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Understanding Our Collective Sense of Place

Liesel Fenner

Modernist plazas. Those large vast expanses of concrete often in the heart of a city’s downtown, perhaps lined with an allée of trees, a modernist sculpture, and a water feature.

I have fond memories of spaces like these – running as a child as fast as I could from one end to the other then looking up at skyscrapers that seemed to touch the sky. Wind, air, city smells, all combined to inform of my earliest aesthetic preferences and my professional career in landscape architecture and public art.

Many examples of these plazas include: Boston City Hall, the Christian Science Church in Boston, and Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco are significant places designed by some of the twentieth-century’s most outstanding designers – Hideo Sasaki and Lawrence Halprin to name a few.

Place is personal. Understanding what informed our earliest memories of spaces helps us understand our preferences in creating new places in conversation with community – people who have all had different life experiences and ideas of what define place.

My liking of modernist plazas is an opinion probably in the minority today. Many deride these spaces as cold, impersonal, inconducive to bringing people together – this often due to a lack of programming.

Like much of our urban infrastructure, these plazas are also in poor shape due to lack of maintenance. Trees have died and been removed leaving square blocks of dirt, bricks, and concrete are cracking with patchwork repairs creating a heel-catching minefield for female pedestrians especially.

The other downside of modernist plazas is that these spaces destroyed places. Neighborhoods like Boston’s West End was a thriving downtown core with a history dating back prior to English settlement. Modernism’s urban renewal ‘sweep’ throughout major cities of the United States was funded through huge federal HUD grants, generating thousands of jobs, as well as establishing an urban design framework now largely outmoded, a scar in urban planning history books.

Today, many former modernist plazas have been redesigned or are undergoing redevelopment.

While urban renewal never consulted the individuals who lived and worked in these spaces, today’s urban design best practices include community input meetings, often mandated by law. These processes vary widely in practice from city to city. Expert facilitation, time, financial resources, and most of all, creativity are key factors in creating successful spaces.

I will purposefully refrain from stating that community input processes create successful places. Place is time-based, not an idea for a grant, a beautiful illustration of what’s to come, or a slick new marketing campaign by a developer.

The over-quoted “if you build it they will come” has been proven an empty slogan with so many failed urban redesign attempts at urban triage. So many additional factors must be addressed to create a successful place. No one single solution ensures success.

I admit, I don’t giddily run through modernist plazas anymore, but I do like to observe how people use and are affected by public space.

This Blog Salon is an opportunity to discuss place.

Please comment and share your examples of your favorite places.

Why are they important to you and are they considered successful in your community? Check back in and see what others have shared.

Let’s collectively create a place in this, public (cyber) space.

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