We invited Jonathan Smales from UK-based Human Nature (Places) to share with us his perspective on fundamentals of a great urban development.
A place is an assembly of physical elements, characteristics and experiences that together define the identity of a particular location. In the natural world a place might, for instance, be a woodland in a temperate climate on the edge of a hill overlooking a lake and with a view to distant mountains; the point is we would notice, indeed experience it all, even if one aspect such as the lake might be the most prominent feature and give its name to the specific geography of this place.
In the built environment the corresponding physical elements to those in the natural world will be streets, urban blocks, buildings and green and other open spaces and the specific design of these; together – as an assembly of ingredients - they become far greater than the sum of their parts and thus make a place. This is true even if there is a compelling singular element such as a tower, a railway station or an especially fine piece of architecture. The place – that is the whole – typically becomes the dominant, defining experience of the genus loci.
Built places are born of communities, culture, economics and technology all of which can be variously strong or weak, good or bad influences depending of course on the values of the observer. And, over time and in turn, built environments shape culture and particular events that take place here gradually form a history of each and every place and become synonymous with it. Some call this its psychogeography; in other words the mental perceptions and associations we have with a physical environment become intimately bound with it and somehow ultimately inseparable. Taken all together these qualities add further to the sense of place – its essential or defining qualities; they mark one place out from another. So, when asked, ‘where we’re from?’ people typically respond by naming a place.
Estate agents refer to place somewhat crassly as, ‘location, location, location…’ by which they mean that for the most part people buy into places – locations - more than just individual buildings. In sustainability terms we’re interested in place because place has much bigger impact upon environmental, social and economic goods and bads than any individual ingredient.
A place can be organised in a way that makes it either safe and pleasurable to walk and cycle or inherently unsafe and miserable. That would be most places. Energy and other utility infrastructures across place can make it relatively easy to supply renewable heat and power cost-effectively by comparison to addressing each building as a single stand-alone unit. And if, as the European Union states, keeping global climate temperature increases to a safe 1.5 degrees is going to require, ‘profound changes in lifestyle’ (mostly good changes we could argue), these are much easier to achieve at scale across whole places that people identify with and belong to. It’s far easier to engage people in any such exercise in their home places than it is remotely from afar.
So, the question for policy makers who shape or even create place is what society, which culture of behaviours, which economics do we want to encourage with the physical interventions we plan and design for? Ultimately place will be the outcome of the choices you make.