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Cover for Seeing the Better City

Seeing the Better City

How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space

Charles R. Wolfe


List Price: 34.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


Finalist for a 2018 United Kingdom National Urban Design Award • A 2017 KUOW Public Radio 2017 End-of-Year Book Choice

In order to understand and improve cities today, personal observation remains as important as ever.  While big data, digital mapping, and simulated cityscapes are valuable tools for understanding urban space, using them without on-the-ground, human impressions risks creating places that do not reflect authentic local context. Seeing the Better City 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 Wolfe shows those who experience cities how they might catalog the influences of urban form, neighborhood dynamics, public transportation, and myriad other basic city elements that impact their daily lives. He then shares insights into how they can use those observations to contribute to better planning and design decisions. Wolfe calls this the “urban diary” approach, and highlights how the perspective of the observer is key to understanding the dynamics of urban space. He concludes by offering contemporary examples and guidance on how to use carefully recorded and organized observations as a tool to create change in urban planning conversations and practice.

From city-dwellers to elected officials involved in local planning and design issues, this book is an invaluable tool for constructive, creative discourse about improving urban space.

Praise For 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."
— Atlantic's CityLab

"Absorbing...[Wolfe] encourages readers to think with our eyes and communicate with visual imagery in order to improve our cities."
— Huffington Post

"A book of insightful urban well as a detailed how-to instruction manual on capturing the essence of place."
— Crosscut

"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

"A comprehensive toolkit for helping us reintroduce the human experience into urban planning."
— Spacing

"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."
— Curbed

"Seeing 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

"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

"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."
— Global Grid

"An intriguing and earnest manifesto for a better city that celebrates the role of human observation of the people-place relationships in urban life. Through the advocacy of author-composed photographic images that capture what is seen and witnessed, the book sets out a strong agenda for ways of recording authentic representations of personal daily urban experiences."
— Urban Morphology

"Highly recommended...It challenges the reader to become an engaged observer of the urban milieu rather than just a passive passerby, and to actively describe the impressions, notes, and feelings that a particular urban space may generate...An urban diary can be a great tool to help make our cities and neighborhoods better places for the next cohorts of their users."
— Journal of Urban Technology

"This is a book that should be of interest to planning, urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture faculty and students. Public agency planners and planning consultants may pluck some provocative ideas regarding the possibilities of incorporating the urban diary into their own planning processes." 
— Journal of Planning Education and Research

"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

Island Press, 9781610917742, 248pp.

Publication Date: February 2, 2017

About the Author

Charles R. Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as both a long time writer about urbanism worldwide and as an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and 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 at the graduate level. Wolfe is an avid traveler, photographer, and writer, and contributes regularly on urban development topics for several publications including CityLab, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post,,, and He blogs at