Going from Nowhere to Nowhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis phrase comes from Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places. He uses it to describe train trips in suburban London where he lives. Bonnett is talking about the way in which so many places have become completely interchangeable, even in a country with much older structures than we have in the States, as well as an infrastructure that predates the car. The sameness of franchises, the many prefab objects of our world and the way zoning creates uniformity is oppressive.  And Nowhere is expanding.

In Who’s Your City Richard Florida makes a powerful critique of the “flat world” idea of Thomas Friedman’s. He talks about how, though technology has made some things possible to do from anywhere, the world has, if anything, become less flat. The world’s economy and innovation is increasingly localized to key places. Cities become specialized powerhouses. The world of finance is rooted in cities like New York and London, Silicon Valley is a magnet for technology companies and innovation, Boston and Philadelphia specialize in medical research and pharma. What we learn, discover, and the work we do depends heavily on where we are located.

If who we are depends on where we are, there’s a strong case for restraining the spread of Nowhere.

Unruly PlacesIt’s human to want to be in a place that has character. We want to be from somewhere, not Nowhere. Place might seem to be an old-fashioned concern in a more connected world, but it is fundamental to who we are as people.  Where We Want to Live by Ryan Gravel proposes studying the history of a place and using that history to give greater weight to the projects we intend to undertake. If we want to make sure our parks, trails, libraries, or any elements of the city, have resonance with the people, we have to take every opportunity to make that touch point deeply relevant to the place it’s from.

It’s possible to imagine that there’s a perfect city or street that we should model the whole world’s cities on. But that couldn’t be more counterproductive. Best practices need to be shared across cities to make them more walkable, more equitable, greener or less segregated. But when that new development is also place-specific, rooted in a city’s history or culture we will amplify its impact.

Ryan Gravel and the many people who advocated for the Atlanta Beltline project did exactly this. Their massive project for bike trails, public transit and revitalized green space was not sold through an appeal to pure logic or a summary of costs and benefits. It’s value was put into the context of getting a historic rail line back to work, and of bringing new life to Atlanta neighborhoods that were central to the civil rights movement. When communicating the benefits of the projects to citizens, interest groups and politicians their message was that much more powerful because they weren’t just promoting a great project, they were promoting a great project deeply specific to Atlanta.

The idea of going from Nowhere to Nowhere is evocative because some places are indeed being flattened. We’ve all seen cookie-cutter development replace specific and locally relevant houses, apartments, stores or community buildings. Citizens, planners and architects all must take on the work of keeping places distinct, to keep the Nowhere from spreading.

About Casey Brazeal

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