Every city, near or far, large or small, has its own style

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Cities have been around for literally thousands of years.

You wouldn’t think that urban design would be that controversial. Human needs, like sanitation, employment, transportation and communication have probably barely changed over the millennia.

Our cities of the 21st Century are on a completely different scale than even a few decades ago. You’d think that adjusting the same social needs up to a new scale would not be that complicated.

I’m no urban designer, but I like to wander and explore the streets  – especially the side streets and alleys – of cities and neighborhoods I visit.  (1*)

I’ve done this in Portland, Chicago, Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, China, Copenhagen and others.

Canal in Copenhagen                                     Photo: Morf Morford
Canal in Copenhagen Photo: Morf Morford

Just as a typical person, needing what a typical person needs (bathrooms, food, basic directions and maybe a place to stay) it becomes obvious, almost immediately, what “works” (and what doesn’t) especially for a visitor – especially one that does not speak the local language.

Universal (or near universal) signs become beacons of hope or direction. In most of China, for example, the large letters “WC” stand for public bathroom (technically it is an abbreviation for “Water Closet” – a bit of residue of British colonialism.

But if you are on foot in a major city in China – or even a “small” Asian city (which might be double, or even triple the population of Seattle) keep your eye out for those letters – or a McDonalds – they almost always feature clean bathrooms.

Some cities are ancient and have moved (awkwardly) into the 21st Century. Some have moved gloriously into the future, embracing technology and, to some degree, maintaining at least a glimmer of their traditional past.

Shanghai is a perfect example of a city with ancient streets and temples and an electrical grid that literally hangs in massive tangles over and across doorways and alleys, yet also features some of the most futuristic transportation hubs and architecture of any city in the world.

Some cities are shaped – or reshaped – by fires, wars or catastrophes. St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) was almost entirely burned to the ground by the Germans during World War II. Massive parts of the city were rebuilt in the image and spirit of “brutalist” (and budget-conscious) Soviet architecture.

You can tell that the seemingly endless apartment blocks – minimally maintained – were designed more for “efficiency” and design conformity than any kind of  creative or resourceful human habitation.

Other cities, Copenhagen for example, took budget and space limitations as their inspiration and reoriented public urban spaces toward a less auto-centric culture and economy.  (2*)

Public spaces, parks and open squares, where nothing is demanded of people, and citizens can mingle (and perhaps kid can play) are key to any city’s personality.

Tacoma, especially downtown, has many such spaces (https://www.theurbanist.org/2018/08/30/tacoma-public-space-and-public-life/). In offering these spaces of refuge, vitality and focus are restored, and community is built.

And it is these spaces that visitors seek – and many times how they remember the places they visit.


(1*)   It turns out that I am not alone in this exercise of encountering the not always pleasant aspect of cities around the world. David Sedaris enjoys this as well. You can see some of his account here. You can see a Tacoma-based pedestrian view here.

(2*)   Guidelines from Copenhagen city planners can be seen here.