The appeal of life in a vibrant small city or town is clear. The slower pace and homespun sense of community are among its charms. So too is an embrace of local traditions and character.
A small city or town we consider memorable is often redolent of place. It is far from placeless (that feeling “there is no there, there”) because it imparts a physical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual connectedness to a specific geographic area and cultural context.
People who keenly understand this will do everything they can to ensure that what makes a well-loved place is enhanced, rather than diminished. They capitalize upon that community’s hyper-local identity.
I know big-city life. I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and spent two years in Los Angeles studying and working in architecture. I have traveled to great cities around the world. Now living in mid-sized Eugene, I thoroughly appreciate my adopted home’s blend of urban amenity and outdoor opportunities.
Living here has introduced me to other communities in the southern Willamette Valley, among them Springfield, Creswell, Cottage Grove, and Pleasant Hill. These smaller cities and towns are all distinct. Each is set apart by a combination of its people, history, geography, and character. Each has a well-developed sense of place.
Built environments that exhibit a loss of place have no special relationship to where they are located – they could be anywhere. Unsympathetic developments fundamentally dilute the sense of place. Strip malls, big box stores, fast-food outlets, and cloyingly named enclaves of speculatively built homes (with their aimlessly curving streets and cul-de-sacs) are all hallmarks of a placeless environment.
The problem with too much of the American urban landscape is that it is so remorselessly generic and unexceptional.
As an architect, my stock-in-trade is to understand the nature of a place and how to enhance its most obliging characteristics. When planning new developments in a town or city of any size, it is important to analyze and respond to its physical attributes, context, and opportunities.
It is equally important to reveal and strengthen the spirit of the place, rather than allowing it to remain weak and undifferentiated. The stronger the hyper-local identity is, the more likely the community will thrive and not merely survive.
The future is fraught enough with change and uncertainty, so my goal is to avoid detracting from what already makes a place distinctive.
The rules of the game have certainly changed in our post-pandemic world. Working from home is an option for many workers, as they no longer need to live where their employers are based. Attractive smaller cities and towns stand to gain from the exodus of folks from large metro areas who struggle with high costs of living or who simply prefer a simpler lifestyle.
Small cities will be more adept than large ones at developing self-reliant local economies and infrastructure systems. Dependence upon distant resources is unsustainable, so localizing infrastructure, diversifying community services, and increasing cooperation at the local level will be key strategies for climate adaptation and resilience.
Smaller cities and towns are poised to drive the economies of the future by supporting nearby farmers, businesses, restaurants, e-commerce, and marketing, but only if they thoroughly understand themselves and their potential.
The irony of our exceedingly connected digital existence today is that many of us yearn for deep engagement with others and the real world we inhabit. The automobile-centric development patterns that predate the electronic age and persist today exacerbate our isolation and the ubiquity of placeless-ness.
Preserving and augmenting a hyper-local sense of place and identity in our smaller cities and towns is an antidote: The particularity of real places and the way they bring us together provide us with the kinds of genuine experiences we naturally crave as human beings.
Randy Nishimura, CSI, CCS, AIA, is a principal with Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc in Eugene and has been involved in the design of dozens of area projects, including the Springfield Justice Center and Pleasant Hill schools. He writes a weekly blog about architecture and urban design at sworegonarchitect.blogspot.com.