Why Place Matters is a collection of essays that make the case for place. As co-editor Wilfred M. McClay writes in the introduction, “There is no evading the fact that we human beings have a profound need for ‘thereness,’ for visible and tangible things that persist and endure, and thereby serve to anchor our memories in something more substantial than our thoughts and emotions.”
That essential “thereness” drained out of American life over the 20th century, which makes a recovery of place an urgent project for the 21st century. The lesson to be gleaned from this book is: centralization is bad, but centeredness is good.
English philosopher Roger Scruton contributes an essay on the role of cities, particularly city centers. Scruton shows that “many of the most important cultural and social functions of the city cannot be performed by a conurbation without a heart.” “The suburbanized city is a city of absentees,” who flee in a hundred directions as soon as the work day ends, and for good reason: “they do not like city centers when they are alienating, ugly, and inhuman, the normal case in America.”
Scruton’s solution is a conservative defense of aesthetic planning, to be carried out through “side constraints, rather than descriptions of some goal to achieve.” These constraints on development maintain the city’s aesthetic integrity but avoid dictating what purposes buildings must be used for. Scruton’s goal is to make city centers lovely, that citizens will draw together in a place where the interplay of civic life can once again gain full force.
Architect Witold Rybczynski’s “The Demand Side of Urbanism” echoes Scruton by pointing out that development designed to satisfy deeper human goods must be able to compete to attract people. He emphasizes the benefits of historical layering in development to avoid a Disneyland-like ambience of artificiality. “A real city, as Jane Jacobs pointed out long ago, must consist of old and new buildings that provide opportunities for diverse experiences,” and consciously building in continuity with existing structures provides a brake on flights of creative fancy by exuberant architects. The entire setting must be kept in mind when planning, and nothing better exemplifies this than the “main street model” of mixed-use development, which allows people to live above storefronts and commercial arteries, keeping a city center continually filled to avoid the deadening dread that creeps over a darkened business district abandoned by the end of rush hour.
Where Scruton makes the case for an aesthetic center to hold a city together, historian Joseph A. Amato shows how vital a narrative center can be for anchoring a place to its own past. Amato seeks the solitary and uncelebrated local historian “to reconstruct and preserve, against all likelihood, the unique experience and conditions of a place in an age of ever-increasing specialization, centralization, and homogenization.” These historians’ “fidelity is not to methodology and professional discourse but to details, anecdotes, and eccentricities.” Even as Scruton’s revitalized city centers draw people back from the undifferentiated suburbs, Amato’s historians would help preserve the differentiation of local places across the country, strengthening each as the center of its own story.
Cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan carries narrative centers to far-flung places, describing how the “primitive” peoples that 20th-century anthropologists objectified are better seen as “cosmopolites” who lived at the center of their own cosmos. “These peoples, for all the simplicity of their material culture, had a strong sense of self-importance … they lived at the world’s geographic center” and “were also located at the world’s population and cultural center. Experience convinced them of their centrality.” The revelation that they were not the world’s geographic, population, or cultural center destroyed their self-significant status: “Once they recognized their marginality, they were no longer cosmopolites. They were ethnics,” defined in opposition to the truly central “globalists” who homogenize the world in their own image. Ethnics, far from resting easily in their own centrality, are engaged in a constant struggle to reaffirm consciously their heritage, their foods, their traditions and habits.
Tuan’s solution is that “each child is to be regarded as the heir to not only the best that her own people has achieved, but to the best that humankind has achieved.” An education in a common human claim to Shakespeare and the Mahabharata is best accompanied by Amato’s local history, however. As McClay and his fellow editor Ted V. McAllister write in the preface, “whether we like it or not, we are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular, in the finite conditions of our embodiment, our creatureliness.” That corporeal attachment, for many of the authors, demands its own reinforcement with local traditions. It is first by loving the local that we learn to engage the global.
This lesson is emphasized by Mark T. Mitchell in his philosophical rebuke to cosmopolitanism of the sort promulgated by leading liberals like the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum. Mitchell argues that their austere world-citizenship leaves little room for attachment to the particularities that make life vital at a human scale. Mitchell offers instead a “humane localism” that resists the excesses of tribalism.
Co-editor Ted McAllister explains why liberation from limits “does not lead to creative freedom but to boredom, emotional and spiritual fragmentation, and tyranny.” For all the attention traditionally given to American mobility and spreading out, “American history is as much the tale of place-making as of seeking space,” he writes. As Europeans arrived on a continent that was to them entirely unknown, they proceeded to carve it into places by the imposition of localized limits. America was constructed out of almost entirely self-made places, attached and organized in traditions of self-rule from the very beginning. Even the pursuit of the frontier is seen, in this light, as “one of the greatest place-making adventures in human history—the constant settling and organizing of towns that brought order and stability to previously lawless spaces.”
Pepperdine’s Pete Peterson describes local government gone wrong in a scenario that took place in Bell, California a decade ago. A city of 36,000, Bell held a referendum to amend its bylaws to permit more local control and require less reporting to state authorities. Fewer than 400 people went to the polls, and the change passed by a vote of 336 to 54. The city manager and council salaries soon swelled to many multiples of those in comparable small cities, as officials gorged themselves in the absence of oversight from above or below. Their corruption trials were complicated because their scheme had, after all, been popularly approved. All the localist philosophy in the world, it seems, cannot help a people too disengaged to care.
On the other side of the scale, however, Peterson tells the story of the cleanup of Polihale State Park in Kauai, Hawaii. The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources informed residents and businesses dependent on the park, which had been ravaged by a tropical storm, that they would have to lobby to increase the agency’s budget before it could repair the damage. Facing bankruptcy if they operated in bureaucratic time, Kauai residents banded together as volunteers to pool resources in order to save their livelihoods. They accomplished what the state said was a one-year cleanup process in approximately eight days. People invested in their places have the self-governing instincts to rise up when government fails.
Ari Schulman tackles the traditional foil to placedness: mobility, which Schulman, senior editor of The New Atlantis, reconceives as “discovery.” He traces how Huck Finn and Jim used the Mississippi river, before it was tamed, to slip away from the strictures of their place and engage in discovery as they travel downstream. Jack Kerouac updated their pursuit for the automobile age in On the Road, as his characters explored the open road, finding discoveries along man-made paths as they escaped the ties that bound them. Such active adventuring wanes with the ubiquity of digital mapping, Schulman fears. GPS and Google Maps rob the world of mystery.
If the American frontier closed in 1890, the frontier of the unknown within may have closed around 2010. McClay, Mitchell, and others worry that the easy mobility of information saps the attention paid to place. Christine Rosen makes such disruption the topic of her contribution, “The New Meaning of Mobility.” She argues that technological mobility disrupts place by bringing “the Outside in,” eliminating the boundaries that sheltered home life from work. Moreover, constant connectedness homogenizes experience, reducing the lived differences of being in any particular place.
For all the philosophical questions pondered in Why Place Matters, the practical core of the book is quite strong. In addition to Scruton’s case for form-based codes and Rybczynski’s for mixed-use development and “demand-side urbanism,” the book contains a place-based discussion of transportation by New Jersey Department of Transportation veteran Gary Toth, a localist analysis of philanthropy by William A. Schambra, and a hopeful look at the prospects for localist politics to grow on the right by Brian Brown.
Ted McAllister closes his essay by noting that “Healthy freedom, at least in the American story, require[s] places that move citizens to love where they live, to find themselves part of a local story … and to invest their time and energy in the evolution of a place strange, distinct, and perhaps even a little weird.” Why Place Matters provides resources that challenge, educate, and encourage anyone disquieted by a felt loss of attachment to consider seriously how place might be revived and our civic life reinvigorated.
Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor of The American Conservative.