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The Importance of Place

What makes a place?  And why is it important?  Whether because of Community Action’s numerous community revitalization projects or my own personal readings, I’ve been thinking about these two questions quite a bit lately.  They are probably deeper questions than any of us realize… partly because the words in the questions are so simple, but also, I think, because the meaning of the word “place” has been so watered down over the years that it no longer means what it once did, and we no longer have a developed national vocabulary for describing its original meaning.  I notice it in my daily life.  Some weekends, I happen to patronize the Lehigh Valley mall and Main Street in downtown Bethlehem within a few hours’ time.  The differences between the two “places” are profound, and I intuitively know that Main Street is much more vital and sustainable, and I have some basic explanations for this (walkability, design proportionality, historical connection, emphasis and celebration of the public realm, local businesses, good beer, etc.); but even I, a student of urban planning and community and economic development, can’t seem to put the words together to explain the difference in a satisfying way that does it justice.

If you really think about it, isn’t it true that the “places” we build and the ways we interact with them are direct reflections of how we think about ourselves and each other?  When we construct subdivisions of homes with few windows facing 30-foot-wide streets that are bordered by few sidewalks, what does this say about us?  When we separate these subdivisions by income and develop yet another tract of our local farm land to further subdivide, what does this say about us?  When we build malls so that the outsides look like warehouses and the insides look like Main Street (except for all of the chain stores), what does this say about us?  When our policies subsidize the rise of new environments and the decline of existing ones, what does this say about us?  And when urban dwellers can’t adequately explain why their environments feel more place-like without resorting to clichés and academic concepts, what does this say about us?  Some, such as Jim Kunstler, would suggest that we are spiritually and socially dead.  I can’t say that I disagree with that assessment.  So how do we revive ourselves?

Maybe this is a conversation that we should engage in as a Valley and a nation.  Maybe we have to figure out, together, how to redefine – or remember the true definition of – “place.”  We have built true places before, and many are still in existence.  These places still fill us with awe and wonder, and we are still hesitant to leave them when we travel back home to our indistinct and agoraphobia-inducing subdivisions.  This doesn’t have to be an exercise in nostalgia, but we should learn what we can from a more successful past of place-making as well as innovate with new ideas.  So, let’s get the conversation started.  Tell us your thoughts on what makes a “place” and why it is important.

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