“No two communities are alike. Each has a unique character and identity…. If you dig deep into the soul of two cities that seem demographically or geographically similar, you will find a vastly different personality; a different emotional make-up, a different path to each community’s identity, and a different narrative. These narratives must be understood and clearly defined as a first step in leveraging strengths and addressing changes in the community.” The Knight Foundation
A More Wholistic Approach to Places
Federal policy, particularly in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is moving away from a program-based orientation, toward a place-based approach. A place-based approach to urban change means moving beyond a silo-by-silo, program-by-program process (that deals separately with the need for housing, the need for health care, the need for job training or job opportunities, and so on to all the other imperatives of successful change). Instead, a place-based approach integrates all those problems and the tools to solve them into a single process of planning and action
But a place-based approach means—or should mean—something more. It should mean approaching a place as a whole, in all its individuality, not just as a collection of deficiencies to be overcome or problems to be solved, but as a distinctive physical and social system with its own identity and assets.
It is surprising how rarely we approach places as a whole, in the context of trying to build better places. We leave getting a grasp on the character of a place to artists, and expend our civic and professional energies accumulating a lot of data about a place rather than looking at it as a whole. The reason is not far to seek: to see a place as a whole we have to move outside the realm of “objectivity” and pure rationality. We have to go beyond data and information to meaning—which requires embracing elements of narrative, of story, and using tools of knowing that include metaphor and recognizing thematic patterns. The prestige of the scientific method and the aura of rationality that it carries (even in situations where it is clearly inappropriate) is so great that a few charts and tables and a compilation of facts outweighs even the richest and deepest insights into the character of a place. As the poet T.S. Eliot asked,
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? “
The Concept and Importance of Character of Place
Virtually everyone with a serious civic or professional interest in what is now often called placemaking, that is in creating better places to live, work, and play, would agree, perhaps even enthusiastically, with the value statement that it is critically important to base everything on the distinctive individuality of each place. We generally recognize that each place has an individual identity. But that insight is only incompletely integrated into our practices.
In our everyday speech we refer to a sense of place, implying that the complicated individuality of a place is known by a kind of intuition, a special capability which some people will have more than others. We often credit artists with an especially keen sense of place. Sometimes, by a shift of emphasis, we refer to a place as having or giving us a sense of place, meaning that it is somehow distinctive and communicates its differences. Sense of place is generally used as a term of approval: it’s good for a place to be distinctive, and it’s good for a person to be sensitive to differences among places. The Iberville, Treme, and Lafitte neighborhood has, and is generally recognized to have, a distinctive identity and sense of place.
People talking about places often use the term spirit of place, and refer to the Romans, who thought that a spirit they called the genius loci, literally the spirit of the place, inhabited natural places and gave them their individual identity. In our practice we have chosen to speak instead of character of place, partly because it suggests something a bit solider than “sense of place” or “spirit of place” imply. In fact, the word “character,” which derives from the Greek verb meaning “to engrave,” suggests something very solid: a mark on metal.
It is interesting that the word “character” came to refer to characters in plays and novels because each of them was distinctively different. The word “spirit,” which derives from the Latin verb for “to breathe,” also points to an entity with personal identity. In fact, if we used the alternative phrase personality of place we would be using a word from the Latin (persona) for a mask of the kind used by characters in a Roman play. It is characters, imagined people, spirits, from whom we derive our concept of the vitality of places. In our everyday speech we recognize that places are like people, and we know that the individuality of a spirit is not captured by data. Yet we rely far too heavily on data in our placemaking efforts.
Even though data—about demographics, traffic patterns, buildings, land uses, economics, and human behavior—are essential to understanding a place and planning responsibly, we do often recognize that there is something more that cannot be known or captured by accumulating data. The question is whether it can be known and captured at all, or whether it is just ineffable, a je ne sais quoi, or ambiance, too slippery to pin down, and therefore all too easy to lose sight of when practical decisions have to be made. Again, given the aspiration of planning and other social disciplines to wear the mantle of science and objectivity, anything ineffable is always in danger of being treated as nonsense in a no-nonsense approach to placemaking.
Knowing and Capturing Character of Place
The first step in pinning down this elusive quality we are calling character of place is to define it. It took us almost a decade of working with the concept before we arrived at a definition that we now see as painfully simple and even self-evident. Character of place consists of the distinctive qualities of a place, of its landscape, its cultures, and its built environment, that lead people to form bonds of affection with the place and develop lasting attachments to it. Places rich in character are easy to love and hard to leave. Places bereft of character have little hold on us.
Sociologists and economists speak of social capital, which is the social and economic value created for individuals and for a community by goodwill, fellowship, and social interaction among people. In the context of a place—a town, city, rural area, or neighborhood—social capital is created by people’s common affectionate connection to the place, and to each other through goodwill, fellowship, and social interaction in the context of the place. Robert Putnam, who first described social capital, spoke of two kinds: bonding social capital, which holds a community together, and bridging social capital, which has value in connecting a community to a larger context. Character of place creates both kinds of social capital
The key to understanding character of place lies in the hearts and minds of the people whose place it is—those who live, work, and play there and have developed lasting attachments to the place. As such it is knowable in the same complex ways that other matters of the collective heart are knowable. Peter Bosselman, in his study of urban transformation, Understanding City Design and Form, even discusses how to measure what he calls a sense of belonging. He notes that “the desire to create places that can be positively identified in a manner that is shared by many” is a common goal of urban designers, who want to “create a design that produces a highly developed sense of place,” which “gives people a sense of belonging and potentially enriches the personal identity of the occupants.” The difficulty, he points out, is that “designers often consider only the physical design’s contribution to a shared sense of place, when there are many other important variables, chiefly the contribution made by the people who also use the space—their memory, expectations, or ambitions….” But because he is looking for principles that can be applied in many different places, Bosselman himself goes on to look almost entirely at the effect physical design has on people’s sense of closeness and community, and on their perception of how long it seems to take to move through spaces. The distinctive character of individual places is once again left out of the discussion.
Understanding Character of Place
How then can we know and capture the character of an individual place? By a process which is humanistic and derived from the disciplines of literary analysis. It might be called thematic review. A poetic image has been defined as “a vortex into which and out of which and through which meanings are constantly flowing.” In our experience the history and present experience of a place, when looked at both closely and with an open mind and heart, will yield themes that are dense and active clusters of meaning.
When they are of central importance, place-themes illuminate and connect multiple experiences. They provide both intellectual and powerfully emotional insights. They are often linked to great movements of history and to the shape of things in a larger community than the place they originate. And the royal road to recognizing place-themes is paying close attention to the narratives of a place, to the stories that have been told about it over time and that are being told about it every day by the people who know it best.
Places are complex systems. A system is two or more elements acting together for a purpose. A complex system is one in which causation is not linear but mutual—everything influences everything else. The key that unlocks how complex systems work is pattern recognition. Deriving place themes from the narratives of a place is an exercise in pattern recognition. In this report we will identify some of the most important patterns that animate this extraordinary neighborhood, and illuminate people’s relationship to its landscape, cultures, and built environment across the generations, and to explore some of their implications for the process of revitalizing, and realizing the potential of, this place.
It is a peculiarity of this discipline that it inevitably produces insights which, once clearly articulated, can seem obvious and inevitable. Artists and designers sometimes complain that some of their best work, when completed, has an air of inevitability that allows it to pass unremarked. But this is more than that general condition. The insights yielded by this discipline are by definition drawn from the common consciousness, from the hearts and minds of the people who know and love a place. Once articulated, they will frequently seem to have always been known—and similar insights will often readily be found in pre-existing materials. Yet it is, in our experience, almost never the case that the implications of those insights for planning, policy-making, and development have been previously recognized and followed through; indeed all too often they fall by the wayside even after having been clearly described. Freud said of himself that “I have been fated to discover the obvious: that children have sexual feelings, which every nursemaid knows, and that night dreams are as wishful as daydreams.” We would characterize the results of our methods for understanding places with the words of the poet T.S. Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
The thematic insights this discipline yields, and the practical implications of those insights, will of course be imperfectly realized and subject to further inquiry and discussion. They represent our honest best attempt to understand what many others have an equal or greater right to interpret. We present them not as finalities but as the stimulus to an ongoing process of discussion and creation.
A final word on social capital. It is a virtue to exercise wise stewardship of our capital resources. To squander them is a dangerous waste. If we are careless with our economic capital, we will fail to prosper. If we are heedless of our human capital, by failing to educate our people or by failing to use their skills, we will fail to prosper. And increasingly we know that, and try to avoid that error. But we are routinely careless of social capital, and especially of the fundamental value of places imbued with character and embodying the shared values, hopes, and even fears of a community. Is it any wonder that we find it difficult to improve places, find them stubbornly resistant to positive change? We are squandering their social capital, destroying or at least failing to build on their foundation as distinctive places. The goal of our work is to begin to set that right.