Place Sense

Place Sense

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For human beings, places are meaningful and meaning creating.  According to urban planner Timothy Beatley, “Meaningful places are essential for meaningful lives.”  Without a sense of place we would live within undifferentiated and thereby meaningless space.  Cultural Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, “Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning.”  Our sense of home, of homeland, of our place and role in the world, all help to give us a sense of rootedness and identity in the world.  They help to nurture us and provide us a safe haven when we are in need of it.  When we have a sense of place in the world, we know where we come from and where we are going.  As such, we feel “in-place” in the world. Sense of place is an embodied experience, not an abstract concept.  Our home and the street we live on may feel meaningful and

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Problem or Solution?

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Current world trends indicate that increasingly the health of our Earth and its inhabitants are inextricably tied to the future of our urban centers.  According to the United Nations, the year 2005 marked the first time in our planet’s history that over half of the entire human population lived in cities.  In western countries, this percentage is even higher, with 80 percent of the population living in urban areas.  In addition, these trends of urbanization are on the rise, particularly in developing countries.  Between 1990 and 1995, 263 million people were added to cities in developing countries.  This is equivalent to the formation of a new Los Angeles or Shanghai every three months. With such growth trends occurring in our urban settlements, it is disconcerting to consider the disproportionate impact that cities now have on our planet.  Cities today take up only two percent of the world’s surface, yet they

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Balancing Needs and Potential

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Many, including the United Nations, have lauded the city of Curitiba, Brazil as being a leading model for ecological urban development and planning.  In addition, a multitude of Curitban civic planning policies are now being replicated in different cities around the world. What has received less attention in Curitiba’s storied success, however, is the unique place‐based visioning process that their civic leaders developed. Every morning, the mayor and his core team of planners would meet in a log cabin retreat in the middle of a forested city park. There, according to one of the planners, they worked only “on what (was) fundamental, on what would affect a large number of people and could create change for the better.” Then, in the afternoons, they would return to city hall to meet with their constituents and to deal with the city’s day‐to‐day needs.

Artists of Place

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According to cultural geographer Joël Bonnemaison, “(A)ll geographical environments are anthropomorphized to a smaller or greater extent.”  As humans, we inherently impress a cultural landscape upon the places that we live.  In other words, we subjectively imbue any space we live within with meaning.  As cultural geographer Tuan states, “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” Through this impressing of a cultural landscape, we begin to restructure the very places we live by the actions we make and the artifacts we create.  Every artifact we create in place helps to inform the place and its structuring of relationships.  In this sense, we, as humans, are all co-participants in the creation and recreation of place.

A Land Ethic

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Aldo Leopold argues that what is centrally missing in our Western culture today is a “land ethic.”  According to Leopold, ethical values are what hold a community together and allow its members to cooperatively co-exist.  Just as our culture has awakened to the violent injustice of slavery, so now is it time that we awake to the injustice we are inflicting on the lands we live within. 

Urban Acupuncture

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I would like to lift up a metaphor that Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, uses to describe leveraged actions that can help transform a community.  Lerner calls such actions (and the art of discerning and carrying out such actions) as that of urban acupuncture.  As he states it, “I call it urban acupuncture, which is where you focus on key points that increase energy and flow” 1

Musical Metaphor

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Many professionals in the land-use planning and development field are now aware that good functional design does not necessarily lead to good cities and community settlement patterns.  To use a musical metaphor, building structures are only instruments that, no matter how well they are crafted, are only as good as the musicians who use them.  Good planning, therefore, requires more than just good technical design and management.  It also requires the engagement of stakeholders in ways that develop their sense of co-stewardship in the planning process.  But even stakeholder engagement processes are not enough.  To carry the musical metaphor further, there is now just beginning to be a larger realization in the planning field that humans and their settlements are merely one section of musicians in a much larger orchestra who must learn to play together in harmony.  Without such systemic understanding and stewardship planning, we face such catastrophes as

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The City as Sacred Place

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Here’s an interesting tidbit.  According to historian Lewis Mumford, the social, psychological, and spiritual origins of the city existed before the first city was ever built.  Cities, in their beginning, were spiritualizing centers for cultural and religious congregation.  In Mumford’s words, Thus even before the city is a place of fixed residence, it begins as a meeting place to which people periodically return: the magnet comes before the container, and this ability to attract non-residents to it for intercourse and spiritual stimulus no less than trade remains one of the essential criteria of the city, a witness to its inherent dynamism… 

Placemaking Metanoia

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More and more, architects and planners are jumping on the band-wagon of “place” and “placemaking” as a hot new trend in sustainability. While this is good news, it also has the potential of becoming more of the same.  If we continue to see place and placemaking in human centric terms, we will engage in this movement with the same mind that got us into this mess in the first place. What is required, therefore, first and foremost is a metanoia (a fundamental change of mind) in how we view place. From a living systems view, the phenomena of place and placemaking are not just human processes but rather larger planetary processes in which we as humans have a role to serve. To gain perspective, take the Andean perspective of the process of placemaking