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A Visual Tool for Guiding Urban Change

Photo-powered "urban diaries" can give residents a powerful new way to contribute to the dialogue that shapes their cities.

At this moment of epic political gridlock at the national level, localism is back. Increasingly, cities are devising local solutions to the pressing challenges of the 21st century -- from transportation and housing affordability to climate change. But localism can also lead to gridlock, especially in rapidly growing cities.

I have observed this in my hometown of Seattle, where a building boom is dramatically reshaping city life and policy conflicts abound. Across both face-to-face and social-media encounters, it seems ever more difficult to achieve consensus on a form of the city amenable to older and newer residents alike. A new tool -- the "urban diary" -- can contribute to breaking the gridlock by helping to forge a pluralistic vision of the kind of city that people want to inhabit.

An urban diary takes advantage of what many of us are already doing with our cameras and smartphones: recording what we see, and what we like or dislike, about urban change. By harnessing this visual information, residents, city employees and decision-makers can be better equipped to plan cities and respond to urban change.

An urban diary can be used in multiple ways -- as an introductory "how to see" exercise, for example, or as a way to enhance traditional land-use or design-review processes, which now typically rely on conventional written input. In this way, the urban diary can provide an alternative to abstract, top-down prescriptions by empowering and incentivizing city residents to contribute to civic dialogue.

In my new book, Seeing the Better City, I present several applied examples of the urban-diary approach. They show how the human visual sense and emotional response to the urban environment might be better marshaled, inventoried and purposefully incorporated into policies, plans and regulations.

In Seattle, for instance, the Yesler Terrace Youth Media Project used the Photovoice platform to catalogue students' concerns about a then-pending large-scale redevelopment of their public-housing community. Otherwise-overlooked voices provided Seattle Housing Authority project managers and city officials with invaluable image-laden insights about younger residents' apprehension about change. This visual assessment highlighted community perspectives that were valuable to a major real-estate decision-making process.

In Adelaide, Australia, personal storytelling through photography became a critical element of planning the city's future. Stage 1 of "Picture Adelaide 2040" centered on gathering 1,000 stories from citizens (each with a photo) on how they use their favorite places. The project's summary report explains how these photos and stories were integrated into several planning goals, objectives and ongoing development of planning and strategy documents.

And in Austin, Texas, multifaceted planning and code-revision initiatives specifically championed community-submitted photography. "Community Character in a Box" was a city-initiated do-it-yourself toolkit that suggested ways for community members to capture images of the assets, constraints and opportunities for improvement in their neighborhoods -- documented both via photos and on maps. Significantly, the process not only taught citizens how to document through photography but also allowed project professionals a greater understanding of area-by-area community qualities and character.

Other photo- and observation-based examples show the importance of preserving culturally important everyday activities, such as fishing from urban piers or congregating in streets for regular social events, through sensitive design. Still other examples show how architects and developers have incorporated community input into an interactive design process that uses social media to offset surprise and fosters a sense of community empowerment in site-development efforts.

A local approach to urban problem-solving can only succeed by engaging the people most affected. The urban-diary approach is a promising way to engage city dwellers, regardless of background, disposition or profession. It can awaken our senses -- particularly the visual -- and envision the better city from every angle.

A writer on urbanism and principal adviser to the Seeing Better Cities Group
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