Art and Design Featured Future Building

What do Places give us?

Replied to The Importance of Magical Places by Coby Lefkowitz (Our Built Environment)

In most communities, we have a box that we sleep in, a box we drive to the office or school in, and then, once we’re there, a box to work or study in… These places are often devoid of any ornamentation, idiosyncratic details, or contextual elements that would ground them in a specific community.

Our buildings and places symbolize what we value. They tell the story of who we are.

But what about when we don’t know who we are?

I suspect there’s a connection between the loss of Place-making and the dissolution of community ties.

Did disconnecting from our local communities come first, making us lose a common sense of what makes a place ours? Or is it related to outside real estate investors leading development? The mall in my city mouldered for years, a terrible dead place. Some investors from California finally bought it and redeveloped it. Now it’s a nice place, though pretty generic. Their incentive for making the space nice is to make money, not to have a nice place to spend time, because they aren’t part of the community.

[M]ost places in America neglect a communal and street level experience altogether. Our private spaces are valued much more highly than our public ones, and it shows. […] Instead of reinvesting into the quality and character of our communities, we’ve value engineered them down to the lowest possible viable design, thinking that design itself is superfluous.

This makes sense given America’s distaste for the communal and obsession with individualism and personal property. Why invest in shared spaces when you could invest in spaces just for yourself?

What story do our prevailing development patterns of homogenous strip malls with the same chain stores, mega highways, and acres of tract homes say about us?

When place-making is left to developers focused on profit, of course our spaces will become paeans to capitalism, with any benefits of community or Place mere externalities used as tools to promote profit. They don’t care if they make boring places because boring is predictable, cheap, and easy — and doesn’t require having taste. Generic is inoffensive. Uniqueness is a risk to profit, at a higher cost.

I have a lot of feelings about leaving the future of our cities to developers to decide what to build — because they decide what to build based on profit margins and simplicity, not what the community needs. Here, our charming downtown is surrounded by suburban neighborhoods with houses in the $2-4+ million range. Yet rather than increasing density of the neighborhood, old homes are redeveloped by unimaginative developers into even larger homes. They build one 5000sf house instead of three 1500sf homes. Rich people want big houses with zero yard. Of course, the people who already live there want to “preserve the character of the neighborhood” — another way to say, don’t build density. Why do only the rich deserve walkability? Why do we allow our cities to reinforce these biases towards sameness?

See also:

The Homogeneity of Millenial Design

Neutralizing reality to sell

Traditional urbanism

Human Scale

Not built for humans

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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