In the urbanism world we often refer to a “sense of place.” It’s this idea that we should be able to tell where we are and that our city has physical structure that makes us feel like we’re somewhere that is definable.
Over a series of articles I’m going to try and define what actually makes a place a “place.” We’ll see if I’m on or off compared to others that have tried to do the same.
Here’s the thing, it’s pretty hard to define place. It’s a “know it when I see it” type of situation. For those of you who have been to a different country, you might get what I’m talking about.
I can’t speak to a lot of countries as I’m not that well traveled (really just Europe), but I know there’s something about the cities I visited that doesn’t compare to anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. thus far.
My thought about it is two-fold. First “sense of place” doesn’t always exist. Sometimes it’s simply our brain lighting up with the idea of new and different. When we visit a different place, our brain is instantly on alert, noticing everything and taking in all the new data. We know that the brain gets really good at ignoring information that it’s rendered obsolete (that’s why you don’t see your nose all the time.) If it didn’t you would probably die from sensory overload. That’s part of the reason why you drive around your city and just think “this sucks” while fondly remembering your semester abroad.
I get frustrated when people come back from Europe and think that we can just shut down a street and make somebody erect beautiful buildings “just because.” That’s not really a sense of place nor is it the right way to create a sense of place. The Chinese have tried this with Hallstatt and Paris. Needless to say, it’s not going over that great. Abandoning your roots to manufacture a carbon copy of a cool place doesn’t instill anything to visitors and residents a like.
However, being the Alan Turing that I am, I think I’ve cracked the code on what makes a sense of place and maybe a better way to define it. I like the idea of having a simple definition, but this seems to need a more academic definition with a number of criteria.
“Sense of Perspective”
My friend and fellow Mankatoan(?) Nate Hood defined “place” in a recent article (only for the sake of his argument) as a “location where people can comfortable stand without fear of being hit by an automobile.” To us Urbanophiles, seems like a pretty decent, broad definition for our cities in the U.S.. Sorry Nate, but I’m going to have to disagree. You can be struck with awe looking at a major highway interchange when your brain tries to comprehend the logistics and planning that went in to it (even if it’s bad for your city.)
A sense of perspective allows you to look at the context in which this city was built.
An example: Dresden, Germany. Do you know what happened to Dresden during WWII? Well, we pretty much wiped it off the face of the planet. Dresden was (still is) a beautiful city. Without getting into the morality/justification of the bombing of Dresden, let’s just look at the fact that it was obliterated and that they rebuilt.
Here’s a picture of Pre-War Dresden. Wow.
See that church in the middle? That’s the Frauenkirche, a beautiful church. Here’s what it looked like after we bombed it to hell and back.
Bummer. Below is what it looks like today.
The wall that sticks out was one of the only parts of the structure left. When the Germans rebuilt it, they included that wall into church because it held perspective of what it was, what happened, and where they are today. Same with those random dark bricks, those are from the original structure that the purposely used in the rebuilding. The Frauenkirche also anchors a massive public space surrounded by apartments, shops, restaurants, museums, etc…
Here’s one more example of perspective:
Easy, right? It’s Amsterdam. But what’s the perspective here? The environment.
The Netherlands has about 50% (yes FIFTY) of it’s land area one meter above sea level. Because of this, the Dutch have built their cities to reflect the necessity of water abatement. The result is a charming, entwined canal system that allows you to instantly identify what city you’re in (to be fair it could be Delft or other Dutch cities, but you get the idea.)
Perspective helps edify a city’s sense of place.
You’re probably thinking that I suck at writing because it’s super easy to use Europe as an example for city building. Yeah, it is, so what about Mankato then?
Enter the Post Office and Courthouse.
Unique in history and architecture, they’re some of the most important buildings in Mankato. There’s something more that contributes to the sense of perspective though and that’s Kasota Stone. A unique building material that has been used all over the world. These buildings built almost exclusively of them help to show the wonderful natural resources that are available to the residents of Mankato. These buildings, along with others, help to give outsiders and residents alike a perspective on Mankato and what it has to offer.
In part 2, I’ll be talking about how history defines a place. Very similar to perspective, but not exactly.