Anyone who lives in a city is a student of urbanism. We have the choice of whether or not to pay attention to the lessons we are being taught, but they are taught either way. Every day of living in a city is a chance to learn about how the place works. So it helps to have a way of organizing the observation process.
That being said, I came across an organizational tatic of which I am particularly fond recently on re:ACT, a blog run by a dozen architecture students in Singapore. Ronald Lim, one of the re:ACT bloggers, put up a post entitled "My Wishlist for Architecture in Singapore." It's short (five items), practical, and the objective is very clear even without being directly stated. That objective is to make Singapore into a more architecturally conscious city, to improve the quality of the buildings being designed there by improving public awareness of architecture and design. Lim calls for an architecture and design department at the Singapore Art Museum, an annual competition similar to PS1 or the Serpentine Gallery, and an interesting set of tax incentives (among other things).
The benefit of having such a list, as an individual observer of a specific city, is that a person can identify what it is they are looking for in terms of an area's strengths and weaknesses. It's a framing technique, really. But a wishlist is especially helpful, I think, because it gives a person something to look for when visiting other cities. Even more than framing how one sees one's own city or even one's neighborhood, it frames how one approaches the urban form in general. This is beneficial because it allows the observer to absorb information from one place and take it home with them, using it to enrich their own city.
I've always thought it'd be really interesting to see a neighborhood group do this kind of thing, collectively. The common perception of the Neighborhood Association or Block Group is that of a stodgy, reactionary coalition of anti-growth crumudgeons with pickett signs and way too much time on their hands. Rather than hearing moaning and groaning about the death of a neighborhood's precious, precious character every time someone so much as proposes to trim their hedges, it'd be fascinating to see how a group might impact their community by identifying what defined the character that they were trying to preserve and coming up with a wishlist of ways in which that character could be strengthened and enhanced, and maybe even improved. Imagine a neighborhood group that actually courted developers to help achieve their goals of enhancing the architectural character of a neighborhood, welcoming and even helping to speed a long the process of approval for a new building in exchange for architectural sensitivity and some streetscaping improvements.
I wouldn't be surprised, actually, to hear that this has been or is being done. In fact it would be great to hear stories of this kind of thing; a neighborhood threatened by the dreaded gentrification beast working with developers instead of against them. I wonder how that works out...are the neighbors better off in the end, or do they wind up getting screwed over time? I'd be willing to bet on the former, but I'm open to arguments for the latter...
By the way -- while we're on the topic of taking observing what other cities are doing right when traveling, if you haven't heard of Civic Tourism yet, check out the link below. It's a great concept, and it seems like the kind of thing that could really give some extra oomph to your next urban vacation.
(Photo from Flickr user Erik Sevilla Estrada.)
My Wishlist for Architecture in Singapore (re:ACT)