The best way I know how to describe the way the quality place affects me is an oft-repeated phrase that’s 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.”
My point is that the place where I live 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 and all-encompassing.
Maybe because it’s ever-present, we don’t stop to consider how much it affects us. It’s like when the AC shuts off, everything is suddenly quiet, and we are saying loud, uncomfortable things that everyone can hear.
Until we’re jolted out of our indifference to the “‘power of place,” we won’t appreciate the importance it plays in our lives. It means everything, and this cannot be overstated.The design of our environment impacts us as a society and as individuals.
Consider how it made you feel the first time you stepped inside somewhere that knocked you on your ass. Maybe it was a civic building, like a county courthouse or stadium, or a community institution like a church or old museum. Or maybe it was a grand home or ancient ruin. Each and every one of us have had the experience of an emotional shift upon entering a place.
These emotional reactions can be good or bad–they’re dictated by the specific aspects of the place. Some places make us incredibly uncomfortable, sad, or nervous. Some make us feel sophisticated or appreciative or even elicit a sense of awe.
And then there are the ones that bring ecstatic joy! There’s no denying that place can have a near aphrodisiac impact on us.
Now imagine the rooms in your home and how you feel in them. Think about the room where you go to read, relax, or maybe watch something. Or the place you go in the house to feel creative–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 and enjoy a refreshment, or chat with your spouse or cat.
Consider how you went about setting up rooms in your home to accommodate you and your use of the space:
Did you decorate the room a certain way to enable specific experiences?
Did you place certain things in particular places in the room?
For example, stools around a kitchen island lead to more socializing. Blankets in your living room lead to more relaxation. Blackout curtains in your bedroom lead to deeper sleep. We should give the same consideration to outfitting our communities as we do the rooms of our homes.
Imagine a home with only bedrooms–no living, kitchen, office, or bathing rooms. This would be a stupid way to build a house, but this how we build every residential subdivision across the continent. The truth is, most new communities are hamstrung at conception, relegated to only ever being discrete plots of land used to store people and their stuff. Neglecting the space and structures needed to foster the other facets of people’s lives, like socializing, shopping, and working.
Why don’t we use the same mixed-use logic we apply to our homes to our communities? Our town is our home that we own together–we should make shared decisions on how we want it to function and feel.
The idea of creating quality places is not overly complicated–it’s applying the same principles of how we would decorate our home to our community.
Say you’re a social family and you’d like for your friends to stop by fairly often. It would probably be a good idea to make your home inviting to outsiders.
You wouldn’t expect visitors to hang out in your home’s garage, yet most city leaders still ignore that people aren’t attracted to their vehicle-oriented Main Street. An inviting community is attractive–with quality public spaces designed for socializing, relaxing, and shopping. Public space not just for transiting through to somewhere else.
Want people to come downtown and shop? Then stop being so accommodating to cars and through-traffic and start considering the needs and desires of people who want to linger.
Proud Places is about designing our places around our priorities. Design places for cars and you get cars. Design for people and you get people. It really is that simple. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”
We used to be thoughtful about how we shaped our places, with the understanding that how we shaped them would dictate our lives, patterns, and behaviors.
If we spread things out we force people to spend time in cars. If we want a strong sense of community, we should build homes close to one another. If we want locally owned businesses to thrive, we should create human-scale mixed-use districts with smaller retail spaces.
I once had a community member tell me that people in his town didn’t like to walk–everything was built for the car, so people never did. But if you dropped those same people in a pedestrian paradise like Savannah, they would have walked all day and loved it. Hell, they’d even call it a vacation!
We have whole channels about DIY decorating and a million shows about home renovations. It’s easy enough to find a thousand articles about picking the right tea kettle to make your backsplash pop, but try finding an article on housing setbacks affecting how much we walk or why the width of our streets dictates whether or not they will be safe for kids to cross.
How we lay out 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. In fact more so, because it affects our relationships with our neighbors.
The width of the streets, housing setbacks, trees, sidewalks, benches, flowers, lot size, and on and on–these are all components that shape our daily lives. The design of our communities 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?
“Our home doesn’t end when we walk out the front door. Our community is our home– our neighborhoods, our blocks, and our streets. It’s all an extension of where we live–the part of our home we share with others.”
Do we want to walk more, know our neighbors better, or cultivate local ownership and small businesses? A place our kids don’t want to leave when they graduate? A place that inspires us and melts us with its beauty?
We’ve got to start giving more thought to the part of our homes that sit outside the front door. We need to think about how the design of our places shapes our day to day lives and what we want that life to look like.
Want residents to speak nicely about their community and be proud of it? Make it a place worth being proud of. It‘s difficult to be proud of things that are not well maintained or attractive. A lack of municipal care leads individuals to care even less.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that kids living in sprawling subdivisions play outside less. It should also 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.
Now consider how much it means to stare at the same bleak view, every day… for decades on end. Broken places create broken people.
Knowing our towns shape us, shouldn’t residents have a say in what form it takes? It’s not for the mall developer, the traffic engineer, the state DOT or home builders to decide. The shape of our towns should be dictated by the people that live in them.
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’s about making decisions for the kind of lives we want to lead and then designing our cities and towns to enable it.
And let’s 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 grow jobs and visitors.
Everyone around the world is attracted to great places. Just look at the countries that are most visited, or communities with the highest property values. There you’ll find people-oriented streets and neighborhoods, and well-considered, beautifully designed placemaking.
Really pay attention next time you leave your front door and walk down the street. Stop and think about how your neighborhood makes you feel.
Think about whether or not it feels comfortable or compels you forward. Whether or not you feel safe or if it sparks joy. Seriously, think about your street just like you do your bedroom or living room. Then have a conversation with your kids or spouse or dog about what you like and what you don’t.
If we started building as if the quality of our places shape us, we’d end up being in far better shape ourselves.