Are Context Cities the new Smart Cities?

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In this time of climate crisis, cities are facing dramatic changes. There are those who fight for every change and parking space. And here are others 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 are recovering from the pandemic. What kind of city do we want or need? Town planner Brent Toderian asked this recently:


Context and character. Charles Wolfe is a former environmental and land use lawyer with a passion for cities and a good eye with a camera. I met him a few years ago at a conference in Buffalo and then described him as “a lawyer by day and a planner by night,” but he’s now a full-time city writer. His latest book, “Maintain the culture and character of a city“Written with Tigran Haas, relates exactly to the issue Toderian raises.


Charles Wolfe speaking in Buffalo.

Lloyd alter


Wolfe introduces himself: “Now based in London and Stockholm, I am dedicated to studying what it means for a city to recognize and honor its traditional identity, or its essence, as it moves on to something new. new. ”

The emphasis on culture and character rather than buildings makes it easier to manage change. You learn what’s important and what isn’t, what people like and what they can let go. It’s hard when everyone hates change and channels their inner Baudelaire, complaining in the mid-19th century that Baron Haussmann is ruining his city.

“As Paris changes, my melancholy deepens. The new palaces, covered with scaffolding and surrounded by blocks of stone, overlook the old suburbs being demolished to pave wide utilitarian avenues. The reels of the new city suffocate the memory.

It is also difficult when everyone has a different idea of ​​their city.

“What is the culture and character of a city, and what does it take to maintain it? How should change be managed in cities? The answers to these questions are partly rooted in our memories, expectations and attitudes. A longtime resident can expect the neighborhood of childhood memories, while the tourist can expect remarkable inspiration and contrast to 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 simple solutions on the part of smart city and place-building advocates, and says “smartly forget, we need contextual cities”. 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 journal, trying to understand the more technical parts of this book, mainly its LEARN (Look, Engage, Assess, Review, and Negotiate) tool for studying culture. and urban character. So I gave up and stick to the issues that are close to my heart as a former conservation activist and now an urban planner worried about the climate. I stick to questions that I have dealt with such as, “Isn’t it anachronistic and old-fashioned to romanticize (or try to recreate) a bygone way of life, or to address the specific characteristics of a city ​​as if it were endangered species? ? ”

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

“The houses are maintained, planted around and modified in a practical way. A range of services are available nearby, including grocery stores, fresh produce, a butcher, a hairdresser and restaurants. Other assets of the community are an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several swimming pools, boules (or pétanque) and summer events. More importantly, there is a ‘personality’, a feeling and a place of pride in and around small, modest homes, from the clever renovations of older structures to those of today ‘small homes’.

Every day, social media planners grapple with the issues Wolfe addresses in this book, how you move around cities, how you green them, and how you deal with heritage, preservation and zoning issues.

This is not a book extolling the virtues of all that is ancient, and Wolfe is not what is now scornfully called a Trad. He concludes that “the beautiful, familiar, romantic, poetic and artistic need to blend and merge with the intelligent, the empirical, the technological and the efficient; this blending of everything is the culture and character sustained that we looking from place to place “. It looks like a place I would like to live.



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