Monday, January 6, 2014

Non-places, places of cloning, and virtual places

(shopping mall, from

One of the major themes in writing about places is variously called "the end of place," "non-places," and "placelessness." Beginning with Edward Relph in the 1970s, some observers have noted that as the world has gotten smaller, places have become less distinctive. "Supermodernity" (Marc Augé's word for the world we're living in) means:
  • the ease of transportation and communication means we're often more involved in getting from one location to another, and/or talking across distance, than in being in any one place;
  • the surge in home construction in America that followed World War II has led to housing and area templates that are relatively inexpensive to build and easy to replicate; and
  • as we move more, and travel more, we crave the comfort of familiar sights.
So we get interstate highways, airports, shopping malls, motels, subdivisions and office parks that are virtually indistinguishable, and a world full of McDonald's, Starbucks', Targets, and USA Todays that offer uniform, predictable menu items, store layouts and news no matter where we are. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago McDonald's ran a commercial featuring a little girl whose family moved far away. She looked terrified, until they stopped at McDonald's, and by gum, there was Ronald, and he looked pretty much the same as he had in her old hometown, and so everything was going to be OK.

I can relate to the girl's feeling. After I graduated from college, I moved 950 miles to take a job in a small Louisiana town. The job was not, as they say, a "good fit," and for that and other reasons I spent that summer in an ongoing state of homesickness. One weekend I went to visit a friend in eastern Texas. When we went to the mall in his town, it was the first time I'd been in a mall since I'd moved to the South, and... it looked and felt very very much like the mall I'd left! For an hour or so, then, I was "home."

Much as I understand  homesickness and yearning for comfortable familiarity, though, the flipside is that if you're always homesick for someplace you are not, you'll inevitably miss the reality of the place you are. And if towns design themselves just like every other place is designing itself, they'll wind up being no place.

The Brazilian architect Lineu Castello calls buildings that look like they've been ordered from a catalog "places of cloning." He's not ready to condemn them outright, though. Castello looks for their ability to integrate into the existing cityscape in ways the enhance human activity there. If they add to the liveliness they are OK. If they stand out awkwardly, and inhibit rather than facilitate human activity, then no matter how well-built and -designed they are very costly mistakes.

I'm no expert, but I'd call the Great America Building in downtown Cedar Rapids an example of successful integration. As an office building it's pretty generic, but it creates a plaza by the river that
(Great America Building courtyard, from Ryan Companies website)
makes for an effective gathering place--there was quite a group there for the fireworks last summer, for instance--and Cedar River Trail entrance. You can easily walk to, by, or around the building. The new public library is also an effective building, and less generic.

On the other hand, I'm not crazy about the rebuilt hotel and convention center. It's massive, and is hard to walk by. It imposes itself on the block rather than blending in.
I'd say the same about the new federal courthouse, and have my worries about the casino when it arrives in a year or so.

The same logic applies to designing whole neighborhoods. I can't say I was thrilled to read in today's Cedar Rapids Gazette that the city is planning to use the Highway 100 expansion as a lever for "geographic growth," and has annexed 63 acres of rural land northwest of the city where developers want to develop. I'm not sure there's a market for more sprawl, but developing is their business not mine, so there probably is. But Cedar Rapids is hardly densely-populated as it is, and Linn County hardly suffers from an excess of open land. Really, though, to stretch Lineu Castello's logic, how we sprawl matters more than that we're sprawling. If the new development is denser than Bowman
Woods or Granite Ridge or Pioneer Avenue subdivisions at other edges of town, and if there are places to work and shop within walkable distance of where people live, then we'll have added a real live neighborhood. If we're going with a large lot subdivision full of big house clones, we'll have added another non-place to a town that already has plenty of them.

Finally, how do virtual places fit into the place/non-place classification? They're not just for teenage geeks anymore! My friend Niles Ross made sure I saw a blog post from the Washington Post on the
Nao, a robot that promises to provide social connections for the homebound elderly. Your body might not permit you to get out and around, but you can send your Nao out to hobnob. Niles, in what I might characterize as high dudgeon, points out that in a sprawled town the homebound are far from anywhere that people congregate; that a cracked sidewalk perilous for a frail elderly person is likely to be equally perilous for a little robot; and that being homebound is often as much a matter of city design as it is a person's physical condition. I agree.

Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (Verso, 2nd ed,
Lineu Castello, Rethinking the Meaning of Place: Conceiving Place in Architecture-Urbanism (Ashgate, 2010)
Matt McFarland, "Turning Robots into Surrogates for Senior Citizens," Innovations, 31 December 2013,
Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness (Pion, 1976)
Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Plans for Growth, Maximizing 'Pull Factor,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 5 January 2014, 1A, 7A,
Rick Smith, "C.R. Takes on 2 Annexations," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 January 2014, 1A, 8A

P.S. The Atlantic Cities blog reports that the amount of paved roads in the United States hasn't changed appreciably since 2005 (see Eric Jaffe, "Have We Reached Peak Road?," Atlantic Cities, 6 January 2014, Whether this is a blip or a bend in the curve remains to be seen, of course, but it's possible other locales no longer share our urge for "geographic growth."

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