When we look at things often, they become familiar. They are part of our ‘place’. They make us feel safe, comfortable and at ease.
It’s one of those things we all do subconsciously.
The National Geographic Society suggests one of the oldest tenets of geography is the concept of ‘place’, and that a sense of place is the emotion someone attaches to an area based on their experiences.
‘Place’ can be applied at any scale and does not necessarily have to be fixed in either time or space.
Whether it’s at home, in our street, the familiar view from the back door, walking home from the bus stop, riding to work, taking the bins out early in the morning – they are all places we experience.
It is one of the hardest things to recreate – making our places more ‘placey’. I know, I (try to) do this for a living.
Think about it – the decision to buy a house or rent a ‘place’ to live – is usually based on a range of factors. Affordability, desirability, location, distances to things, size of house, flat or townhouse, closeness to the shops and many other things.
Yet how often do we think about the unspoken attributes, ones that we might accidently discover? How would we go about designing them?
Whilst not always equitable, at some point in our lives many of us will have a decision over something we can influence – where to live, where to work, where to recreate. I recall my current house was ignored online until we saw the view from our lounge room – across our garden, and into the local bushland. We were sold in an instant. It was heart-over-head stuff.
Equally, our favourite places are usually shaped by a range of factors. Access, location, beauty, function, experience, activity, feeling, connection, memory.
Our public spaces are complex and hard to understand.
One of the greatest challenges is making places for everything. The other things we share the earth with are now critically important: bugs, plants and soil. They are arguably as important (if not more so) than we are.
We know bees, for instance, are having a hard time. If bees can’t access flowers and pollen, they can’t survive. If they don’t survive, plants are unable to reseed, regrow, and regenerate. The whole ecosystem suffers. And is suffering.
So, our places aren’t just for us, mere humans, they are for our bees and their plants of choice.
Our streets, parks, gardens, and public places are how we access just about everything.
Indeed, many of them are our favourite places.
What makes them special? Most aspects are predetermined. Size, shape, location, buildings, aspect, views, things in them, widths of footpaths, grass, paths, benches, spaces for trees, cars and people. A nice place to sit. Meet people. Enjoy the vibe.
All of these elements compete for attention, and the unquantifiable bits are the ones that are mostly ignored, misunderstood or simply too hard to figure out.
Yet these unquantifiable bits are the things we adore – the old façade of a building we entered for our first job, a window we have wistfully gazed out of, a store where we bought something special, a footpath where we met someone we love, a tree we stopped for breath under, a bench that we stopped and ate lunch at for a while.
Equally, the street we drive down everyday, the view that orients us, a large tree that tells us where we are, a change in topography that exposes a glimpse to the coast, the hills, the harbour, the river, the mountains and our places.
All of these things make our places. When we create new things, sometimes they destroy the very things we hold dear.
That tree that we always recognised, the old corner store with an awning that reminded us to turn left, the old row of houses, a framed view to something – when they are gone, we lose a little bit of our place.
The process of urban design is a meaningful way to capture these important values.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, it is a grim and sobering picture. The report outlines that without substantial and concerted effort, we are on track to a global rise in temperature of 1.5C by 2030.
In Australia, the report outlines we are already 1.4C above pre-industrial levels. Which means more fires, drought, floods and heat.
There is a role for change, our cities and natural places are heaving under the verb. Positive change that makes us reconsider some of the basics. Instead of seeing everything through the windscreen of a car, we are walking, cycling, running, pushing, rolling, or meandering.
We know what to do: create connected shade. Make wider footpaths. Allow local plants to thrive in our streets. Use our backyards for making some of our own food and planting more local trees, shrubs and groundcovers. Make our places multi-layered.
So, with change, comes opportunity. A chance to rethink place. Think about it – can change be positive?
We can maintain the things that we love, discover new things, and capture the true meaning of our places with good urban design. It is not optional – it is now critical.
By Daniel Bennett
Daniel Bennett is a Registered Landscape Architect and Urban Designer, and Principal of Integrated Design at design firm Aurecon.
He is also the current State President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and a member of the SA Premiers Climate Change Council.