Informing Excellence (Not Imitation)

The flurry of social media discussions sparked by my recent series on lessons from great cities has made it apparent that a few things aren’t clear. When I write about a particular square in some inspiring place, I’m hoping you won’t take away from it that we should stamp 5-story buildings on 50-yard wide squares all across the landscape. But rather I’m reaffirming that a sense of enclosure can indeed provide a feeling of comfort and satisfaction. You’ll know, if you’re a frequent PlaceShakers reader, that this sense of enclosure is illegal across much of North America because of auto-centric land use laws that require wide, fast roads.

While we often encourage form-based codes or other interventions to reverse these trends and increase livability, the number one way to fail at legalizing great places is failing to articulate a collective local vision. Local is the key word here. Regardless of how many global, national, or regional placemaking principles we understand, unless we take the time to extract the local knowledge about culture, custom and climate from the resident experts — the locals themselves — then we have little chance of making a meaningful and context-supportive difference locally.

That being said, those placemaking principles are somewhat similar to mixing paints or selecting brushes for an artist. It doesn’t matter whether I’m trying to paint hyperrealism or nonrepresentational abstract art, the color theory is still a guiding principle that I must know in order to be successful. In the same vein, unless we have a working knowledge of human placemaking principles, it’s hard to fully empower local placeshakers with the tools required to achieve their collective local vision or consensus plan.

This reminds me of what a fellow urbanist and friend, Jason Miller, recently said on his mayoral platform. “It’s common for me to hit the road and visit other towns to see what they’re doing to revitalize their economies. The purpose of these visits is not simply to gather ideas to try in Concrete (Miller’s town), but to gather principles that can be scaled to suit Concrete. Last year I visited Dayton, Washington, and Independence, Oregon, gaining invaluable new knowledge in community revitalization. Knowledge Concrete needs!”

Victoria Beach's lessons abound. Not as a template to be copied but as a source of guidance and inspiration. Click for larger view.

Victoria Beach’s lessons abound. Not as a template to be copied but as a source of guidance and inspiration. Click for larger view.

So last week when I wrote about the elegant plan of Victoria Beach that was executed as dirt streets, I wasn’t suggesting that we return our new streets to dirt. Just that we learn from our ancestors what it means to be frugal and inventive. What it means to be accessible and attainable.

Leveraging our legacy of human placemaking experience for any particular place — be it intensely urban, remotely rural, or somewhere in between — is the true challenge of our efforts.

Hazel Borys

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  1. [...] The flurry of social media discussions sparked by my recent series on lessons from great cities has made it apparent that a few things aren’t clear. When I write about a particular square in some i…  [...]

  2. [...] grid of dirt roads that are tremendously kid-friendly. I’ve been blogging about the plan here and here, although am really just beginning to scratch the [...]

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