Making a Good Place to Live

The culture of good place-making, like the culture of farming, or
agriculture, is a body of knowledge and acquired skills.  It is not bred
in the bone, and if it is not transmitted from one generation to
the next, it is lost. 113

There is a main road–not Main Street–that grew out of our small town, much like roads spawned in every town.  We call it “the Strip”.  Fast food restaurants, gas stations, box stores, service-oriented businesses and a few banks populate two miles of avenue.  Buildings are plopped at random angles to the road, all out of joint with their neighbors; instead of continuity there is discord, and most structures are simply ugly

I appreciated reading The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape because it helped me answer why an ugly urban/suburban landscape is so typical, so, so common.  The quick answer is a lack of connectedness, a lack of respect for the surroundings, a premium on convenience and a strong shot of individualism.

The organic wholeness of the small town was a result of common, everyday attention to details, of intimate care for things intimately used.  The discipline of its physical order was based not on uniformity for its own sake, but on a consciousness of, and respect for, what was going on next door.  Such awareness and respect were not viewed as a threat to individual identity but as necessary for the production of amenity, charm, and beauty.  These concepts are now absent from our civilization.  We have become accustomed to living in places where nothing relates to anything else, where disorder, unconsciousness, and the absence of respect reign unchecked. 185

Cars, televisions and the resulting cultural decay get a scathing condemnation. So do faux front porches and front garages.

The main problem with [the suburban sub-division] was that it dispensed with all the traditional connections and continuities of community life, and replaced them with little more than cars and television. 105
The least understood cost [of long commutes]–although probably the most keenly felt–has been the sacrifice of a sense of place: the idea that people and things exist in some sort of continuity, that we belong to the world physically and chronologically, and that we know where we are. 118

Nor do shopping malls escape prophetic wrath.  Kunstler points out that a vacuum of human contact and conversation led to the phenomenon of shopping malls.  Malls are little islands isolated from the community.  And if your dream vacation destination is Disney World (she rolls her eyes), be prepared to be disabused of some of your jolly ideas. merchandising gimmick called the shopping mall…offering a synthetic privatized substitute for every Main Street in America. 108

The decay of property is the physical expression of everything the town has lost spiritually while the American economy “grew” and the nation devised a national lifestyle based on cars, cheap oil and recreational shopping. 184

Neighborhoods in Maine seem to me the best examples of good place-making.  New construction is architecturally designed to fit with the older homes; there are “greens” and “squares”–shared public spaces–built into many new subdivisions.   

This book is a diagnostic tool, not a solution manual.  The tone is quite pessimistic.  But if you have an interest in architecture, in sociology or cultural trends, you may find–like I did–much to ponder.

I just can’t stop myself.  Here’s one last quote:

Americans wonder why their houses lack charm. […] Charm is dependent on connectedness, on continuities, on the relation of one thing to another, often expressed in tension, like the tension between private space and public space, or the sacred and the workaday, or the interplay of a space that is easily comprehensible, such as a street, with the mystery of openings that beckon, such as a doorway set deeply in a building. […] If nothing is sacred, than everything is profane. 168

11 thoughts on “Making a Good Place to Live

  1. This sounds great!  Like something I would enjoy, but also I think my niece who is an architecture student might like it, too.  (I just gave her a book about Frederick Law Olmsted.)Love that final quotation regarding “charm.”  Since we moved a lot while Steve was in the Marine Corps, we rented many different places.  Some of the largest, newest, most beautiful places were also the ones that never quite felt home-like.  I think the American idea that bigger is always better can be wrong when it comes to houses.  Even with our large family filling  those houses, we tended to huddle together in the smaller, better-proportioned rooms.  (I am a big fan of square rooms!)

  2. Similar reading as you lately — The Achitecture of Happiness by Alain de BottonIntriguing ideas: “Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name. To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognize its harmony with our own internal song.” (p 107) “Although we belong to a species which spends an alarming amount of its time blowing things up, every now and then we are moved to add gargoyles or garlands, stars or wreaths, to our buildings for no practical reason whatever…reminding us that we are not exclusively pragmatic or sensible: we are also creatures who with no possibility of profit or power, occasionally carve friars out of stone and mould angels into walls.” (p 212) 

  3. @LauraLLD – Square rooms!  I have to think about that one, Laura.  And observe.@LaurieLH –  That book is on my wish list, Laurie.  “Its harmony with our own internal song.”  Niiiice!  The second quote reminds me of the title of a book, Angels in the Architecture.@sonskyn – Thank you!  It is recycled from a few years back.@hopeinbrazil – Your welcome, Hope.@womanofthehouse1 – I’m so glad you asked.  It is my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Maine. The house was built by a whaling captain in the late eighteenth century.  It is one of my favorite destinations.  Their work–hard work–has made it a good place.  One example: my brother made a patio from old bricks and designed it to look like it was original with the house.  I knew when I was looking for a picture to match the opening quote, it would be a photo from this place.

  4. You read the most interesting books!  How do you find them?I’m putting this one on my to read list.  “If nothing is sacred, everything is profane.”  AMEN!  I love this quote.  True in all of life.

  5. @D2saint – I don’t have a good system for remembering where I found a book.  My two biggest sources are books mentioned in other books I’ve read and blogs about books. Sometimes I just pick a book up at a book sale if the front and back cover invite me. Whenever I see an interesting title, I add it to my lists on Paperbackswap.  

  6. Sadly, this lack of concern for beauty is especially prominent in the church. I find that libertarian politics outweighs a concern for the good, the true and the beautiful, not to mention concern for how our commercial activities effect our neighbors and those coming after us.

  7. I miss the good old days when people engaged in community activities, did care about the environment and had quite strong connection with neighbors. Personally, I have not watched TV for over 10 years, and I find it rewardable since I can have more time to do other things.

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