Scholars agree that the digital age represents the most significant change in the history of mankind.
Charles Kuralt: “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across country from coast to coast without seeing anything. “
The great sociologist Manuel Castells talks about the space of places and the space of flows. The space of flows is the “map” of places seen in terms of the data they exchange with other places. Thus New York City, London, and Tokyo (which all have stock exchanges and are constantly exchanging data) are closer together on that map than New York City is to a town a few miles up the Hudson.
The space of places, on the other hand, encompasses whatever cannot be reduced to digital form and shared on the network.
A 60 by 120 foot park on E 51st street in New York City—rated one of the best parks in the world by the Project for Public Spaces—can be photographed and the photos shared, but the experience of sitting there sipping a smoothie from an outpost of a local bakery, reading or working on a laptop and feeling the fine spray from a waterfall is particular to the physical place.
In our contemporary world, in which one place becomes more and more like another, and in which so much of our lives is lived “on the network,” the things which are distinctive and even unique in the physical world and are not transferable to the digital network, become more valuable. When you live in a global world, the local matters.
Successful places in our contemporary world need to have deep connections in the space of flows. Working in rural northern Pennsylvania we recommended that towns establish wifi networks and require sharing of cell phone towers so that travelers would find reliable connectivity and have the benefits of a networked world.
A lot of energy is being spent, these days, on branding places, and it can be quite useful. Branding is for the network. At its best it communicates value.
But experiences are another matter, even though whole industries work to reliably deliver the same experience over and over to different people in different places (think of McDonald’s or Starbucks or a Hilton Garden Inn). Perhaps the most precious experiences are particular to places.
Pizza is pizza except in the little town of Old Forge, where mafia rivalries foreclosed the use of Mozzarella cheese leading to a truly distinctive dish.
Place development and place experiences create unique value, and not just in buildings and well beyond tourist attractions. Create a more interesting place and then connect. If we want better lives, we need better places.
Image captions left to right: Flows in a local network, Turn left at the light, The long road