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If I have learned anything from my career in community planning, it is this: change is inevitable, but the destruction of community character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings.
A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics—visual, cultural, social, and environmental—that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one city or town different from another, but sense of place is also what makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.
Author Wallace Stegner once said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” We all need points of reference and orientation. A community’s unique identity provides that orientation, while also adding economic and social value. Our cities and towns must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are both uplifting and memorable—and that foster a sense of belonging and stewardship by residents.
Planners spend much of their time focusing on numbers—the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building. In the years ahead, they will need to spend more time thinking about the values, customs, characteristics, and quirks that make a place worth caring about.
What this means is helping communities adapt to change while also maintaining or enhancing the things they value most. Lyman Orton, the founder of the Vermont Country Store, calls this “heart and soul planning.” It is both a process and a philosophy. The process seeks to engage as many people as possible in community decision making. The philosophy recognizes that special places, characteristics, and customs have value.
Edward T. McMahon is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2012 issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal; www.PlannersWeb.com