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A Sense of Place

The thesis is simple – cars are the enemy of strong cities.  Despite a tremendous amount of writing on this topic, people’s opinions on the matter have rarely changed – they either agree with this idea or they don’t.  There isn’t a lot of middle ground.  But as we come to understand networks more intuitively, the principle that the conveyance isn’t the key but how its used will be much more obvious.  The intuitive understanding can come from how networks, generally, work to make life more fun and more efficient.

The problem with cars in a city starts with the amount of space that it takes up in parking and roadways that can handle the 5PM rush.  Saint Paul, my city, has many tall buildings of 20 stories or more that form a panorama that is supposed to show our sophistication.  Yet if you took the net area of our urban core and threw it into a blender, pouring it back out as one even layer, you’d see that the average building is a very Parisian 5-6 stories.  The reason for this is that surface parking lots that handle the cars surround the Civic Center (where the NHL’s Minnesota Wild play) and the fringes of the core in oceans of asphalt.  Baron Haussmann had it right all along.

This space naturally separates the core from the rest of the city, which is the real problem.  For many years the Chamber of Commerce insisted that access to the core was essential, emphasizing the ways that people would get to the city over where they would come from or go to.  The result is isolation.  More interestingly, the problem is being repeated by a plan for a massive LRT that will snake through large sections of the core – never quite arriving at the logical destination, the train station.  The thinking is exactly the same as the car, but the expected result is different.

Why will the result be the same?  Because what all of these plans lack is a sense of place, the idea that any given point is not just a stop on a line but a connection between things.  A city is a network of connections, whether they are intersections or places where the transit lines cross.  Times Square isn’t just Broadway, it’s 7th and Broadway, 42nd to 44th.

The same mistake is made when people evaluate a new technology such as Twitter, to name a fave flave of the moment.  Many words have been written about the potential of this bit of technology, and terms like “social media” and “microblogging” have been thrown around as meaningful in and of themselves.  But as any person who has used the service knows, it’s only as good as the connections it makes for you.  I’ve met some wonderful people that have made my Twitter experience worthwhile and waded through gobs of spam trying to stay connected.   The same can be said of Facebook, which has put me in touch with friends from High School after I sift through the zillions of “gifts”.

What is any of this stuff worth?

Cities and technologies, as networks, work to the extent that they have a strong sense of place.  The streetscapes or the user experience define the journey to a place, which should be easy and fun.  The way people get there, which is to say the car or the web app, doesn’t really define any sense of place.  The people who you meet up with are what define things, not the machines.

This may be a huge “Duh!” to most people, but if you get too tied up in the machine you run the risk of ignoring what makes it all possible.  It’s the storyline, either memories or a chat with a friend, that moves people to the centers where a strong sense of place makes new connections.  It’s entirely possible for the technology to get in the way of a smooth and believable story.

The internet has its own sea of asphalt that separates it from many people’s lives in ways that make the promise of all these new connections less real or accessible.  Jargon, spam, and a fair amount of condescension from the “cool kids” are what substitute for the seas of surface parking in this world.  Like a skyline, many people refer to it all from a distance as if it’s a massive sculpture rather than a real human ecology.

Why not instead imagine a gentle, constant streetscape with human scaled buildings that define each step of the journey without blotting out the sun?  Why not imagine a trip to a place that is made up of legends, some of which aren’t yet written?  If you forget about the lust for this machine or that, and allow people to get there on their own terms, they get to define the sense of place themselves.

Networks are made up of nodes where connections form, often understood as patterns.  They require a strong sense of place, no matter what kind of network you’re talking about.  The technology is only useful to the extent it makes that happen – and no further.

13 thoughts on “A Sense of Place

  1. I translate ‘a sense of place’ as ‘you have to feel like you are somewhere’. All the cold glass and steel of downtown makes me want to keep moving.

  2. Yes, you have to be somewhere or you keep moving. It’s the same in any good design, really. You have to be connected to the place, real or internet, before you hang around long enough to connect with people. I don’t think this is mysterious at all, BTW. If you think I’m stating the obvious, all I can ask is, ” How often doyou see the obvious ignored?”

  3. Wherever you go, there you are.

    If you aren’t somewhere, you need to keep moving.

    Otherwise not being somewhere makes you nobody.That is how I explain this concept to people. It is simply human nature. We like to belong.

  4. Magnus – that’s very eloquent, if a bit simple. Thank you. I wrote the same thing about my dog, adopted as a stray. He wanted to keep moving until he had a home, and was very restless until he understood he was home with me. A strong sense of place gives us a sense of belonging, or at the very least curiosity. I can accept that as a given, yes.

  5. You should put this in book form. Lay it all out in an order that makes sense. I love what you’re saying on the blog, but I get the feeling that it’s in the order that it comes to you. Great stuff!

  6. Thanks, everyone. Perhaps I should assemble this into a book. The booklist I’m getting together (yes, I am!) could serve as bibliography. I do need to do more research, however.

  7. Hello, everyone. I accidentally deleted the comments on this post, so I had to rebuild them from what was recorded on another site. If there’s something attributed to you that you don’t like, please tell me. Thanks!

  8. Pingback: All Politics is Local « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

  9. I just came back to this one – very important post. This needs to be read by a LOT more people, especially anyone in design!

  10. Pingback: March Madness « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

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