The Shape of Place

October 9, 2019

The way I best describe how place affects me is an oft repeated phrase that has most likely grown annoying to those that know me, “I am no more neighborly by birth than someone that lives in a cul-de-sac, I just so happen to have a detached garage, a sidewalk, a front porch and I can see into my neighbors’ windows.” The point being, is that the place I reside shapes me and my life. It dictates my interactions and my relationships, it affects how I get around and molds my habits. Place isn’t background music, it’s ubiquitous, it’s all encompassing. Maybe because it is ever-present, we don’t stop to consider how much it affects us. It’s like when the AC shuts off and everything is suddenly quiet and we are saying loud uncomfortable things that everyone can hear. Until we are jolted out of our ignorance to place, we won’t appreciate the importance it plays in our lives.

Our places mean everything and this cannot be overstated; our places impact us as people. Each and every one of us have had the experience of an emotional shift upon entering a place. Be it a church, a civic building, an institution or a home. This emotional reaction can be good or bad, but it is dictated by that place. Some places make us incredibly uncomfortable, some make us sad or nervous. Some places bring us joy, some make us feel sophisticated or appreciative or even illicit a sense of awe. There is no denying that place is powerful and certain places can have a tremendous affect on us as people.

Imagine a room in your home and how it makes you feel. Think about the place where you go to read, relax, maybe watch a show. Or maybe the place you go in the house to feel creative, a place where you go to write or cook or paint. Maybe you have a particular space in your home for being social. A place where you hang out with the kids or neighbors or just enjoy having a drink, or a place you can chat with your spouse or cat. Think about the decisions you made in that room and why you placed certain things in their particular place. How did you go about setting up that room so that it accommodates you and facilitates your use of that space? Did you decorate a certain way as to cultivate a specific experience? For example, stools around a kitchen island would likely lead to more socializing in that space. Black out curtains in your room might lead to more sleeping in that space. Blankets in your living room might lead to more relaxing in that space. This is a long winded way of saying we should give the same consideration to our cities as we do the rooms in our homes. Imagine a home with only bedrooms and no living room or kitchen or office? This is pretty much the equivalent to every housing subdivision. This patch of land is being used for residences only and neglects to include the various other facets of peoples lives, like acquiring goods, socializing and working. This would be a stupid way to build a house, sooooooo…

Point being, why don’t we use the same logic we all apply to our homes to our community. It is in essence the same thing on a larger scale. A collection of people living amongst one another in a common place. Our town is also our home and we own it collectively, we should make some collective decisions on how we want it to function and feel. Placemaking is not overly complicated, it is applying the same principles of how we would decorate our home to our community. Say you are a social family and you would like for your friends to stop by fairly often, probably a good idea to make your home inviting to outsiders. An inviting city would likely be attractive and have quality public space well-suited for socializing and relaxing. Want people to come downtown and shop, then stop being so accommodating to cars and start considering people. I wouldn’t expect company to hang out in my garage, yet most city leaders don’t understand why people aren’t attracted to their vehicle oriented main street. Want people to speak nicely about their community and be proud of it? Make it a place worth being proud of. It is difficult to be proud of things that are not well maintained or attractive. A lack of care leads people to not care.

Placemaking is about designing our places for how we would like them used. Design places for cars and you get cars, design places for people and you get people. It really is that simple. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” We once understood that we shape our cities, thereafter they shape us. We used to be intentional about how we shaped our cities, with the understanding that how we shaped them would, in turn, shape us. It would dictate our lives and patterns and behaviors. If we want to facilitate a sense of community, we should build homes close to one another. If we want to force people to spend more time in their cars, we should spread things out. If we want locally owned businesses to thrive, we should create human scale districts with smaller retail spaces. It is the design of our space that shapes our cities and in turn, our lives. I once had a community member tell me that people in his town didn’t like to walk. It wasn’t the brightest comment, but I get the point. In his community, everything was built for the car, so people never walked, but those same people, if dropped in Savannah, would have walked all day.  We don’t make the connection about how much our places shape our lives.

The time is long past due that we start paying more attention to the outsized role place plays in our lives. Hell, we have whole channels about DIY decorating and a million shows about home renovations. One could find a thousand articles about picking the right tea kettle to make your backsplash pop, but try finding an article on how housing setbacks affect how much we walk or why the width of our streets dictates whether or not they will be safe for kids to cross. Our home doesn’t end when we walk out the front door. Our city is our home, as is our neighborhood, our block and our street. This is all an extension of where we live, it is the part of our home we share with others. How we layout and decorate the outside of our homes is just as important as the inside. The decisions we make with every little facet of the outside extension of our homes is every bit as important as the inside and in fact more so, because it affects the neighbors. The width of the streets, housing setbacks, trees, sidewalks, benches, flowers, lot size, and on and on, these are all components that help shape our daly lives. The design of our places is endlessly fascinating and if we paid it a little more attention, we could all improve our lives. Can the Martha Stewart of place please stand up?

The point is, we must start giving more thought to the part of our home that sits outside the front door. We must think about how the design of our places shapes our day to day lives and what we want that life to look like. Do we want to walk more, do we want to know our neighbors, do we want to cultivate local ownership and small businesses? These are all factors of placemaking. Do we want to live in a place that makes us proud? A place our kids don’t want to leave when they graduate? A place that inspires us and melts us with its beauty? This is the importance of place. If you consider how it made you feel the first time you stepped inside your county courthouse or a stadium or some other place that knocked you on your ass, consider how much it means to stare at the same place, every day for decades. Broken places end up creating broken people.

If we give more thought to the role place plays in our life, we can begin improving our lives. It should not come as a surprise that kids living in sprawling subdivisions play outside less. It should not come as a surprise that living further from your daily needs keeps you stuck in your car more and degrades your quality of life. This is the cost of not paying attention to place. It is not for the mall developer or the traffic engineer to decide, it is not for the state DOT to decide or for a home builder. The shape of our towns should be dictated by the people that live in them. Knowing our towns shape us, shouldn’t residents have a say in what shape that will be? Placemaking isn’t just about activating dead spaces or turning parking spaces into little parks. Those projects are incredibly important, but placemaking is also about so much more. It is about making decisions as to the lives we want to lead and then designing our cities and towns to facilitate those lives. Who do we want to be, how do we want to spend our time, what do we want our life to be like? It all comes back to place. And let us not forget the economic developers and tourism peeps out there. It just so happens that great places also make it a helluva lot easier to land jobs and visitors. We are all attracted to great places. Just look to the countries most visited cities or the highest property values. You are going to find very intentional placemaking. You are going to find people oriented streets and neighborhoods.

Places shape us. Stop and pay attention next time you walk outside your door or walk down the street. Really stop and think about how this place makes you feel. Have a conversation with your kids or spouse or dog about what you like and what you don’t. Think about whether or not it feels comfortable or compels you forward. Whether or not you feel safe and if it sparks joy. Seriously, think about your street just like you do your bedroom or living room. Pay attention to the way your place makes you feel. We shape our places and thereafter they shape us. We should be in way better shape.

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