January 5, 2022 | Main Spotlight: The Importance of Place | By: Ed McMahon, Chairman Emeritus of Main Street America and a Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute |
As we enter a new year, especially after the last 18 months, when many of us were forced to cancel trips to visit the places or people we hold dear, it is important to reflect on the role that place plays in our lives.
We live in a world of rapid and often disorienting change: shifting demographics, new technologies, political polarization, instantaneous communication, changing consumer tastes, gentrification, extreme weather, and the global pandemic are all turning communities upside down. However, if I have learned anything over my 40 years in the community planning arena, it is this: change is inevitable, but the destruction of community character and identity is not.
Progress does not demand degraded surroundings. Communities can grow without destroying the places and things people love.
is the active care and maintenance of a place and its natural, cultural, and social fabric. This is a macro-concept. It is not just about preserving buildings and landscapes, but also about keeping the social memories associated with a place alive, while supporting the ability of local people to maintain their way of life.
Today, however, our communities and cultures are being homogenized out of existence. The subtle differences between places are fading and larger regional differences hardly exist. Now if you were suddenly dropped along a road outside of most American cities and towns, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea where you were because it all looks exactly the same: the architectural styles, the building materials, the chain stores, the outdoor advertising, etc.
Today building materials can be imported from anywhere. Hills can be flattened and streams put in culverts. We can transform the landscape with great speed and build anything that fits our budget or strikes our fancy. Technological innovation and the global economy make it easy for building plans drawn up at a corporate headquarters in New Jersey to be applied over and over again in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Portland, or a thousand other communities. Over the past 50 years, America’s built environment has progressed from unique to uniform, from stylized to standardized.
Today, many communities and cultures are being homogenized out of existence due to development practices that don't value sense of place. Photo credits: Arby Reed (left) and EyeMark (right).
Author Wallace Stegner once said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
We all need points of reference and orientation. A community’s unique identity provides that orientation, while also adding social and economic value to a place. The more one community comes to look and feel just like every other place, the less reason there is to stay, to invest or to visit. Just consider tourism, for example: the more a community becomes just like every other community, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a community does to preserve its distinctive identity, whether that is natural, cultural, or architectural, the more reasons there are to visit.
Similarly, when it comes to 21st century economic development, a key concept is “community differentiation.” In a global economy where capital is footloose, if you can’t differentiate your community or your development from any other, you’ll have no competitive advantage. Communities and regions are now in a global competition to attract and retain talented workers. Increasingly, these workers are choosing where they want to live first and then figuring out their job situations later. What’s more, research from the Sonoran Institute and others demonstrates that people are willing to sacrifice salary for the ideal community.
To foster a sense of place, communities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are uplifting and memorable and that foster a special feeling of belonging and stewardship by residents. A community also nurtures sense of place by understanding and respecting its natural context, such as rivers and streams, mountains and forests, native flora and fauna, scenic views and vistas along with community landmarks and traditions.
About the Author
Ed McMahon, is Chairman Emeritus of Main Street America and the Senior Fellow for Sustainable Development and Charles E. Fraser Chair for Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy at the Urban land Institute. He is recognized nationally as an inspiring and thought-provoking speaker and a leading authority on topics such as the links between health and the built environment, sustainable development, land conservation, smart growth, and historic preservation.#Blogs#MainSpotlight#UrbanMain