Why Place Matters

Boats on the Charles

Given my background, my growing interest in urbanism and place-making (a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces) may come across as a bit unusual, for I am a product of the suburbs. Like many my age, I grew up on a wide single-lane street capped by a cul-de-sac, the epitome of suburban design. It took about thirty-five minutes for our family to reach downtown Chattanooga, naturally arriving via velvety-purple mini-van. In addition to being raised distinctly suburban, I grew up loving and appreciating the outdoors. Escaping to the wilderness has always been a key to remaining sane and healthy. For many people, the city and life in the outdoors are mutually exclusive; you can’t have one and the other. For a long time, I agreed. So, how did I stumble upon this interest in great cities?

On the first day of Intermediate Microeconomics, Dr. Thorton explained to the class how this course was not designed necessarily to inform, but to challenge the way we think. He said after the course we would never see our world in the same light, and he was right. Studying economics introduced me to a new way of considering my universe. It taught me that everything and everyone in this world is connected in one way or another. I discovered we can’t solve problems in a vacuum, and we won’t solve problems alone. Now when I walk through my own city, I notice the connections: the way our history connects with our future, the way our homes connect with our workspaces, and the way our personal habits affect the lives of our neighbors.

After graduation, I began to investigate another peculiarity along the same lines. I began to notice the general lack of interest in community activity in my generation. For many my age (young millennials), our generation is one of the last to experience life prior to the online social platform. We remember block parties, potlucks, and reoccurring game nights. Unfortunately, many of my peers will, statistically speaking, discontinue these traditions. As noted in a recent New York Times article, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of hours per day 15- to 24-year-olds spent attending or hosting social events on weekends or holidays — the times they are most likely to go to parties — declined sharply from 2003 to 2014 to nine minutes from 15.” Though but a single statistic, it’s hard for me not to agree with the sentiment. It certainly appears many in my phase of life struggle with finding and creating community. And, it’s this idea that really directed me towards the importance of place-making.

For many reasons, millennials deem dense, walkable environments as great places to live. Indeed, it’s not surprising that the Congress for New Urbanism finds that “(w)ell-educated young adults are disproportionately found in a few metropolitan areas. Two-thirds of the nation’s 25 to 34-year-olds with a Bachelor’s degree live in the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas.” More and more students, recent graduates, and young families are seeking the urban lifestyle promised to them in their youth. As Jeff Speck thoughtfully points out in his book Walkable City,

“As a would be architect, I was particularly susceptible to the charms of Mike Brady’s self-built split-level… Now, contrast my experience growing up in the seventies with that of a child growing up in or around the nineties, watching Seinfeld, Friends… In these shows, the big city (in all cases New York) was lovingly portrayed as a largely benevolent and always interesting force…”

— Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Jeff Speck)

And so I, like many others have discovered the joy and practicality of urban living. Just this April I moved downtown for the first time in my life. Almost immediately I noticed the fruits of living in a downtown neighborhood. I enjoyed the casual acquaintances made on the street, the ability to ride across town on an errand, and the time saved through not dealing with traffic. Most benefits revealed themselves naturally. However, moving downtown also prompted some personal research in place-making. Several resources have proved tremendously informative and enlightening. Three books in particular have influenced the way I think about place: Suburban Nation, Walkable City, and Happy City. These texts have helped shaped the way I see my city in a way that I can no longer turn a corner without questioning the intention of the design.

As I’ve dug deeper, and cross-referenced sources from the books above, I’ve come to recognize three common arguments in favor of choosing and creating urban places:

  1. We’re more connected
  2. We’re more healthy
  3. We’re more happy

Harvard and Neighborhoods

This last weekend I visited Boston with a roommate to catch up with a friend from college. All three arguments in favor of choosing an urban home were addressed in the weekend.

Connectivity: When Josh and I landed at 2:30 Friday afternoon, we hit the ground running. Before returning to our Airbnb that evening, we had crossed the Boston Common, climbed up and over Beacon Hill, visited a coffee shop, walked through the Back Bay, attended a concert, drank another coffee, and eaten dinner. While Josh and I are both notorious for being quick movers, the city provided most of the opportunity for this sort of evening. In a city less connected, we would have more likely than not, driven a vehicle at some point. This alone would have cut out most of our spontaneous moves. We certainly would not have stumbled upon the free concert at Berklee, and we would have wasted time driving around looking for a restaurant. This is the point the authors of Suburban Nation share.

“Now.. the eight-hour day has once again become the ten-hour day. These two hours, once the most interesting, varried, socially productive hours of the day, have come some of the most stressful and unpleasant. They were not so bad when spent on a commuter train — at least it was possible to sleep, read the news, or do the crossword — but these activities are not possible behind the wheel… wouldn’t they weather, if given the chance, take those twelve work weeks, take the $6,000 annual cost of an inexpensive second car, and spend it all on a magnificent vacation?”

— Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream

Boston gave us time and opportunity. Great urban spaces connect us with the places and people worth seeing.

Health: The next day I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to find Drew had made it in, after several bus delays. Thankfully, he was up and ready to move the next day. It turns out that 40 degrees outside the Southeast can be really nice. We ended up spending less than two hours indoors, alternatively moving around Boston at lightning quick speed. We ended up walking a little over ten miles that day. Nothing worth bragging about, but when compared to national averages, a pretty healthy dose. In Happy City, Charles Montgomery shares that the average American office worker walks maybe a mile and a half every day. In the same chapter, Montgomery mentions how “(t)he average convert to bike commuting loses thirteen pounds in the first year.” It shouldn’t come as surprise to us that living in place that encourages movement makes us healthier. However, it’s not just physical health that reaps the benefits of natural movement. Our emotional self loves an active lifestyle. We experienced the endorphins benefited through walking and fresh air. An urban environment also allows for serendipitous encounters we might not ordinarily experience in the suburbs. Within the 48 hours I spent in Boston, I was able to strike up a conversation with a traveler on the bus, a student at the concert, and a waitress at the restaurant. “Life’s lighter, breezier relationships soothe and reassure us, specifically because of their lightness” writes Montgomery. Likewise, these relationships are essential for business and connectivity. Entire innovation districts are being built around the idea of “weak ties”, those relationships that wouldn’t happen if we weren’t sharing the same space. Whether it’s the walk to a neighbor’s home for dinner or the casual interactions with shop owners, I’m realizing the role of place in the health of my mind and body.

Happiness: One of my new favorite authors is Tim Chester. I’m just now discovering his work, and it’s brilliant. In his book, A Meal With Jesus, Chester speaks to applying a sense of generosity to our view of food: “The world is more delicious than it needs to be. We have a super-abundance of divine goodness and generosity… God’s creative joy wasn’t only for the beginning of creation, leaving us ‘eating leftovers’…We’re to treat food as a gift, not merely as fuel.” Whether or not you value the teachings of Jesus, it’s easy to see the immense options available to us for the enjoyment of food. The same can and should be applied to the places we live. So often we treat the places we live, our neighborhoods and cities, as something we must cope with and endure. Thankfully, our communities are more fluid than we might have initially perceived, and it’s to the good of our sanity to do something about it.

Boston provided a living room experience for my friends and I to catch up and enjoy one another’s presence.

I’m a novice in place-making know-how, but as I continue to discover the power of livable places, the more I feel inclined to share. This is a broad brushstroke on the subject of urban living benefits, but I’ve highlighted what has impacted my present city living. I’d encourage anyone interested in the subject to check out the books and resources linked above. To close, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Mr. Montgomery:

“(T)he meeting place, the agora, and the village square are not trivial. They are not civic decorum or merely recreational. The life of a community is incomplete without them, just as the life of the individual is weaker and sicker without face-to-face encounters with other people.”

— Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

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