Getting Back to Place

Because place has such a power to shape, we must be mindful of how we shape our places.

April 24th, 2014
Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern Americaby Wilfred M. McClay & Ted V. McAllister (Eds). New Atlantis/Encounter Books, 2014. 304 pp.

Places: Where Body meets World

We believe in the resurrection. That is our Eastertide confession, rooted in the biblical vision of the inherent goodness of the body and earth. We worship a resurrected Jesus whose body could be touched; we follow disciples who visited an empty tomb. The Good News is an announcement about bodies, earth, and place.

It is at this same intersection of body and earth that the slippery notion of place begins to materialize. Being embodied creatures means that we are also "implaced" creatures. We must always be somewhere. Whether that somewhere is a home, a school, a city, a farm, a wilderness, a suburb, a bedroom, or a boardroom, we are attached to places. Why Place Matters is a collection that reminds us of this point precisely because, oddly enough, even implaced creatures can forget they're placed.

Thinking about "place" is tricky though; it's like trying to get a fish to understand wetness. Whether we articulate it or not, place—in its built or unbuilt form—is the medium through which we always move. Local historian Joseph Amato's sprawling definition is perhaps one of the best encapsulations of place in the collection. As he puts it:

In singular, unique, and kaleidoscopic combinations, a place forms young minds and the veins and roots of engrained habits in older citizens. Sidewalks, storefronts, alleys, fields, churches, and schools host the rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations by which individuals and generations experience and know, make and represent their lives.

This definition—like this collection of essays—awakens us to a renewed sense that our places are not merely the sites we move through, but are the powerful meaning-making structures that can shape, for better or worse, our individual and collective identities.

Because place has such a power to shape, we must be mindful of how we shape our places. It's important to remember that at birth our first places are outside our choosing, they are gifted to us much like Eden was to Adam and Eve. Yet as we grow older we increase our power and responsibilities to steward our places, serving them to make them better. Places—good places—are constantly being made and re-made by the various people who inhabit them, generationally or even only for a short time. This dynamism complicates things by adding a historical dimension: the meanings of a place become layered through time. Because of such human, geographical, and historical complexities, good places must also be distinct places. That is, the City of Hamilton, Central Park, the Serengeti, or the Salisbury Cathedral should take pride when they are like no other place. The true sign for a healthy culture, so this book suggests, is when such unique, diverse, local places can be found speckled across the map.

It's at this point, though, that some readers might become frustrated with this collection, since the idea that we need a diverse range of distinct places is more often assumed than rigorously supported. Mark T. Mitchell digs the deepest in this ground, arguing:

Local differences, particularities, and personalities are what constitute "local color," and color, after all, is one aspect that contributes to beauty. Remove the local songs, stories, businesses, cuisine, dialects, games, and something very good has been lost, and when lost, they are likely to be gone forever.

A beautiful world is a world of diverse places, antithetical to the brand of globalizing cosmopolitanism that seeks to erode all these distinctions. Mitchell's argument is good—perhaps the best in the collection—but his appeal to aesthetics, a rather subjective category, puts him on shaky ground. Might someone not argue that there is also beauty in similarity, and goodness in eating the same Big Macs in Tokyo and Toronto?

But if our place-making is derivative of God's first creative act, we have quite the foundation for championing a world teeming with such good places. Just a cursory glance at some of the creation details of Genesis showcase a Maker obsessed with diversity. We believe in a creation filled with swarms, and flocks, and herds of impossible variety. This is a creation intended to flourish, and such flourishing seems to have always suggested a vibrant, almost uncontrolled teeming of all life in all its places.

Yet such healthy places might be fewer and farther between in our highly industrialized and globalized world. There are many indicators that place, so defined, is something we've largely abandoned. The explosion of suburban monotony and box-store monoculture, the exponential growth of virtual worlds that young and old can escape to, the rise of a highly mobile citizenry and work force and, of course, the development of a transportation infrastructure that gives such unsettled mobility a seamless efficiency unthinkable in most of recorded history. It seems that we're rapidly becoming—or believe we're becoming—a world where anyone can be at home anywhere because anywhere is like everywhere else. In other words: we're becoming a world where places don't matter.

The City: a Case Study of Place-Making

While the book seeks to flesh out the concept of place in all its diverse complexity, readers might be a bit frustrated at the scant attention given to architecture, cyberspace, wilderness, and agriculture. Instead, the balance of thought is heavily weighted toward the city. This oversight may be due to the fact that cities embody the various historical, social, and technological layers of place more readily than a farm or a forest. Whatever the case, the life and death of a city provides a fascinating case study for the place-making work that leads to a flourishing life.

As Witold Rybzynski shows in "The Demand Side of Urbanism," the past several decades have seen a drastic migration of individuals into urban centres. Historically, cities were centripetal forces, pulling individuals in for commerce and industry. But what happens in a landscape where industry finds a home in another region or country and once-thriving cities become centrifugal forces of bloated suburbs and dying cores? How do cities become those centripetal forces again? If we don't want abandoned places where crime and vandalism run rampant, how do we get people to stay in—or return to—the city's core?

There are multiple suggestions—some abstract, some practical—given in Why Place Matters, but a common concern is that we reduce cities to places of commerce and industry at our own peril. Just as a human is more than a producer and a consumer, cities, poet Dana Gioia argues in his playful defense of sprawling L.A., are "most fully themselves when they are a nexus for vibrant human activity." This includes economics, of course, but should also allow for education, art, worship, work, and play.

But when we allow a market economy to become a market society, such reductionist views of humans and their places quickly creeps in. Philip Bess see the economization of everything as an insidious aspect of modernity in particular, where "an acute and increasingly sophisticated attention to economic behaviour, indeed to economic interest is seen as not only a determinant of human action but in many modern theories as the determinant of human action." While Bess's take is more nuanced and appreciative of the goods that the market economy has given us (the rise in economic prosperity not being least), this inherent reductionism gave rise to the twentieth century phenom of the urban planner. If we take Le Corbusier as a paradigmatic example, such planners attempted to rationalize urban spaces in order to make them better, a term synonymous with efficiency. City zones that segregated shopping from work from play are one of the manifestations of the "rational planning" of modernity that multi-use zone advocates are still fighting against today.

Gary Toth, in his piece on American transportation policy, acknowledges that Americans have been slow to slog off our hangover of modernity by opting for quality of life over and against the quantities of speed and efficiency. In fact, the desire for speed and efficiency has only exacerbated the problems of urban gridlock. What's needed, he argues, is a new culture of building, and not just of roads, but of all of our places. And when it comes to urban design, this renewed culture must come to see that the city is not simply a manifestation of the "corporate will-to-power," to use Bess's phrasing, but a place where we can work, play, and reside together.

This poses an interesting challenge. If multi-use zones are so ideal, then why are the suburbs so easily disparaged as places incapable of containing anything good. In fact, if we look at the definition of a good place given by Edward Casey, the pioneering philosopher of place, we might see that perhaps suburbs, particularly as they are being rethought today, merit closer attention; Casey says, "[good] places offer not just bare shelter but the possibility of sojourns of upbringing, of education, of contemplation, of conviviality, lingerings of many kinds and durations." Of course, given earlier points, good suburbs must also seek to retain a local flavour and also work within given landscapes, rather than run roughshod over them as, historically, has been their wont.

The city—and by extension all places (even suburbs!)—must be where beauty finds a home. It must, as Capote said of New York, be a place not only that belongs to us, but that we are proud to belong to.

In the final essay in the collection, Wilfred McClay provides some practical guidelines for making cities places that encourage such flourishing. His wisdom is really in refusing to allow simple dichotomies. Places are not simply created by public or private interests, nor are they only realized either by planners or individuals; rather, he reminds us that good places always have a "participatory dimension." He writes, "A vibrant sense of place is neither created nor given, neither self-consciously planned for nor spontaneously generated, but relies on both, and on a fruitful dialectical relationship between the two." Cities, like towns and homes, are the work of many hands over many years with a view to those hands that will inherit and continue this work in the unseen future.

Getting Back to Place

"Could it be the case," McClay asks, "that the variety and spontaneous diversity of the world as we have known it for all the prior centuries of human history is being gradually leveled and effaced, and insensibly transformed into something standardized, artificial, rootless, pastless, and bland—a world of interchangeable airport terminals and franchise hotels and restaurants, a world of smooth surfaces designed to facilitate perpetual movement rather than rooted flourishing?"

If you're interested in recovering place in your own particular sphere of influence, this is the question. As civic institutions seem to fray and those mediating institutions of family, school, church, and community become less effective in buffering the individual from the large, disembodied forces of the State and the Industrial Economy, how might we begin the work of recovering a human-scaled life together?

Perhaps the first step is to see the goodness in vibrant, local places where love of humanity is not so much an abstract idea but a loving act for a neighbour; where we don't attempt to always transcend our embodied creaturely limits but flourish within them; where we don't always yield our self-reliance (or community reliance) to the State but work together in a community to solve problems; and where we allow life to teem in all its intended diversity by subverting and renovating the encroachments of an industrial monoculture and cosmopolitanism that seek to erode our differences.

Place, like a body, imposes a set of natural constraints upon the person that we can never fully transcend, nor should we want to since they are necessary for a healthy life. While global citizenship, or cosmopolitanism, might be prized in an increasingly flattened world, writers like Russel Jacoby take serious issue with those who, like that early cosmopolitan Diognenes, "travel the world without restraint, like a bird." Such a claim in such a mobile world will most likely grate, but the wisdom of the book lies in its call to withstand the strong currents of contemporary culture by simply trying to stand still.

According to Wilfred McClay, these essays share a common desire to bring about the "recovery of place in our personal and public lives." The word recovery not only signals loss, but also a certain type of solution, one more akin to renovation than complete innovation. Just as recovering an old building requires some mental image of what that building once was, so the recovery of places, in all their diverse complexity, requires an image of what good places once were and might again become.

Yet recovering place seems to invite nostalgia for a lost past which is perhaps not as ideal as we faultily remember it. Joseph Amato, who as a historian has the most at stake in terms of such faulty remembering, offers one of the book's most intriguing ideas. He says that "even when one concedes nostalgia's political and literary cultivation and exploitation, it remains far more compelling as a cultural force than the idealization and quest for progress." In other words, if Modernity's forward-looking promises of inevitable progress have proven hollow, maybe attempting to look back in order to regain something we've lost is not the worst way to move forward.

In fact, the Christian narrative in which we find ourselves is framed by such a tension between places and times. We are descended from exiles of Eden, our first intended home, and as we long for that New City, promised as our final home, we also know that it's not here yet. So what does that mean for us? It means we inherit places—buildings, institutions, relational networks, landscape; perhaps what might all fall under the blanket of social architecture—that have been made and marred by a myriad of people before us.

Cardus's vision for the renewal of social architecture is really the type of renovation work this collection is calling for, and as we seek to repair such social architecture, we are reminded not only that such renewal must be grounded in diverse local realities, but also that we do so longing, perhaps nostalgically, to re-create those right relationships of Shalom we can only imagine were in Eden and can only hope for in the place to come.

Topics: Cities

Doug Sikkema is a Senior Researcher for Cardus, and managing editor of Comment Magazine. After receiving a B.A. from Redeemer University College, Doug Sikkema completed his M.A. in English literature at the University of Ottawa and a Bachelor of Education at the University of Toronto. Doug has taught literature at the secondary level for several years while also teaching introductory courses to the short story, the novel, poetry, and academic writing at Redeemer University College. Doug is currently working toward a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Waterloo. Doug’s research looks at the idea of modernity’s disenchantment and traces this notion through several contemporary American writers to interrogate what this might mean in postmodernity.


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