What makes a place? And why is it important? I have been thinking about these two questions quite a bit lately. They are probably deeper questions than any of us realize; partly because the questions seem so simple, but also, I think, because the meaning of the word “place” has been so watered down by modern urban planning practices over the years that it no longer means what it once did, and we no longer have a developed national vocabulary for describing its original meaning.
I notice it in my daily life. When I lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I would often patronize the region’s indoor mall as well as its historic Main Street within the same evening. The differences between the two “places” are profound, and I intuitively know that Main Street is much more vital and sustainable, and I have some basic explanations for this (walkability, design proportionality, historical connection, emphasis and celebration of the public realm, local businesses, good beer, etc.); but even I, an urban planner and community and economic development practitioner, cannot seem to put the words together to explain the difference in a satisfying way that does it justice.
If you really think about it, isn’t it true that the “places” we build and the ways we interact with them are direct reflections of how we think about ourselves and each other?
When we construct subdivisions consisting of homes that purposely face away from 30-foot-wide, sparsely sidewalked streets, what does this say about us? When we separate these subdivisions by income eligibility and develop yet another tract of local farm land to further subdivide, what does this say about who we are? Or what about when we build malls so that the outsides look like warehouses and the insides look like Main Street (all of the chain stores notwithstanding)? When our policies subsidize the rise of new environments and the decline of existing ones; and when urban planners cannot adequately explain why some environments feel more place-like than others without resorting to clichés and academic concepts, what does this mean in regards to our condition as a people? Some, such as Jim Kunstler, would suggest that we are spiritually and socially dead. I do not have a difficult time agreeing with that assessment. So how do we revive ourselves?
Maybe this is a conversation that we should have in America. We need to figure out, together, how to redefine – or remember the true definition of – “place.” We have built true places before, and many are still in existence. These places still fill us with awe and wonder, and we are still hesitant to leave them when we travel back home to our indistinct and agoraphobia-inducing subdivisions. This does not have to be an exercise in nostalgia, but we should learn what we can from a more successful past of place-making, as well as innovate.
So, let us get the conversation started. Tell us your thoughts on what makes a “place” and why it is important. What is your favorite place, and why?