The Importance of Place

I get this question a lot: what is your favorite building? Seems like a reasonable question, given my education in historic preservation, and my affinity for architecture. So, I guess that’s why people are surprised when I don’t really have a favorite building. Two reasons for this:

(1) I tend to be more attracted to vernacular, ordinary buildings than remarkable architectural monuments and there are many great examples of lovely, albeit “simple” buildings, I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite

(2) to me, “preservation” is more about neighborhoods – or a collection of buildings – than it is about any one particular structure.

For instance, I love the Basilica of St. Mary, and support its continued preservation, but when I worry about preservation in Minneapolis, I worry about LynLake, Eat Street, and St. Anthony Main – and other quaint urban areas, composed of small unassuming buildings which, individually, may not hold historic value, but collectively create a unique neighborhood, a unique “sense of place”. I just love that phrase. Sense of place gives me a feeling of warmth – it’s somewhere I want to be, it’s cobble stone streets, sidewalk cafes, rooftop patios, small artisan shops with smiling passers-by walking or bicycling to their destination. Its laughter, vibrant conversations and soft summer breeze as I sip on some new seasonal beer flavor. This version of “sense of place” is mine, it doesn’t have to be yours – that is what is great about a sense of place, it can be something different for everyone who experiences it – all that is important is that it exists.

Sonny’s Ice Cream in LynLake has a great “sense of place” in it’s little bistro alleyway

What is placemaking?

The common thread of neighborhoods that have unique identities is they were developed with people in mind – either intentionally or not. People are not complicated; for the most part we can predict what they will do in public spaces. Where they will sit, what time they will arrive, how long they will stay and so on. Problems arise in city design when the focus is not on people who inhabit it but instead is shifted to things such as; accommodating cars, constructing impractical plazas or buildings just for design’s sake, or cutting corners to reduce upfront costs. This is when we create stale, generic cities which lack unique character that makes them special. In response a new trend in urban planning has begun to take hold, referred to as “place based development” and “placemaking” – are you starting to sense the theme? The point is, let’s be intentional in the way we create places, let’s make them for people to enjoy and the result will not only benefit those who visit or live in these places but it will boost the economy and support the environment.

Placemaking is happening all around us these days. You’ve probably experienced some type of intentional placemaking initiative, but you’ve definitely been exposed to unintentional placemaking if you’ve ever been somewhere and thought, “huh, this neighborhood is kinda neat”. This concept casts a wide net and is meant to include anything that makes a place special. I intend to do a series of blog post outlining how placemaking impacts city life. Hopefully this will raise your awareness, and then you’ll feel more inclined to support such initiatives – maybe get involved and develop some of your own within your community.

Tactical Urbanism

A Minneapolis Parklet along Hennepin Avenue last Summer

Now that you know about placemaking and place-based development, you’re nearly an expert on the topic. One more term you’ll hear thrown around is tactical urbanism.  It sounds pretty fancy, maybe even a little dangerous, right? Essentially, tactical urbanism is an example of a placemaking initiative – one that is temporary, usually low cost, and allows a community to test-drive something before committing to expensive alterations. Examples of tactical urbanism can be seen around the Twin Cities. The series of Parklets spread around Minneapolis, Open Streets events, the make-over of Pedro Park in St. Paul to name a few (that I have pictures of – ha!). Tactical urbanism has been successful in illustrating to city leaders, that if you build it with people in mind, people will come.

Pedro Park in St. Paul designed by Urban Flower Field

View of Open Streets – Lyndale from LynLake Brewery’s rooftop earlier this summer

So, now that you’re a placemaking expert – let’s start talking specifics. Look forward to some future posts about my favorite placemaking initiatives. In the meantime, I want to hear about yours! What have you seen on the streets of your community that you loved? What would you like to see? How do you feel about placemaking and tactical urbanism?

View of the stage at this year’s Rock the Garden music festival. Events like this add to a city’s sense of place.

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Place

  1. I love this. Minnesota’s sense of place is one of the reasons I love it so much. It’s not the balmiest state in the country, or the most breathtaking or even the prettiest, but it has a beauty that belongs to it alone. I hope you keep up with the blogging, I really enjoyed the posts about the tension/relationship between preservation and development. Not something I’d thought seriously about before.

    1. Thank you so much for reading Christina! I’ve been slacking lately on posts – just started a new job and am still settling in – but I do intend to continue to write post. I’ve really enjoyed looking at yours as well! You and I share a lot of similar music taste, we’re so lucky to have so many great local artists! Thanks for helping to showcase this great state! I look forward to keeping up with your blog 🙂

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