing the essence of place.”
“With this book Wolfe has created a detailed how-to for personal observation, for whatever reason the observer chooses.”
Landscape Architecture Magazine
“As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.”
ASLA’s The Dirt
“Writer and attorney Charles R. Wolfe makes a book-length case for giving images a central place discussions of development and redevelopment.”
“[S]eeing the Better City offers a fecund trove of examples, drawing on the author’s extensive travels and offering readers a rich storehouse of insights by which to fashion their own urban diaries.”
Journal of Planning Education and Research
“Easy to read and rich with inspiring detail, Seeing the Better City marries prose with imagery to show how anyone who engages with a city can log their experiences and impressions and how these observations can contribute to better urban planning and design decisions… Wolfe provides an original and impassioned perspective on cities.”
“A comprehensive toolkit for helping us reintroduce the human experience into urban planning.”
“Touching on historical examples, from Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York series from the ’30s, to neighborhood debates of today’s changing modern metropolis, Wolfe outlines a philosophy that reflects his multihyphenate nature, blending the artistic approach of a photographer with the rigor of a lawyer.”
“Argues that city-dwellers are more than just passive participants in the urban experience…By using [Wolfe’s] urban diary method, pedestrians can change a city just by walking through it and taking note of what they see. Wolfe is arguing for more than just strength in numbers—he’s training us to become better city-dwellers—to advocate for the things that would make the city better.”
Seattle Review of Books
“There are few books that are as relevant today as Seeing the Better City… No other book…comes as close to individualizing urban planning.”
“If we want to create the places of our dreams, we need to observe our cities more clearly. Seeing the Better City is both a thoughtful guide and an enticement to take up this challenge.”
Charles Montgomery, Author of Happy City
“We experience cities through what we see. Not since the legendary Kevin Lynch has an author opened our eyes to the power of observing urban space. This book masterfully illustrates how to understand and capture moments in time, see present-day patterns and layers of history, and gain visual insights into the urban space that shapes our daily lives. Chuck’s images and words will truly inspire you.”
Mitchell Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner and former president of the American Planning Association
“With Seeing the Better City, Chuck Wolfe accomplishes what few have tried—to actually bridge multiple disciplines in order to help people effectively see, understand, and improve urban spaces. He provides us with an invaluable, accessible roadmap for a place-led future.”
Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President, Project for Public Spaces, NYC
“We need to be incessant students of place. In Seeing the Better City, Chuck gives us this mandate as well as the tools to succeed in the endeavor. This book is a valuable contribution to the place conversation by championing ‘place ethnography’ for the betterment of cities and their people.”
Dr. Katherine Loflin, “The City Doctor”
“[What makes cities livable] is something a lot of us feel instinctively, but Chuck gives you the tools to really figure out why by observing your city.”
Melody Warnick, Author of This is Where You Belong
Background and Resources
Seeing the Better City (now available from Island Press) brings our attention back to the real world right in front of us, focusing it once more on the sights, sounds, and experiences of place in order to craft policies, plans, and regulations to shape better urban environments.
Through clear prose and vibrant photographs, Charles R. Wolfe shows how to catalog the influences of urban form, public transportation, and other basic city elements. He then shares insights into how to use recorded observations to contribute to better planning and design decisions.
For Chuck Wolfe’s earlier work, see Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013).
See Chuck Wolfe’s initial summary of the book in The Huffington Post, here.
The Seeing the Better City Press Kit and Tip Sheet are available from Island Press, here.
Media and Reviews
On September 7, 2018, a Seeing the Better City-inspired panel moderated by Chuck Wolfe in Stockholm examined the role of local context and authenticity in the success of cities and urban places. See a video of the full panel discussion (the third “Delphi Conversation” sponsored by the KTH University (Royal Institute of Technology) Center for the Future of Places, here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s Seeing the Better City-based reflections about Seattle in Crosscut on August 6, 2018, here.
Read the June 28, 2018 exclusive in Planetizen by Chuck Wolfe, Silvia Tavares and David Sellars addressing the application of Seeing the Better City principles to two cities in tropical Australia (as part of a United Nations Urban Thinkers Campus), here, and and as republished in Public Square, a CNU Journal, here.
Listen to the Committee for Sydney’s June, 2018 Cityscapes podcast, featuring former CEO Tim Williams’ October 17, 2017 conversation with Chuck Wolfe about Seeing the Better City and related Sydney topics, here.
Listen to Brad Stephens interview Chuck Wolfe on June 19, 2018 on the Cityworks (X)Po podcast, “Chuck Wolfe: How Can We Better See Our Cities?” here.
See Filipa Cardoso’s recent interview of Chuck Wolfe addressing Seeing the Better City and the urban diary approach, in Revista Smart Cities (Media Line) online edition on June 6, 2018, here.
Seeing the Better City was shortlisted for a 2018 United Kingdom National Urban Design Award, with the Finalist Awards presented in London on March 8, 2018. Read Marc Furnival’s summary of the book page 28 of the Urban Design Group’s awards booklet, here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s December 17, 2017 exclusive in Planetizen reflecting on reconciling global forces and local context in cities across three continents, here, and as republished in Public Square, a CNU Journal, here. A Portuguese version also appears in Revista Smart Cities, here.
See a Município da Guarda, Portugal, video production that summarizes Seeing the Better City principles in action during a December 4, 2017 Guarda visit, here.
For one of several media opportunities associated with Chuck Wolfe’s Seeing the Better City presentations and related “urban diary” walks in Lisbon, Guarda, and Bragança, Portugal between November 29 and December 6, 2017, see the Porto Canal television clip, here.
Read Karsen Maruca’s November 16, 2017 review of Seeing the Better City in The Global Grid, here.
See Chuck Wolfe’s October 6, 2017 keynote at Open State 2017/Festival for Architecture and Design in Adelaide, with an introduction by Jodie van Deventer, CEO of the Committee for Adelaide, here.
Read the interview of Chuck Wolfe in the October 5, 2017 Adelaide Review, here.
Read Paul Constant’s September 28, 2017 review of Seeing the Better City in The Seattle Review of Books, here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s September 28, 2017 explanation of urban diaries in Public Square, A CNU Journal, here.
See Bennat Berger’s blog piece on urban diaries, as derived from Seeing the Better City and other sources, here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s Washington Post comments in paragraphs 13-14 of Mary Hui’s August 27, 2017 article about dog parks and their increasing role in urban change, here.
Watch Chuck Wolfe discuss Seeing the Better City themes with Tigran Haas, Dan Solomon, Susan Silberberg and Emily Talen in the first “Delphi Conversation on Urbanism and Beyond” at the Centre for Future of Places, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s August 14, 2017 article in CityMetric, “With an urban diary, everyone’s a city planner,” here.
See Lucy Wallwork’s July 7, 2017 Multibriefs article—about ideas that led to Seeing the Better City—in “‘Urbanism Without Effort’—Are urban designers trying too hard?,” here.
See the Parksify article, “10 Questions for Chuck Wolfe,” that explains the background influences for—and ideas behind—Seeing the Better City, here.
See Ash Blankenship’s comments on Seeing the Better City, from his May 29, 2017 “5 Books Perfect for Summer Reading,” here.
See Dr. Silvia Tavares’ May 5, 2017 blog post referencing Seeing the Better City, here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s April 27, 2017 article in Citiscope, “Photo-powered ‘urban diaries’ offer visual tool for guiding change,” here.
Read Yuri Artibise’s April 25, 2017 article in Spacing, “Book Review: Seeing the Better City,” here.
Listen to Ash Blankenship interview Chuck Wolfe on April 18, 2017 on the Parksify podcast, “Chuck Wolfe on Documenting the City,” here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s April 17, 2017 article in Governing, “A Visual Tool for Guiding Urban Change,” here.
Listen to Jeff Wood interview Chuck Wolfe on April 14, 2017 on the Streetsblog USA “Talking Headways” podcast, “Saving Cities One Picture at a Time,” here.
Listen to and watch the Next City/Island Press March 28, 2017 webinar, “Seeing the Better City: A Discussion with Chuck Wolfe,” moderated by Next City’s President, CEO and Publisher, Tom Dallessio, here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s March 27, 2017 exclusive in Planetizen about the role of a “vocabulary of looking” in urban policy, plans and regulations, here.
For a Canadian photographer’s commentary and examples about the lessons of Seeing the Better City, see Jordan Cooper’s March 23, 2017 blog entry, here.
Read Aaron King’s March 15, 2017 article in the American Association of Landscape Architects’ The Dirt, “Book Review, Seeing the Better City,” here.
Read Patrick Sisson’s March 14, 2017 article in Curbed, “How better photos can help you document, and shape, your neighborhood,” here.
Read Knute Berger’s March 10, 2017 article in Crosscut, “Want to connect with Seattle? Get journaling,” here.
Listen to and watch an excerpt of the Island Press/Security and Sustainability Forum March 2, 2017 webinar about Seeing the Better City, here.
Read Jenn Kinney’s March 2, 2017 article in Next City, “Use Your Camera Like a City Planning Tool,” here.
Read Casey Brazeal’s March 2, 2017 news item in Planetizen, “Review: Seeing the City,” here.
Read Chuck Wolfe’s February 19, 2017 article in Huffington Post, “How to Use Urban Diaries in Times of City Change,” here.
Read Jessica Leigh Hester’s February 10, 2017 piece in CityLab about Seeing the Better City, observation, and urban diaries, here.
Listen to Chuck Wolfe’s February 9, 2017 presentation on Seeing the Better City at Town Hall Seattle, here.
Listen to Bill Radke interview Chuck Wolfe on KUOW/The Record on February 9, 2017 about “How Can We See a Better Seattle,” here.
Read Mónica Guzmán’s February 8, 2017 piece in The Evergrey about the potential of the urban diary tool for Seattle, and traps to avoid, here, as well as her February 15 follow-up on elicited urban diary examples, here.
Read Kaid Benfield’s February 6, 2017 Huffington Post review of Seeing the Better City, here.
Keynotes for United Nations Urban Thinkers Campuses in Cairns and Townsville, Australia, June 8 and 15, 2018 addressing the application of Seeing the Better City principles to tropical urban environments.
Keynote, smartravel-17, Bragança, Portugal, November 30, 2017, and multiple presentations, workshops and walks in Bragança, Porto, Guarda and Lisbon, Portugal from November 29-December 6, 2017.
Visiting Affiliate Faculty/Researcher at Centre for the Future of Places, KTH University, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, November-December 2017. Teaching and research related to Seeing the Better City tools and themes.
Multiple presentations, workshops and walks, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth, Canning, Sydney, Brisbane, and Cairns, Australia, October, 2017, including:
“Charles R. Wolfe on Seeing the Better City,” Book Talk presented by the CIty of Perth Library, UWA Institute of Advanced Studies, and Boffins Books, Perth, Australia, 4:15 p.m. October 12, 2017
“Seeing the City We Need,” Urban Talk Event, Legislative Assembly, Canberra, Australia, 6:00 p.m. October 9, 2017
“Exploring the City with Charles Wolfe,” Photowalk, Open State and Festival for Architecture and Design, Adelaide, Australia, 10:00 a.m. October 7, 2017
“Charles Wolfe: Seeing the Better City,” Keynote, Open State and Festival for Architecture and Design, Adelaide, Australia, 10:00 a.m. October 6, 2017
“The State of Being Equal: Improving urban spaces,” Book Talk and Discussion with Alan Davies, Readings Carlton, Melbourne, Australia, 6:30 p.m. October 2, 2017
Opening Presentation, American Planning Association, Washington State Chapter Annual Conference, Hilton Seattle Airport Conference Center, Sea-Tac, 8:50 a.m. September 28, 2017
ULI Washington, CNU-DC, National Capital Area Chapter-APA, and Island Press, ” Book Talk, Seeing the Better City with Chuck Wolfe,” Washington, DC, 6:00 PM, September 18, 2017
ULI San Francisco, Seeing the Better City Presentation and Audit, June 7, 2017
Seeing the Better City Presentation, SPUR, San Francisco, 6:00 p.m. June 6, 2017
“Seattle by Design: Observing and Envisioning a Better Seattle,” Seattle Architectural Foundation, Presentation and Visual Analysis, Seattle Center for Architecture and Design, 4:00 p.m. June 1, 2017
“Designing a Better Seattle,” (with Former Seattle Mayor/Mayoral Candidate Mike McGinn), Folio, The Seattle Athenaeum, 5:00 p.m. May 25, 2017
Joint Book Release Event, with Professors Rachel Berney, Jeff Hou and Manish Chalana, College of Built Environments, University of Washington, Seattle, 5:00 p.m. May 23, 2017
Seeing the Better City Overview and Urbanism Roundtable , Centre for the Future of Places, KTH University, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, May 10-12, 2017
25th Congress for the New Urbanism, Seattle, “Seeing the Better City, Making a Better Place,” Seattle Art Museum, 4:15 p.m. May 5, 2017
Joint Presentation with J. Alexander Maxwell, “Seeing the Better City: Two Points of View,” Gonzaga and Eastern Washington Universities, Spokane, April 27, 2017
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Reading, “The Role of Purposeful Observation,” at the Ghosts of Seattle Past Book Launch, 7:00 p.m. April 11, 2017
Next City/Island Press Webinar/Discussion with Next City President, CEO & Publisher Tom Dallessio, 10:00 a.m. PDT, March 28, 2017
Security and Sustainability Forum/Island Press Webinar/Panel Discussion, “Seeing the Better City”, 10:15 a.m. PST March 2, 2017
ULI Northwest “Seeing the Better City” Presentation and Live Interview at MG2 Architecture in Seattle, with Marc Stiles, Puget Sound Business Journal, 4:00 p.m. February 28, 2017
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, “Seeing the Better City: Seattle Edition,” 7:00 p.m. February 13, 2017
Kirkland City Hall, King County Sustainable Cities Roundtable, “Winter Walk With Wolfe,” Presentation and Walk, Noon, February 9, 2017
King County Bar Association Environmental & Land Use Section Presentation, 4:15 p.m. January 19, 2017
Photo Expo and Book Prequel, Cupcake Royale, Madrona (Seattle), 4:00 p.m., December 3, 2016, with photos on display December 1-31.
Listen to, and read about, two Seeing the Better City “prequel” events, the October 3, 2016 Urbanism Speakeasy podcast, here, and the October 23, 2016 Futurewise “walkshop” and presentations in Spokane, Washington, here.
To learn more, see the book trailer, embedded in the cover page, and below. The trailer provides a book overview, explains key themes, and highlights multiple photographs featured in Seeing the Better City.
See the recently released book preview, embedded below.