Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sense of Place - Is it Really a Thing?

According to us boomers, we’ve invented everything. Well, if we didn’t invent it we popularized it. Now, following the natural progression of the generations, the millenials are thinking they invented everything. Only some of what we (boomers and millenials alike) invented may not be real. There’s a long list of physical, mental and social maladies unverified social or natural science. Or in the words of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, “is that really a thing?” So is sense of place ‘really a thing?’

Along with conservation types, artists, authors, architects, city planners, public health professionals and others are interested in Place. The academics have gotten hold of the topic and written extensively on any of a number of arcane aspects of it. I’m sure there are specialized journals on the topic. I haven’t started wading through all that, but eventually I should. For now, I’d rather naively explore the topic. I might end up in a blind alley or might end up either re-inventing the wheel or treading a path that’s been closed off, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take. I’d like to wander around a bit to discover the territory rather than following someone else’s map. Eventually I’ll need the map, just not quite yet. Besides, once I get lost, then I’ll be ready to ask for help out (no comments from my field students needed here). Here’s what I’ve been thinking lately about where the sense of place comes from, unaided by the structures of the academy.

Does sense of place come from a desire to resist the inexorable growth of suburban development and its homogenizing influence? When we talk of a lack of a sense of place, we may be referring to a sprawling suburb that looks just like every other sprawling suburb. So that may be it.

Is sense of place in the news now because economic planners want to capitalize on it? Due to technology, more people can choose where they live rather than having to go to where the job physically is. Communities that want to attract these new economy workers tout their places. That may account for the growing attention to sense of place.

Is sense of place on our minds now because we are able think of the land differently, as something to appreciate, not something to master? It’s easier to appreciate a woodland if your livelihood doesn’t depend directly on the board feet of lumber it can produce. As more of us get farther away from land-based economies, the land is increasingly seen as resource for more than just extracting commodities. The history of organized conservation movements throughout the less-settled quarters show that appreciation of place vs. economic exploitation is not new. Conservationists in the late 1800s and early 1900s were seen as outsiders who could afford their romantic notions but didn’t understand ‘economic reality.’ The sagebrush rebellion echoed the same sentiments in the 1970s. In our region, a new mine and a new wood technology plant are replowing that same ground. Money now or greater but less tangible value later?

Is sense of place a desire to return to something we used to have, when more of us were tied closer to the land? I was fortunate Maybe, but not in the same way. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to conversations extensively with my grandparents and grandparents-in-law, who were born in the late 19th century. And from what I could tell, they had a sense of place, but it was not today’s sense of place.

They were connected to the land and its seasons. But much of that connection was around how to make a living off the place in which they were born. Some years ago, I was traveling with various family members, including one of the grandmas, through what to me was absolutely gorgeous country -- a wide sweeping river valley in the northern Great Plains. When I commented on the sheer beauty of the landscape, that grandma replied, ‘I wouldn’t give anything for it, the land doesn’t look like you could grow anything on it at all.’ Not the same as my perspectrive, but I could understood where that perspective came from.

My grandparents had a strong sense of place, but not in those words. I heard them speak thoughtfully of the land and its natural history and their history. As far as I know, my grandparents didn’t read Wallace Stegner, one of the first writers of place, but they knew their place. They knew of its beauty, and of its challenges. They were attuned to its natural cycles. Those that lived on the family place had an even stronger tie. Sense of place runs deep if you’re living in where your forebearers lived and where they are buried.

I don’t think what we mean now by sense of place is quite the same. I don’t think we’re entirely trying to recapture something we used to have and lost. So, yes, sense of place really is a thing. The boomers didn’t invent it, nor did the millenials but it is a new thing. What we now mean by sense of place is an evolution of our natural desires to be connected to each other and our environment, whether that’s a more natural or more built environment.

Now I am curious to know how my take on it compares that of the academics.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Some random relative merits

Our area is partly remote, partly connected. We're a small town, but large enough for most services. If you're working on a plumbing project and need to make that 4th trip to the hardware store, it's not all that far away.

And we are right across the river from a larger town of almost 70,000 people. But crossing the border is so inconvenient that it makes it seem much farther away.

We're not on the way to anywhere else in the US, so we don't get people just passing through. The advantage is that people have to want to come this way. A disadvantage is that we don't, say, get performers stopping in to play for us while they're in the area anyway. I lived in one town which was about half way between two larger venues and we did get acts that way.

We're a small town and like other small towns, there is a tradition among some of the retailers and service providers of sometimes having to close up shop to attend to other important personal matters. I actually like that. I don't find it annoying. I know that if there's a day where the shop is supposed to stay open late, it never hurts to call ahead and save a trip in case they did have to close early. I recently found myself calling a business in a larger town to make sure they were really open that evening. The person at that business replied, 'yes, as we state in our hours, we are open until 7 on Thursdays' as if to say 'of course, why wouldn't we be open if we say we are open?'

One other random thought: Living near the shores of Lake Superior makes it easy to find our place on a map, even a small scale (i.e., broad range) map. We were visiting a location away from lakes or other natural geographic features. We were watching the weather report from the local TV station. The weather map was entirely without any distinguishing features. Just a big blank space other than human-made lines (i.e., roads and county lines). Someone in our group said to no one in particular 'how would someone who lives here know where they are on that map, there's nothing to go by.'

Notable natural geographic reference points on a map may not play a large part in people's opinion of their place, but it is kind of fun to be able to point to a map and easily find where you live. We'll take what we can get for advantages.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's a place where they make...

Can local businesses help define a sense of place?
Some examples come to mind:
Austin, Iowa (home of Hormel Foods and willing to call itself SpamTown, but Spam is not actually manufactured there);
Battle Creek Michigan (home of Kellogs and Post Cereals, also known as Cereal Town USA);
Hershey, Pennsylvania (I don't need to say what's made there);
we could go on and on with famous companies and their home towns.
Regions are known by clusters of industries. Our obvious example is Detroit.
A recent Chrysler commercial (I think it was one of the superbowl commercials) seems to say about Detroit 'sure it's a gritty city (one line in the ad states "and it's certainly no one's Emerald City") but it's where we make cars.' Not sure I quite get the point of the ad.
Grand Rapids area is known as 'where they make furniture' with Steelcase and Herman Miller and many others in the area.

These are the kind of factoids we learned in US Geography back in grade school.

Thinking more about smaller, local-scale examples of 'it's where they make...' brings to mind places such as:
Zeeland, Michigan can now be known as the place where they make the backup cameras you see in the rear view mirrors;
Pinconning, Michigan (lot's of cheese gets made there and there's a nice cheese shop I stop in when I'm passing through -- 10 year aged cheddar is quite tasty!;)
Conner Floors in the western UP makes the flooring for NBA and NCAA tournaments as well as the permanent floors for several bball arenas;
Again, we could go on and on. These are fun products towns routinely use as points of pride. Places will also build on their existing appeal for labeling products. Who doesn't get a warm fuzzy feeling from "Vermont Made." "Made with Kansas Sunshine" may not engender the same warm fuzzy feeling in everyone. Up here, "UP Made" might work better than "Genuine Yooper" but maybe the latter would have more funk appea.

I can't help but think that the appeal doesn't work as well when the products aren't so fun. "It's where they take the tops off of mountains to provide the country with cheap coal" doesn't have quite the same type of appeal.

How has your area built on what it's known for or conversely built on it's fame to promote what's made there?

Friday, March 18, 2011

springtime events

Spring is on its way. A thunderstorm yesterday accelerated the melting of the snowpack. The snow buntings have moved through. A red poll was at the feeder the other day. The chickadees have been making their spring calls for several weeks(are they saying cheeseburger? As a statistician, I think they are saying p-value). Not much ice to break in the St. Marys River but the ice breaking is going on throughout the system and the locks are scheduled to open next week.

The most unique event of spring, though, may be Lake Superior State University's Annual Snowman Burning. At noon today, officials set fire to a snowman effigy just as they have every year going back 41 years. A metal mesh form in the shape of a snowman is stuffed with shredded office paper and lit on the Friday closest to the first day of spring. Participants read poetry and engage in other commemorative activities. There's a page on facebook for it. Search for snowman burning.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Old Historical Hotels

Sometimes as we've toured around the country we have stayed in old historic hotels. I can think of three or four that were at one time elegant hotels and then got a bit rough around the edges. It was fun imagining the former glory and it was fun staying in them for relatively inexpensive prices. Some have closed, some have been restored (but of course now have to charge a lot more). One was in Hot Springs South Dakota, one was in Lexington Kentucky, one was the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park Colorado. The Stanley had some difficulty finding financing for needed renovations. I think that since we stayed there, it got its funding and is now a luxury destination.

Other historic hotels have been maintained all along. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island comes to mind. We were recently in central Indiana and learned of (but did not have a chance to visit) the French Lick area and it's history as a destination then subsequent decline and more recent restoration. It seems one of the historic hotels there icludes a casino, which likely helped fund the restoration.

Out west, the old lodges at the national parks have remained popular destinations, despite the level of maintenance which can be spotty. Regardless of some deferred maintenance, they're still great places to stay. Old Faithful Lodge is a favorite or ours.

Maybe what makes some of these historic hotels special is that so many cool hotels burned in the old days when town fires were common (more open flames for lighting and heating, and less fire fighting prevention and fire fighting technology). Here in the Sault there was a large hotel with a classic extensive porch, but it burned to the ground. Too bad. Maybe it could now have been a great historically themed destination.

It must be tough to make a go of it as an old historic hotel. It's so much easier to be a national chain on the freeway interchange. I admit that I've stayed in more of them as we travel across the country, but if we have an opportunity, we'll look for an old hotel with more character and especially if it isn't a luxury hotel. Do the luxury hotels reflect the local scene or are they isolated enclaves?

Monday, March 14, 2011

placemaking and conservation

"The Fight for the Bay" by Naval Academy Political Science Professor Howard Ernst is a provocative, short book in which the author calls for a more hard hitting approach for environmental protection for the Chesapeake Bay. He contends that the cooperative, collaborative, voluntary, stakeholder-based approach hasn't worked and what is needed is a legal/regulatory/enforcement-based approach not only in the Chesapeake Bay but in other locales. At only 113 pages, it's a quick read that will make you think through the various approaches to environmental protection. But that's not the theme of this post.

One section of the book includes contributed essays from activists in the Chesapeake Bay area. One of these essays is by Anne Pearson in which she describes how establishing sense of place (although she didn't use that specific term) helped residents come together to define the kind of place they wanted (a "heritage landscape"), which in turn directed land use planning discussions which in turn set up environmental protection for that area of the bay. It was not a straight path, there were obstacles the process had to overcome. She presents a good case study on how the community came together to "agree on how to protect the essentials of place, while at the same time allowing beneficial change to occur." The placemaking activity built community as well as protecting the place.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

ain't got no soul

To paraphrase a rock and roll song, a part of a city I visited recently ain't got no soul.
I'm sure the big box strip malls really didn't stretch on for miles in every direction, it just seemed that way. Every national brand of big box retailer was there. What wasn't there was any kind of visual appeal or sense of place. It really was just a monotony of parking lots, six-lane roads and big boxes that all looked alike. The exact opposite of a special place. I'll take our quirky town anytime.

I'm not a purist. I do sometimes shop at the big box stores in Gaylord or Petoskey or Traverse City for things we cannot get from our local retailers. But there they don't appear to go on for miles and miles. Even in the suburbs of big cities, they don't seem quite as monotonous as it did in this particular town. Then I thought 'maybe it's a sacrifice area.'

What I mean by a sacrifice area is an area turned over to a particular use and that use is concentrated in that area to keep it just in one spot. For example, dirt bikes are not appropriate every where in the forest. There are those who think they are not appropriate anywhere in the forest, but dirt bike users pay taxes and rather than close them out entirely -- or worse, driving them to practice their activities surreptitiously -- perhaps we can find a spot in the forest in which dirt bikes are tolerable. By saying to the dirt bike users 'here's somewhere you can pursue your sport, please do it there but only there,' maybe we can bring dirt bikers into the fold of recognized stakeholders that abide by the decision making process.

People (including me, sometimes) shop at big box stores. Should we have a sacrifice area to that pursuit? Hmmm...no, I don't think so. Let's work with the big box interests to somehow work them into a place. There are stories of even the biggest of the big boxes or the most bland of the blandest national fast food chains being worked into the local scene. They're not doing us a favor by locating their store in our community. We're doing them a favor of working with them so that they can come to our community and make money.

My visit to this remaining un-named town was not completey without merit. Nestled in amongst the big boxes was a local Mexican restaurant. For all I love about where I live, access to Mexican restaurants isn't part of it. I had excellent, inexpensive tacos carne asada in a restaurant that wasn't done up to look like a Mexican restaurant. It was a Mexican restaurant.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

a sure sign of spring

One of the unique features of our small town is that we still have walk-up/drive-up eateries that close for the winter. Kind of charming. So a sure sign of spring is when they begin to re-open for the season. Had lunch today from one of the faves -- West Pier Drive-In. They have excellent (and very large) burgers and great onion rings. I haven't been training to eat that much so only got the bacon cheese burger (which I always split with a special person). Later in the season, when we've worked up to it, we'll get a burger and onion rings.

Following the reasoning of the previous post, West Pier Drive-In makes the west pier a multi-purpose destination. Watch the boats approach the locks and get a nice burger. And across town there's Clyde's Drive-In. That's a real multipurpose destination for spring, summer and fall since it's at the Sugar Island Ferry Dock at Rotary Park. Watch the boats, eat at Clyde's, play at Rotary Park, go fishing, enjoy paddle sports in-between the islands.

Speaking of non-chain restaurants, our town has several food entrepreneurs. In fact, other than fast food, there's only one national chain of casual dining. The rest are locally owned, some of which buy local foods as available. For example, Clyde's and Frank's Place sell bison burgers from Circle K, a local bison operation. Go entrepreneurs!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Nice Placemaking Meeting

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the "Placemaking Summit" sponsored by Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. More than 200 municipal and county officials from NW Lower Michigan attended. It was a great conference. Key note speakers included Fred Kent, President of Project for Public Spaces (www.pps.org). Sessions covered the role of festivals, way finding for towns and regional corridors, tactics for placemaking, case studies, role of placemaking in economic development and more.

My biggest take home message was that places need to have multiple activities. PPS calls it "layering," adding amenities to facilitate many activities. In fact, they say that a place should support 10 different activities in which people can engage with each other. One example is that a dog park shouldn't be just a fenced in area for dogs to run off-leash, it should support interactions between the dogs' humans by providing play space for the kids, long benches that the dogs' humans can sit together, maybe even an ice cream stand. (The ten activities don't have to be big activities, reading the paper (well, OK, your kindle), conversing, people-watching, eating, etc. are all activities that draw people to a place and thus draw more people to the place.

That makes me realize that as we work to promote, say, rec trails, we should look about how we can enhance people interacting with each other or other compatible activities.

Another take home message was that buildings need to open up to the spaces around them. Our new city hall in the old fed building is practically right on the river, which is the very symbol of our town. We need to be sure that the city hall is connected as a space to the river. Otherwise, it may as well be on the south side of town?