This is the first in a short series of posts on the issue of “place.” Place and space are sometimes used in interchangeably, but less so recently. If you think about you can reason why. Place has connotations of significance to the people who use it. Space could have these same connotations, but the word itself implies a sort of nothingness: think outer space. Through this short series of posts, I’ll be emphasizing the importance of examining your own world in terms of its places and spaces. This has more implications than just academic, if you do commit to understanding places and spaces you can begin to change them and make them “better.” Consider your economic life, most people have an understanding of “value” and what it means for them, not everyone will pay for a $400 shoes, but some will. Understanding our economics and preferences, we adjust our habits accordingly. We should be doing the same thing with our places and spaces.
Of course, places and spaces are not always private. True, you have your home and you can (and should!) make that into a place, a place that you (and your family) love. But that’s not enough, we should work to make our public spaces into places. Then we should be making those public spaces better. “Better” is problematic and political, one person may want an several oaks while another prefers creepers and bushes. These decisions should be made through neighborhood planning committees and the like. But most American communities are pretty far from this point. Most American communities (cities, towns, neighborhoods) have abandoned public spaces altogether. Some have a smattering of public spaces amid a sea of private places. These are particularly dreadful. In a culture that emphasizes individual liberty and freedom, we (as Americans) have deluded ourselves into becoming irresponsible. Why should I pick up after myself in a public space? Hence we have few public places.
I owe much of the substance of these posts to James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere (1994) an older book that is absolutely timeless. I would review the book in detail but wouldn’t to spoil it for you. BUT briefly: the book provides an excellent account of the destruction of “America’s man-made landscape” by tracking the development of America’s public and private lands. Partially historically driven, Kunstler compares the obsession with commercialism and profit in the US with ingrained notions of the public sphere and public good in Old Europe. The final nail in the coffin in our public spaces was the development of the automobile. Though the overall tone of the book can, at times, feel like reactionary nostalgia the narrative and discussion is important. Perhaps most important is the observation that Americans have no little concept of the importance of public places (an observation I’m inclined to agree with based on my informal study of non-resident behaviors in a local semi-public place – post to follow).
I close with a picture of the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. This is a pretty clear example of a (semi-)public place. I use the word semi- because certain aspects are controlled and require payment, while this assists with the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, I’m fairly confident that the monies are also used to fund activities and budgets not associated with the place (and this is not a veiled conspiracy theory). Memorials are one area where the U.S. is fairly capable of creating excellent public places. Unfortunately, most of these areas are limited to the Greater Washington D.C. area and a few other memorialized places in other cities. Further memorials aren’t exactly good at promoting and sustaining an actual community (nation?, yes, community?, not so much). One reason, apparent in the photo, is the emphasis on creating a place of awe, respect, or reverence. This place is hard to get to, its an expansive lot, and there are rules (no playing, no running, et cetera). While each of these things make for a great memorial, as a community place, not so much.