See Seattle for yourself with your own ‘urban diary’ — but watch out for these traps

Are you seeing Seattle the way others see it, or are you seeing it for yourself?

That’s the question Seattle writer, photographer, and land-use attorney Charles R. Wolfe wants us Seattleites to ask ourselves — especially now. The city is booming, and there’s a lot for just about anyone to worry about: Are the commutes too long? The neighborhoods too exclusive? Is the city feeling too strange, too new, too fast?

“Change is so manic that people feel like they’re losing control,” says Charles.

His solution? Keep an “urban diary.”

The diary itself is nothing fancy: pen and paper or a smartphone will do, as long as you take pictures and don’t limit yourself. The point isn’t how you choose to observe your city, Charles says, but that you go through the exercise of observing it for yourself.

You could start by taking a walk in your neighborhood, or wherever you work. Look for the “fundamental human needs” — how do your neighbors move past streets and through buildings to eat, move, do business, be social? Pay attention to the interactions among built spaces, people, and nature. Which of those interactions make the city look and feel the way you like, and which don’t? Then: Ask yourself why.

“It’s a deconstruction exercise,” Charles says, and it’s got a dual purpose: to help you understand how you feel the city works best, and — if you share your observations — to help the city make decisions that are responsive not just to interest groups, but to people.

Charles elaborates on all this in his book called “Seeing the Better City.” And he cautions people to avoid a few traps that are easy to fall into.

“The irrational part of us will go to memes rather than themes,” Charles says.

Here are three things to watch out for:


Monuments like the Eiffel Tower can mean so many different things to so many different people that it can be tough to find one way to describe them. (Photo by Charles Wolfe)

It’s natural and completely human to miss what’s gone from a city, or what could go, especially if it means a lot to you. But Charles warns that when nostalgia colors too much of how you view your city, it gives you an “easy out.” Of what? I asked.

“Of addressing the fact that cities change and that we have to figure out how to help them change for the better,” Charles says. “An absolute nostalgia about the past is no better than a callous embracing of the future that disregards everything that’s come before.”


The old Paramount Theatre sits next to a new downtown condo building. Juxtapositions are everywhere in Seattle. (Photo by Charles Wolfe)

Tall vs. short. Old vs. new. Big vs. small. Natural vs. industrial.

“Juxtapositions are where the battles are,” Charles says.

It’s in the “uncomfortable overlaps” of city life that people often find something to provoke a reaction. The construction cranes crowding the view from Lake Union. The new “shoebox” style house sticking out among otherwise similar decades-old neighborhood bungalows.

It’s tempting to want to immediately resolve the conflict that juxtapositions represent in the urban landscape, Charles says. A better approach is just to sit with it and unpack it, to “understand the drama of juxtapositions, know where they are, so you can understand why you’re responding.”

Conditioned responses

(Photo courtesy of Charles Wolfe)

Somebody’s tent is not supposed to sit on a field by a highway. That’s a reaction some of us may have to this picture. But do we understand why? And what about the other things we tend to view negatively in the city?

“Maybe our DNA programs us to have adverse reactions to height and density and back alleys,” Charles says. But it’s good to scrutinize “repulsions that may not be as repulsive as you think.”

An urban diary is a way to question your assumptions about your city, Charles says. It’s also a way to find compromise between competing visions: When people who want one thing for the city face opposition, they can help the other side show what they want, Charles says, “rather than just saying no.”