the best way to define meaningful places

How should we define meaningful urban places? Who should set the stage?

Both are key questions in managing cities of the future.  The answers are not new.

Harvard Professor John Stilgoe argues for personal observation of the built environment. The title of Stilgoe’s most noted book, Outside Lies Magic (1998), sets the tone for self-inquiry.

Similarly, journalist-turned-urban authority Grady Clay explains how the “undisclosed evidence” of the form and patterns of cities awaits personal discovery.

In Close-Up: How to Read the American City (1973), Clay wrote:

And where are we? Grasping at straws, clutching yesterday’s program, swamped by today’s expert view, clawing at the newest opinion polls, but neglecting that limitless, timeless, boundless wealth of visible evidence that merely waits in a potentially organizable state for us to take a hard look, to make the next move.

Last August, from Italy, I recalled places for people-watching, where “we sit on the edges of the public realm and look in the mirror”.  I cast such places as indicative of safe public environments, including active streets, corners and squares.

But what about more direct observation of place, akin to the teaching of Stilgoe and Clay?

Here are three images of human interaction with urban places. In two cases, history surrounds, and in one case, an intersecting natural environment provides both modification and contrast.

From these images, what is clear?

I suggest five points:

  • Humans both occupy and look within and without bounded vantage points.
  • Nature, including light, color and climate complement human interest in and perception of the built environment.
  • Place observers may expect a result, or a revelation, as part of an evolving story.
  • Cities should help such observation by people.
  • The stories behind the observers in each image could inform goals and objectives for a city’s future.

In conclusion, without vantage points, we dishonor individual needs.  The images show people observing place in a way that is intrinsic to who we are.

Clay would likely agree:

Experts may help assemble data, specialists may organize it, professionals may offer theories to explain it. But none of these can substitute for each person’s own leap into the dark, jumping in to draw his or her own conclusions.

The spontaneous involvement of the people in the images above shows a path to meaningful urban places. Every city-dweller has a story, a “leap in the dark”, conscious or not.  

The best placemaking may result where developers, designers, decision makers and pundits let astute, everyday users have their say.

All images composed by the author. Click on each image for more detail.

27 thoughts on “the best way to define meaningful places

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  12. Daniel Peterson

    Chuck, below is my original post, which got clipped on transmission.

    It seems more dialogue is needed on the “mechanisms” of place making. The broad lack of perception, both professional and political, of the value in developing places that provide enriching experience is a tremendous deficit in our creation of the built environment. Correspondingly, there is also seems to be limited understanding of what it takes to make quality spaces. I would differ in your conclusion that users (by their using) can “create” quality place. If the place has no quality, users will neither enjoy nor dwell there.

    Making quality spaces is not a magical process, but rather is one that recognizes the primacy of creating emotional transcendence. Places that are of quality manage to get us out of our usual “heads.” Professionals really have an obligation to create quality places within the realm of our built environment. Not every place need be of “quality” but we certainly could use more of them in our lives.

    If I might, I’d like to elaborate on two of the three mechanisms that are described in your five points above and suggest two others that can facilitate the creation of valued place.

    In your first point, the key word is “bounded” spaces. The ideas of “street rooms” and “terminated vistas” promulgated by Kevin Lynch and Andreas Duany provide a sense of “enclosure” that relieves the user of the perpetual urgency to “move on” towards the “next space” in his visual realm. In the open spaces in your images of the Alps beyond the lake, or the houses ascending up the hillside, visual enclosure is not present, but a practical bounding is. While the eye is naturally drawn to these far off points, the tension of embarking to explore these areas is tempered by the impracticality of crossing the lake or hopping over the parapet. The point is, that in encountering bounded spaces, either without proximate visual destinations, or with unattainable distant prospects, the wanderlust that is sparked by the user’s observance of the mid-distance prospect (e.g., 50 – 200m or 2 – 5 blocks away) does not emerge, or in the case of the distant prospect is internally dismissed.

    I would suggest that this desire to keep moving, to keep exploring/investigating the near unknown, is perhaps evolutionary, and thus very strong. It has led us find food to eat and to explore the entire planet. Eliminating this internal drive to keep moving by controlling the visual realm through bounding and enclosure forestalls the anxiety of not moving, enabling the user to relax and turn his or her attention to visually exploring the near space about him or her.

    This leads to your third point, “expecting a result or revelation.” A “result” implies a sequence of action, which might be termed a dynamic aspect. In exploring the visual space about one, the eye is naturally drawn to visual movement within the space. Movement implies a certain degree of chance and unpredictability. In securing ourselves amongst the dynamic elements of our environment, we form predictions of future actions. When walking amongst crowds, this is a consuming task. When we’re passive though, we have the opportunity to elaborate these narratives concerning the “unknowable” intentions of others. Because of our unpredictability, the dynamic of watching people is tremendously more interesting than say watching cars. Validating your second point, the movement of water, the swaying of trees, the antics of birds or simply the dynamic visual texture of nature, provide a similar facility of unpredictability, though greatly reduced from the variety of narratives we can construct about other persons in our scene.
    These narratives that we construct as we engage a space and observe these dynamics, conscious or not, provide a means to daydream, that moves us beyond our mundane task successive perception, The reverie engendered can lead to introspection, and thus to insights that if powerful enough can change our lives and imprint memories of our moments in these spaces. That is why we remember these spaces and in remembering consider them of quality.

    If I may suggest two additional mechanisms to round out your list and replace the last two which are more prescriptions for action. The first is to provide seating (or places to stand) that enable the expression of self-identity. As we encounter a space, our choice of where we sit and how we sit (or stand) is an intensely complex calculation of relationships between ourselves and those we are with, those about us, the surrounding space and the opportunities the space itself presents in which to park ourselves. Though I must have read it 30 years ago, I profoundly recall the challenge posed by Carlos Castaneda in The Teachings of don Juan on discovering the right spot to sit upon the porch. The selection of one’s place within a place is truly a Zen thing. Recognizing our variety as individuals, it is thus incumbent upon the designer to provide a variety of forms, means, and places from which to experience a place. One size fits one, and may inadvertently discourage others.

    Working in Times Square, I see this in how users move the folding chairs put out, even if only slightly in order to personalize them to their particular engagement with the square. Thus, attention to the form and placement of seating and the formation of spaces in which to stand and observe out of the pedestrian stream are critical in providing a place for users to experience a place. I would suggest this can’t be done simply from the God’s eye of the Plan, but really needs to be experienced from within the space. Thankfully we can now design and perceive designs within a 3D world.

    The last mechanism I would like to suggest is to provide space, means and opportunities to create “shared experience.” Facilitate encounter by the merging and cross flow of moderate volume pathways, or seating that supports the conversations of two or three persons, or given the usage, the ability of buskers to draw, provoke and entertain a small crowd, or an enclosure for 3-6 persons be themselves and to do something small, play music, talk together, enjoy themselves.
    Facilitating encounter creates shared memory, the basis of creating, nurturing and sustaining friendship. Again, it is being part of a “moment,” in this case, part of a “we.” It is an awareness that is not self-awareness.

    Placemaking is an exercise in providing means for emotional transcendence. It is not about creating beautiful places, but rather about creating an environment in which users can be transported, gradually or suddenly, out of the ‘humdrum” of our usual lives. From this perspective, and employing tools of bounding, nature, visual dynamism, seating variety, and encounter, we artists of the built world can create spaces where our fellow travelers can find enrichment and deeper, more meaningful lives.

    Daniel Peterson January 2012

  13. This is a great, thoughtful response and is worthy of its own post! As I said in our initial dialogue, I was recommending the photos as a depiction of users who have found their own places, which I presumed were therefore of meaning and some quality… I have no doubt that many professionals honor this approach in their work. My concern has been overuse of the “placemaking” term, out of context and without the rich input that you, for one, have provided.

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