Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I wonder how long you have to live in a place, for people not to call you a carpetbagger in order to denigrate your arguments and participation--because otherwise, they don't have an argument. (Of course this is in response to a private email thread wrt the "Walmart" issue.)

I have lived in DC for 23+ years (well, for about 2 years of this period, I lived in either Montgomery or Prince George's Counties in Maryland, for a few months in 1989 and for about 18 months in 2007-2008).

Still, people pull the "I'm a native Washingtonian" argument against me.

But I guess it's because they lack other ways to argue against your arguments.

Here is some of what I say on this general point:

1. DC is unique because all places are unique, but how the city functions is various ways, especially with regard to traditional commercial districts, is not exceptional. Places can be compared, the stories are similar, the underlying processes of how places function are pretty much the same from place to place.

2. WRT the valuing of learning and interpretation "versus" practical experience, I prefer Bismarck's quote:

fools learn from experience; I prefer to profit from the experience of others

to the line:

experience is the best teacher

and the recognition that you need both experience and theory, and that it's better to mine the experiences of others so that you don't make their mistakes, and accelerate your success as a result.

Similarly one of my favorite quotes, attributed to many, but I first heard it attributed to Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of the field of social psychology, and known for his work concerning group dynamics and experiential learning:

there is nothing so practical as a good theory

which is about the fact that understanding processes through "theories" based on interpretation of observation is ultimately very practical and "here and now."

3. Related to Lewin's quote, my experience is that most practitioners aren't able to mine their experiences in terms of generalizable meta-learning and aren't able to adequately explain and teach others the why of how and what they do.

Group dynamics -- when people in groups also talk about and interpret their experience functioning as a group, often with facilitated assistance--was created by accident. After a workshop, the professionals were meeting and interpreting what they thought happened. An attendee or two happened by, heard the interpretations, and butted in, challenging it. The back-and-forth dynamic ended up creating one of the key techniques in the field of organizational development.

There is no question that there isn't enough of this kind of back and forth in local civic affairs. The work is out there--amazing stuff is being produced in academia, in research tanks, and in the field--but it isn't well-mined and diffused outwards to practitioners in order to reshape and improve practice in real time.

It's why we keep going around in circles, but it's sad because we don't have to.

4. Time in a place does matter though. Because things that some people might think are forever practices often are more a function of the moment. But unless you have a longer term perspective and awareness of how things have functioned over time, you aren't going to know this.

-- This is a problem with a lot of the discussion about revitalization in DC over the past 7 years, which was during a period when the city's municipal institutions functioned better post-Barry, coincident with residential choice trends favoring urban living and an incredibly strong real estate development market. Even I get frustrated at times with the blogsphere's interpretation of events, which may be constrained due to the lack of a longer term perspective.

-- Or I remember eavesdropping on a conversation at a Cosi in Capitol Hill. The guy was lamenting how DC doesn't have ethnic neighborhoods comparable to places like Little Italy in Baltimore, where he had been the previous day. He didn't know that DC once had such agglomerations, but through the process of ecological succession, suburban outmigration, and the velocity of real estate development initiated changes of neighborhoods at the core of the city, these types of ethnic bastions were "reproduced" out of existence. Or how, for different reasons (cost of property, strife in particular countries overseas, etc.) ethnic bastions in the DC area often end up getting created in the suburbs (e.g., Latinos in Langley Park, Asians first in Clarendon, then farther out in Fairfax County, etc.).

5. Patience and wisdom as necessary elements of community improvement. I won't claim to be all that wise, but it wasn't until 5 years ago that I began to understand the necessity of patience out of a recognition that change takes decades and a lot of people working on "the" issue, in a variety of ways, and that the process doesn't "privilege" knowledge and good ideas as much as you want. Without understanding this fact and the need to maintain efforts over a long period of time, effecting change takes even longer. (It's also relevant in terms of Erikson's writings on identity and the life cycle, in terms of what he called "generativity." Look it up yourself...)

A related but different argument is based on place. E.g., if you don't live in X neighborhood, then you have no standing or authority to comment. My response to the charged question of:

"where do you live?"

is always

"the District of Columbia."

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