On the importance of a sense of place...

Great cities and great neighborhoods have a distinctiveness about them:  when we’re in Paris or New York, we know we’re in Paris or New York.  Within those cities, if we’re in the Marais district of Paris or East Harlem in New York, the character and public spaces of those neighborhoods remind us where we are.  Unfortunately, there are too many places in America, particularly in newer suburbs, where every place looks more or less like every other place.


In the 1930s, Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California, “there is no ‘there’ there.”


Was she saying that Oakland had no anchor, no soul, no raison d’etre, no identity? Stein, who was around 60 when she wrote the well-known sentence, had grown up in Oakland, when the city was much smaller.  Scholars today insist that she was referring to the loss of places she had known as a child – as in not having a “there” to return to – rather than rendering a general dismissal of the city.


Nonetheless, the phrase has come to refer to places that lack character and distinctiveness. (For the record, I do not find the Oakland of today to be one of them.)


We all know such places, unfortunately.  In the new suburbs of America, in particular, every place looks like every other place, or so it seems: wide arterial roads, chain retail and scattered office buildings, subdivisions with near-identical houses, a regional shopping mall here and there that looks like all the others, inside and out.  If I drive out of Washington on Virginia Route 123, I quite literally do not know where I am for about ten miles. Am I still leaving McLean? Am I in Vienna? Oakton? I forget – which one comes first? Am I approaching Fairfax?  The locations may have different names, but not different identities (until you get to the historic core of Fairfax). The truth is that, because of their equivalence, it doesn’t really matter where I am, except as a reference point for my destination.


I find that I am almost always thinking about the quality of places. I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with some amazing architects who have taught me by example how to evaluate places, who have given me a vocabulary to go with my long-held intuitive sense that places feel better when there is, in fact, a “there.” The built environment alone cannot give a place character, but it can either help or hurt, depending on whether it supports or diminishes what filmmaker Sarah Marder calls “the genius of a place.”


It’s not just cities: having a clear identity and distinctive character can be just as beneficial to neighborhoods as to the larger cities that surround them. Often this identity is signaled and enhanced by public spaces. In Washington, for example, a well-known urban neighborhood is called Dupont Circle, because there is an actual place (and wonderful small park) called Dupont Circle that anchors the neighborhood. In Southern California, we know we’re in Santa Monica (a city within a city that, to me, feels like a large urban neighborhood) because the Palisades overlooking the Pacific Ocean and beach below remind us, as do the famous pier and pedestrian mall. In London’s Bloomsbury or Barcelona’s Gracia district, the neighborhoods are dotted with public squares that lend them character.


Why does this matter to greener and healthier cities? Because places that draw us to them are more sustainable, in a quite literal sense. Dupont Circle, like Chicago’s Lincoln Park or Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, represents not just a great venue for hanging out but also continuity of time, place and identity.  Even in neighborhoods that have faced severe disinvestment, such as Cincinnati’s wonderfully named Over-the-Rhine (that story will be in my next book), revitalization is made more feasible because of certain lasting neighborhood anchors, such as Washington Park, the Findlay Market, and the Cincinnati Music Hall. To the extent we use great public spaces to anchor compact people habitat, we reduce the spread of environmental harm.


Unfortunately, I think the neighborhood scale is where the environmental movement has had a weak presence over the years. National organizations especially have a feeling, not entirely unjustified, that we can squander our acutely limited resources by focusing on small, individual places. Yet the argument breaks down when one considers that, historically, environmental groups have always been involved in place-based test cases, such as particular wilderness areas threatened by resource exploitation or ecological habitat threatened by highways or oil spills. The truth is that we have never hesitated to focus on places to protect them from harm; why not also focus on places – particularly urban places – as models for what we can do right?


When you come down to it, there is no sustainability without places that help limit environmental impacts while also nourishing the human spirit. People habitat – comprising neighborhoods, small towns, cities, metropolitan regions – is every bit as important to the environment as natural habitat and wilderness. Indeed, making human places great should be seen as a key strategy for protecting wilderness. Think about the etymology of the word “attractive”: if we attract people to people places, we can better preserve those wild places where we are “visitors but do not remain,” to paraphrase the 1964 federal Wilderness Act. But the key to attraction is having a “there” to be attracted to . . .

Excerpted from Chapter 13: There Must Be a There