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.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An example of uniqueness as a spurious differentiator

One of the points I make from time to time is that every place is unique, but few places are exceptional because the reality is that the underlying characteristics from place to place are in fact similar so that it is possible to compare different places despite their uniqueness.

Obviously, this is the case for cities, commercial districts, neighborhoods, transportation systems, museums, libraries, and other types of facilities, which is why I bring it up, despite the militant expression of uniqueness as a way to justify not applying rigorous frameworks and analysis to particular situations.

The ability to compare is the basis for planning to begin with, let alone consulting.

Anyway, a good example of spurious uniqueness is expressed in an article on nutrition in today's Washington Post, "Everyone is unique, and so are diet needs."  Of course, every person is unique.  But we are all humans, and for the most part, dietary needs aren't all that variable, even if preferences aren'tvary significantly.

So eat more fruits, vegetables, and grains, and less in the way of animal products and processed foods, exercise, don't use tobacco products, and don't engage in risky behaviors and you'll probably be ok, regardless of the particulars of your chosen diet.

Reading Jane Brody's Good Food Book will provide the average, unexceptional, but unique human being with most of the information and knowledge that they need for healthy eating.

Just like with nutrition, there are a wide variety of information sources of what to do and how to go about it.  If you want just one or two recommendations, I'd say the Urban Design Compendium is great for practical recommendations about physical design and Jan Gehl's Cities for People on why we should develop urban form in particular ways that favor people, placemaking, and sustainable transportation.

But there are many others.

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At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the trouble I see with this is that DC is far too often compared to other places in an uniformed manner without the knowledge of the unique circumstances that characterize this city. Often people make comparisons and leave out information about us or get it completely wrong- and other cities of the same size in the USA are seldom considered for the same comparisons. We have a unique situation as a large city with a local scene as well as being a capital city which makes for many confusions and misdirections.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

See, I disagree. DC has certain issues that are unique, but aren't even all that exceptional, as at least another set of cities operates similarly, and that's what DC should compare itself too on those kinds of issues.

e.g., even the way that the world defines DC in terms of being the national capital isn't different from how the world defines Salt Lake City as the capital of Mormonism when the city is a lot more than that.

Where DC is improperly analyzed too often is "as a state" in comparisons that use state data when the reality is that DC is a small city that is 100% urban.

On that basis, it should be compared to other cities.

E.g., a study in Better Roads looking at "state" data found that DC has the greatest percentage of failing bridges of any "state" in the US.

But on that kind of study, DC should be compared to other cities, not states.

But on most other issues, DC neighborhoods, districts, the central business district, etc., are not exceptional at all.

Certainly, I joke that I am only good as a planner because I excel at gap analysis and DC has so many gaps. My ability to write plans for other places (including Baltimore County) is built on my understanding of DC and my ability to differentiate between places in terms of scales.

At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just took a job for a municipal government in a small city, after having lived in a larger city in the DC metro region for many years. When comparing or explaining my old place to my new co workers, I always say not place is unique as they think they are. Most places have the same set of problems. The differences are in scale and ranking.

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I first ran into this as an involved person in the Main Street commercial district revitalization world.

People from the urban programs believed that they had nothing to learn from small towns, which was crazy because a neighborhood commercial district in a city functions similarly to a commercial district anywhere else, except perhaps as you say in terms of scale and ranking. (And the small town or city may never have had riots in their past or a skyrocketing crime problem, then again, look at the illegal drug problems in smaller communities...)

And at a Main St. conference in 2005 in Baltimore, when someone from a smaller town said "well in cities you do..."

I said "no. We are running a program in a district, a small portion of the city that has X population out of 580,000 people total, and we can't expect the rest of the city to come patronize it without marketing and providing value and we have to compete for funding and volunteers against many other kinds of projects, just like you."

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... it was analyzing H Street NE as a distinct district that taught me how to analyze other places in detailed, focused ways.

At 8:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up here and one of the problems I saw when younger was the tendency of people moving or coming here from elsewhere without any respect at all for the city's history and architecture- for instance. Playing down this city's quality of architecture was the excuse used by the team of nasty people Kennedy brought in during his admin "to removate" Pennsyvania Avenue- and it resulted in many losses to this city because of a total lack of respect for us and our uniqueness. They simply did not care for anything here and compared us to LA or Chicago or NYC. This almost resulted in the tearing down of the Library of Congress Jefferson building which people in this team considered "obsolete" - so YES- I think outside the planner mentality and often find that comparisons are VERY destructive. What is a "alrge city" ? This is another example of silliness I often hear by the same cohort. A "large city" often seems to mean skyscrapers surrounded by parking lots. Or in terms of population- Philly was considered the first "big city" in the US because it hit 50,000- which by your definition- is a tiny city. Lets come up with more specific descriptions and fewer desparaging comparisons that devalue us for the great things we have jusy because someone from some other place is homesick or wants to make a real estate killing off of us.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

for some reason I often hear people calling places like Saint Louis , Baltimore, Milwaukee or Atlanta "large cities" whereas DC is a "tiny city"- this is not consistent and belies factual information.

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Anon -- you can't compare 50,000 people 200 years ago, which was then large, to 50,000 people today.

Today Philly is more than 1.5 million people. 50,000 people 200 years ago was like many hundreds of thousands today.

Long Beach CA is between 450,000 and 500,000. St. Louis just under 320,000. Pittsburgh just over 300,000. etc.

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