McClay, Wilfred M. ed. Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (Encounter Books, 2020) Kindle Version
I’d read McClary’s summary history of the US, Land of Hope, and went looking for more of his work. This is not history (his focus), but cultural geography, public policy, and thoughts on cities, place, and how place and urban development shapes how people interact with each other, and with the government. The essays cover a broad swath of specialties, from geographers (Yi-fu Tuan) to urban planners to cultural critics (Roger Scruton) to historians. Some names are familiar, some are not, but all the essays present different arguments for why place, space, and urban settings matter.
Of the essays that I read, a few were a bit “rah rah cities and planning!” for my taste, two are socialist, and two reminded me of being back in grad school because of all the jargon. All the essays are well written and readable, varying in levels of technical terminology. The ones that stood out were Tuan’s because he’s literally one of the grand old men of environmental history and municipal reform, with his idea of “topophilia,” people’s universal need for natural, park-like landscapes. Another essay that leaped out was about the narrowing of mental vision inadvertently brought about by GPS and the ease of photographing the landscape. The author argues that by laying out a planned route, GPS units train us not to look around, not to leave the beaten path and explore. We go from place to place without experiencing the spaces in between, and we lose the mental growth and pleasure of serendipity offered by maps and wandering off the direct route.
Roger Scruton addresses the problem of modernist cityscapes and how they numb people by stripping away variety and human scale. Several other authors also focus on that same difficulty. Old buildings, as in European old, are often kept with old walls and facades, but modernized and used for other purposes inside. The city remains human scale, with clear ties to past and place. Steel and smoked glass don’t offer those connections or the possibility of different purposes.
McClay’s introduction and final essay open and close the book by tying place and history and literature together. All the essays provoke thought, and encourage greater participation in civic life. The solutions to the problem of place vary, and I don’t agree with some of the urban planning “fixes,” but the ideas are certainly worth thinking about. Several of the writers are arguing against the idea of “cosmopolitan” culture, the “citizen of the world” who has no place that they truly settle down into, and the idea that all places (and cultures) are interchangeable.
Humans need “place,” somewhere to root, somewhere to connect to. When people don’t connect and instead leave matters to managers and planners, corruption, non-functional business districts, and things like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing development ensue. Then the planners can’t (or won’t) understand why people didn’t make a community – you get space that’s not a place, and the soul-numbing messes of depressed neighborhoods and empty-by-night glass and steel forests.
I’d recommend the book to people arguing with urban planners, readers interested in cultural and urban geography, those curious about the philosophy and history of “place” in a country well known for mobility, and readers who look at the world and wonder what happens when people refuse to “settle down and grow roots,” or can’t grow roots. Sometimes urban planning blocks those roots inadvertently, despite the best of intentions and educations. Or as one essayist argues gently, perhaps because of that education.
I’ll be coming back to this collection, in part for teaching one of my classes, in part because it seems to explain some observations I’ve made and thoughts I’ve wondered about.
FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no benefit or remuneration from the authors or publisher.