There’s no better way to intimately familiarize oneself with an environment than through walking. You notice so many more details – both physical, such as the width of a sidewalk, and sensory, such as volumes and kinds of sounds, the amount of sunlight along a particular street, and smells (good and bad). Yet of utmost importance to any walking tour is ensuring that it includes local residents who live and breathe and feel the neighborhood every day.
In our walking tour of South Colton this past Saturday, we didn’t simply focus on pointing out flaws or improvement areas in infrastructure; a large part of the tour consisted of listening to residents about their stories and memories and what has made the place meaningful to them. Seventh Street, said one resident, used to be the “Broadway of South Colton.” Yet, once the 10 Freeway was built and cut the city in half, Seventh Street essentially became a dead-end street, and slowly the vibrant commercial and cultural life that existed on the street died away. Absent this resident’s story and this history, one would have no sense of just how integral the street was to the neighborhood, as today many of the lots along it stand vacant, with the remaining commercial buildings abandoned or locked up. Given the existing conditions now and the memories these residents all hold within them, how could Seventh Street become a new kind of bustling corridor for the neighborhood in which these memories and experiences are woven into its newest incarnation?
These are the kinds of questions and the kind of inquiry that planners and designers need to begin taking on if there is to be any hope of creating meaningful places that are truly unique, place-based, and for all residents and visitors to experience and enjoy.
Can you think of a point in time in the city you live and/or love that you wish could have been frozen, there, so that it would stay that way for eternity? People talk endlessly of the good old days in cities, especially in the world’s larger ones, whose rates of change are ever-increasing and whose endless waves of new residents plant roots there and then consider that point in time, that point of settling in, the moment when it became their city, and those years that come thenceforth and how the city evolves will pale in comparison to that time when it was suddenly your city. As we know, cities are in a constant state of flux and evolution, much of it out of our immediate control, some of it not. We can wish that blissful pinpoint moment when we decided the city was ours will remain, but it never does.
The artwork featured in the Artist-in-Residence series Les Bains is a testament to this endless evolution of cities in all their ups and downs and highs and lows. The building housing these works was once a bathhouse, then a famed nightclub, and soon a (sigh) boutique hotel. In the interim, its crumbling glory will enshroud and host the works of many a street artist featured in the exhibition. For more photos, click here.
Hammarby Sjöstad is an expansive redevelopment area located in a former industrial area just south of Stockholm proper (formerly known as Norra Hammarbyhamnen and Södra Hammarbyhamnen). Save a couple of former factories now converted into offices and housing, little remains from the district’s industrial (and trailor-park) past. Over the remains of a bygone era has been constructed, in essence, the physical manifestation of the most current discourse on sustainability and urban development: multi-family housing placed within a grid of walkable/bikable streets, easy access to greenspace – and ample quantities of it – relatively close proximity to transit, and commercial spaces lining the ground floors of buildings on major boulevards in the district. To walk and bike within Hammarby Sjöstad is to get a sense of a particular statement about a desired direction of modern development. Absent much indication of what came before it, and given the sheer newness of the entire zone, the result is a district that feels much like a shell of buildings and streets, a zone that is devoid of the aggregate layers of experience and memory that are mixed within the older districts of the city. This begs the question as to whether we can even create satisfying places and spaces where there is little to no physical memory – housed equally in structures as well as the minds of its residents – of what has come before.
Looking out over the Baltic from the edge of Sandhamn
There has been much ado within urban planning and design circles of late over the notion of place and the perennial quest for creating a sense of place in the day and age of strip malls, drive-thrus, and cul-de-sacs. Much of this discourse has centered around physical form and has argued that a sense of place cannot be found within the strip-commerical, auto-oriented development that has become virtually synonymous with the modern American built landscape. The reasoning goes that if every place looks like everywhere else, than how can that place cause one to feel that they are anywhere in particular? Yet nonetheless within these seemingly faceless landscapes people do live their lives, fall in love, stay up too late, vow never to speak to someone ever again. History – the history of human experience and memory – still occurs and is produced within the most banal of spaces.
This is not to say that the nature of one’s physical surroundings cannot heighten one’s experiences; they can and they do. Rather, it is to suggest that this sense of place cannot be produced by good urban design and physical form alone. Place, to be created, may require memory and a layering of experiences across time. The Baltic Sea at the edge of the Stockholm Archipelago appears as a virtual carbon copy of Lake Superior along the Arrowhead of Minnesota. One location is perhaps no more striking than the other. However, if one holds years of memory and experience of one or the other environment within their psyche, the other virtually similar environment might not ultimately seem as salient, or moving.
In this same vein, Hammarby Sjöstad may simply be too young to feel like much more than the physical, constructed version of a contemporary idea; the physical vestiges of history that were once there have by and large been erased, and the new fibers of experience and memory in the newly built environment have barely been created. The lesson we draw from Hammarby is not that we shouldn’t try to steer modern development away from the strip-commerical crumminess that has become all too familar to us as a civilization, but that we need to remind ourselves that built form is part of a much larger, time-spanning puzzle in the quest to create a sense of place in a world of noplace.