What would a world full of great places look like? How would things be different if business leaders, government officials, design professionals, and citizens in every community took the principles of Placemaking to heart, doing all they could do to create lively spots for everyone to hang out? It would mean better public spaces like parks, plazas, and streets, yes, but also congenial gathering places like art museums, bowling alleys, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes.
This new world would surely be beautiful, full of architectural splendor to catch the eye. And it would be exciting, as the streets of Omaha, Osaka, Oslo and everywhere in between bustled with people celebrating the newfound joys of public life. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing.
Cars would no longer rule the road, since bikes and trains and buses and our two feet would usually take us where we wanted to go. Acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, playing fields, amusement parks and affordable housing. Malls and business districts would gradually morph from cathedrals of shopping into 21st Century town squares that inspire all sorts of activities. Our cities would be greener, and more friendly. Our suburbs would be livelier, and more friendly. Our small towns robust, and more friendly.
In short, the world would be a lot more interesting. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to strident activists, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more vitality and sense of festivity in their town or neighborhood.
But the biggest change we’ll see if place became the organizing principle of our social, economic, and cultural life would not be out in the world, but in our own hearts and minds. These days we are exposed almost continually to uninspiring and often bleak surroundings, which makes us retreat a bit into ourselves as a defensive posture. Such dull places already make it tougher for us to connect with people, and our subconscious turning away from this soulless onslaught disconnects us even further. It fuels a mood of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that is pervasive across modern society.
James Howard Kunstler, author of the Geography of Nowhere and other savvy critiques of the contemporary American landscape, summed up the situation brilliantly a few years back in a speech at a planning conference, when he thundered, “It matters that our cities are primarily auto storage depots. It matters that our junior high schools look like insecticide factories. It matters that our libraries look like beverage distribution warehouses. It matters that the best hotel in town looks like a minimum security prison.” To live and work and walk among such surroundings, he said, is a form of spiritual degradation. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when so much of what you see on a typical day is so unrelentingly drab.
Creating great places in our communities—not necessarily fancy projects but just comfortable spots where you feel welcome hanging out—could work wonders at bringing us out of our shells. More places that nourish social encounters or offer us the opportunity for a moment of reflection would raise our spirits in ways that seem unimaginable now. A great public place can play a role like that of a dear friend, helping us calm down, lighten up, see the bright side, or smell the roses.
There’s a whole world out there ready to enjoy great places. All we need to do is start talking about them and rolling up our sleeves to create them—on your block, in your town, across the country and around the globe.