Atlantic Cities

Defining a 'Meaningful' Space

Defining a 'Meaningful' Space

How should we define meaningful urban places? Who should set the stage? Both are key questions in managing cities of the future. The answers are not new. Harvard Professor John Stilgoe argues for personal observation of the built environment. The title of his most noted book, Outside Lies Magic (1998), sets the tone for self-inquiry. Similarly, journalist-turned-urban authority Grady Clay explains how the "undisclosed evidence" of the form and patterns of cities awaits personal discovery. In Close-Up: How to Read the American City (1973), Clay wrote:

And where are we? Grasping at straws, clutching yesterday's program, swamped by today's expert view, clawing at the newest opinion polls, but neglecting that limitless, timeless, boundless wealth of visible evidence that merely waits in a potentially organizable state for us to take a hard look, to make the next move.

Last August, from Italy, I recalled places for people-watching, where "we sit on the edges of the public realm and look in the mirror."  I cast such places as indicative of safe public environments, including active streets, corners and squares.

But what about more direct observation of place, akin to the teaching of Stilgoe and Clay? This post includes three images of human interaction with urban places. In two cases, history surrounds, and in one case, an intersecting natural environment provides both modification and contrast. What can we learn from these images? Five thoughts:

  • Humans both occupy and look within and without bounded vantage points.
  • Nature, including light, color and climate complement human interest in and perception of the built environment.
  • Place observers may expect a result, or a revelation, as part of an evolving story.
  • Cities should help such observation by people.
  • The stories behind the observers in each image could inform goals and objectives for a city's future.

In simpler terms, without vantage points, we dishonor individual needs. The images show people observing place in a way that is intrinsic to who we are. Clay would likely agree:

Experts may help assemble data, specialists may organize it, professionals may offer theories to explain it. But none of these can substitute for each person's own leap into the dark, jumping in to draw his or her own conclusions.

The spontaneous involvement of the people in the images above shows a path to meaningful urban places. Every city-dweller has a story, a "leap in the dark", conscious or not.  The best place making may result where developers, designers, decision makers and pundits let astute, everyday users have their say.

This post originally appeared on MyUrbanist. All images composed by the author.

Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques. All posts »

Join the Discussion