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As places become more alike, distinctive places become more valuable.

Leonard Cohen, in Anthem, ” You can add up the parts, you won’t have the sum.”

Distinctive places have an edge. People like living there. Their real estate often commands a premium value. Places that have retained the natural beauty of their landscape, or that have particularly lovely buildings, or rich cultures, are loved and cherished. But the modern world is very hard on distinctive places.

Relentless forces of homogenization are making one place pretty much like another. Since WWII, rapid growth, standardized buildings, chain businesses, and perhaps most of all the way things are financed, has produced almost identical roadside strips, malls, and developments across the country. If you want to get a bank loan to build something, your chances are better if is just like something someone else has built successfully—or even just like everything everyone has built everywhere.

Towns and cities are vowing to retain their unique character even as it erodes around them. Basically, we have been ignoring the quality of place, abandoning character for efficiency. We had good reasons, and we have gained by it—but we also have lost. We gained the ability for rapid growth, cost-efficient buildings, lots of new housing and retail space. Along the way we damaged the environment, created automobile-dependent sprawl, damaged our physical and psychological health, and traded working communities for growth. We gave up distinctiveness for efficiency.


Gertrude Stein about Oakland:

“There is no there, there.”

Steve Gillman, Sculptor “Here, There” for Oakland

But something is stirring out there. People are talking about places again. The New Urbanists are advocating for walkable mixed use neighborhoods, urban designers are creating lively public spaces, architects are creating energy conserving homes that don’t all look alike. Theorists are suggesting what mix of people will make for more successful towns and cities. And an entire new generation of young adults is as interested in where they will live as they are in what career they will pursue there.

Citizens and professionals are creating successful place elements. Yet every place, almost every day, faces opportunities to enhance or degrade its most attractive qualities, and business often goes on as if we did not even notice those opportunities, and decisions are made by other forces than a determination to enhance quality of place.

It turns out that understanding, treasuring, and enhancing places no longer comes naturally. We have habits of thought that push us along the path to more homogenization. To change that will involve a deep change in how we see the world, from a mechanical worldview marked by linear causality to a world better described as organic, whole, interactive, a gestalt in which everything influences everything. It is called systems thinking, and it is transforming knowledge in our time.


Image captions left to right: White hat in Arizona, Coming soon – a mall, A Song in New Orleans

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