Book Review: Why Place Matters

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.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Why Place Matters

  1. I’ll rephrase slightly, to emphasize the point. “… the ease of photographing the landscape” –> “… the ease of taking snapshots and selfies involving landscape.”

    The mechanics of taking an image are now automated to tapping a smart button and storing yet another burst of “Me! and …” in memory, maybe to be seen later. That back end, from shutter drop to development and viewing, are much easier thanks to digital technology. The front end (composition, subject, knowing the landscape and sky) is unchanged but unknown to narrowed ones.

    I’m an amateur photographer with some talent for landscape and people in it, and sometimes you find amazing scenes or vignettes simply by turning around or looking sideways. Getting someone’s attention to keep a field of view clear for 1/4s is met by a mixture of startled/abashed to annoyed/angry (unfortunately, not age-dependent). Some have no concept that other people are there to stand, sit, and enjoy the same view, merely tap a screen and blunder on. Their focus is quite nearsighted and dependent ONLY on viewing a 4″ to 8″ screen.

    • There’s also disappointment, because “it just looks like the pictures.” People come to Grand Canyon and other sites with a mental image thanks to photos and TV, and don’t take the time to stop, roam, spend time watching the changing light, or explore. There’s no new experience for them, and they feel that something’s missing, but they can’t say what that is.

      • I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but my family’s summer camping trips to visit the grandparents in Colorado were the leisurely, let’s explore the side roads, take a different route every year, etc. were wonderful in hindsight. Even with the squabbling we did in the back seat. I saw a lot more the country between California and Colorado than my child ever will. (no reason to travel anymore) Also, it took a rafting trip down through the Grand Canyon to really appreciate its wonder. Then I stood on the rim and knew what else the view was hinting at.

      • My reaction to the Grand Canyon was twofold: first, “pictures don’t do it justice,” and second, “it must be doggone near impossible to take a bad picture here.”

        OTOH, I’m not your average canyon-goer; as an amateur geologist I knew full well what I was looking at in the Canyon, and the stunning sweep of all that rock and all that TIME just blew me away. In the Grand Canyon, time is not just a dimension. It’s a physical force that grabs you hard and doesn’t let go.

        • My first view was from the north rim, so I didn’t have any of the “typical” images to connect it to. It was chilly (late May), and the geology almost overwhelmed me. That was my first impression.

  2. “by laying out a planned route, GPS units train us not to look around, not to leave the beaten path and explore.”

    Yes! I’ve noticed this too. GPS’s also discourage me from looking at a map and trying alternate routes to see which might be more interesting. Interstate highways may be fast and efficient, but they’re also boooooooring.

    I’ve also noticed something similar at work in online shopping: it’s much harder to browse. I can remember many, many trips to used bookstores, where I just wandered up and down the aisles scanning at random, and found many a treasure along the way. That doesn’t happen at Amazon.com. It’s extremely rare for their “you might also like” links to have anything that I might actually like.

    • Which is why I never let the dumbed thing tell me where to go. I use it as a real-time map, nothing more, wiith the overhead view. I do use g— maps, and I can study the satphotos until I have a good idea of what the intersections will look like.

      And I do like to try different routes, but not blind.

      • Talking map. 😀

        I’ll argue with paper maps, too– if I look at the paper, and look at the stuff in front of me, I’ll deal with what can t-bone me at 60+ mph over what’s printed. 😀

      • I recall a trip into moose country on which my GPS instructed me to turn left from Street A onto Street B, then turn right from Street B onto Street C. When I actually made the drive, I discovered the GPS’s map had the position of Street C wrong, so that I actually had to turn right onto Street B and then left onto Street C.

        • My sister lived on a “street” that didn’t exist– it was paved, but it stopped about halfway into the block.

          The city had filed the plans with that road going completely through. So people would regularly be unable to find her house, because they were turning on to the road that didn’t exist. 😀

          Then there’s the times it tells me to take a right on to an overpass…. while we’re under the overpass, and there are no ramps…. :HA!:

  3. Amazon is also annoying in that when I go online and select a specific author, I am NOT wanting to see 6 or so OTHER author’s work in addition to the one I am looking at – I tend to read authors who have a very excellent habit of creating series. If I wanted to see other authors, that is what the “browse” button is for.

  4. Backroads/roads less traveled are many times more interesting than the Interstates. Echoes frozen in time in many cases. The remains of struggling small towns left high and dry after being bypassed by the Interstates, local produce and other goods, and some damn nice people, eking out a living in the country. And many times the views are magnificant!

  5. “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.”

    In the 80’s the Saudis built a very large village/housing project south west of Riyadh. It was not the Chicago-type very tall box, they were all single-story villas (with flat roofs where you could sit, bbq, etc) with garages, really big bedrooms, sitting rooms, big kitchen, etc. They were laid out on curving streets, the whole thing surrounded by a wall. Think gated neighborhood with a lot of look-alike concrete-covered-with-stucco houses, albeit with a middle eastern flair. Not bad looking, but kind of tan/brown and boring. Much like certain US neighborhood developments.

    The Saudi government built them for the Bedouin to live in. The Bedouin declined. Later the Saudis let the US Forces use them for housing and offices and headquarters. I had a villa there for awhile, three huge bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and shared it with a lieutenant (I was a major). Was quite a palace for us. Eskan Village is still being used by the US.

    Fifteen years after it was built, when I was there in 1998, the Bedouin were still living in the desert. I used to drive past their encampments when I was off road. They had gated homes too: a row of sitcks planted in the sand around their tent to obscure outsiders looking in, big tent, generator, satellite dish, Japanese pickup parked outside, Many had camels too but the camels were allowed to wander around finding things to eat. The sons in the family were somewhere nearby carrying a stick and following a herd of goats as they tried to find things to eat. I used to drive up to the kids and give them a couple bottles of water. They would thank me but looked at me like I would look at a Martian.

    The Bedouin were happy to take the Japanese pickups, the stipends, and the portable goodies that the Saudi government offered, but home was in the desert.

    • I’ve heard similar tales regarding houses on late 19th century Indian reservations, and mid 20th villages in Northern Canada.

  6. 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.

    That’s a silly argument. I’ve gone a lot more places that I never would’ve tried exactly BECAUSE I could count on my talking map to help me back to someplace I can find home from, without counting on signs (frequently gone or don’t match the map) or people (who seem to think it’s hilllllaaaaarious to tell the lady with a car full of kids the wrong way to go). Paper maps don’t tell you that there’s construction, or the bridge is out, too.

    Maybe it works for people who don’t move very often?

    I’ve got a whole folder of photos of landscape (like the thing over my blog) that are from things where I just looked up and went “wow!” and took a picture. The one trip that I pulled over and took a picture the fewest times was caravanning with my mom, and we still did it at least once a day.
    They’re not great, they’ll never be able to be blown up to livingroom wall size, but I have a bunch of beautiful pictures that show places I saw, and loved.

    • Thought of another way it might work– if it’s coming from someone for whom “getting lost and dying” is not a real risk.

      The idiots who decided to go through Surprise Valley headed for Reno, and moved a giant sign saying “ROAD CLOSED” to do so, were early 90s– and they only made the news because they have rich relatives.

      If “getting lost” has driving through a bad area of town as the biggest hazard, then it might work.

  7. I’ve used this analogy…formal education is like following the freeways, but there’s also something to be said for getting off the beaten track, exploring the neglected byways, and bushwhacking through the weeds. Every once in a while, you can find hidden treasures that way.

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