Reflections on the Power and Perspective of Place

MarchISSgroupHow do you understand a place beyond what’s on the surface? How do you make “place” more than just buildings and streets? At the most recent Inspire Speakers Series, three incredible speakers shared how they go beyond brick and mortar to think about the people, their experiences, and the future of our region.

Though Majestic Lane works on the “people” portion of the p4 Pittsburgh initiative (People, Planet, Place and Performance), he joined us to talk about place and how places can be understood beyond the numbers.

In Pittsburgh, we hear about new jobs, people coming back, market-rate apartments and median income going up. He questioned, “Do the numbers tell the story about the power of the experience that we had? What are young people and families going through, what are the numbers and what is the sense of place?” It is not about the bricks and mortar, and not about market-rate apartments. it’s about a real sense of story and experience within that place.

He posed, “How do we make everyone in all 90 of our neighborhoods feel like they are a part of something bigger? When we think of place besides the Steelers and the Steel City, what’s really connecting us as a sense of place? It has to be larger than neighborhoods and our individual experiences. It has to be defined by all of us. How do we put people first?”

Majestic offered three points to contemplate when considering what makes a place and its story:

There is always a “there” there.

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This is a place in the Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It’s more than an abandoned building, he said. It’s a place where children play and that reminds people to know themselves. It has purposes and experiences that need to be considered when redeveloping.

Majestic once attended a meeting in Baltimore about community development, where a development group presented about making a particular part of a neighborhood into “a new place,” as if there was no place there before that. What a provocative thought. There is always a “there” there, he pointed out. “You may not like what’s there, but what’s there is a result of our history, society, rules, policies. The ‘there’ may have scars and issues, and we can’t be so easy to try to replace what’s there with something that wipes away the ‘there’ there.”

Place can limit or unlock opportunity.

Instead of looking at the places that have issues as problems, we should think about their opportunities and how they can be leveraged. Looking at the neighborhoods and the people from a new, fresh perspective will enable us to see how they can be shifted for positive change. We should think about how we all can work together to do that. Neighborhoods have what they need, he said, and it’s up to us to figure out how to bring that to bear.

There is a difference between placemaking and placegrowing.

Through his work with local government, communities and leaders, Majestic has developed a unique perspective of the way things work and happen. Placemaking, he suggests, is what we’re doing in Pittsburgh – trying to make our city the most livable city and reaching top 10s and topping all the lists. We’ve “made” places. Just a decade ago, there were neighborhoods that couldn’t sell houses, and now they’re expensive places to live. Contrarily, some of the formerly hottest neighborhoods are in despair.

How do we work on placegrowing, he challenged? How are we making places that create social opportunity for people to come together and grow? That’s how powerful place can be. When every individual thinks about their neighborhood, they should see opportunity and growth. This is how to truly bring our region, people, and future together.

Permaculture expert Joel Glanzberg talked about nature and how our natural environment should be considered when developing places. Joel posits that we mostly treat all things generically and see the same potential in every opportunity. He offered an interesting metaphor. Think of a child. If you’re asked to be a less bad parent, you might yell or punish less. If asked to be a better parent, you might read to them more, spend more time together or go on walks. But if asked to think about being a developmental parent, you have to think about what is special or unique about that particular child. It’s no longer about generic good or bad, but that particular person – what they like, what they’re good at and their natural attributes. Places are the same. We need to change how we’re thinking about whole systems and their major potentials, and deal with them in ways that make neighborhoods more livable.

ValerieMapValerie Goodwin tells her stories of places through maps and quilts. An architecture teacher for more than 20 years, she gained an interest in quilting and uniquely combined the two to map narratives through fabric, paint and thread. From mapping where a person has traveled, to constructing what her hometown neighborhood looked like or the story of her family’s history`, she studies the geographic nature of stories through application of artistic maps. Every place has its own story, she said, but we often enter and exit places without looking around or considering what came before our experience at that place.

What is the story of that particular place? What’s important about it? “A map is an abstract conception of a place,” she said. “Not like a photograph, it doesn’t have to be exact. It’s a work that narrows down what’s important to the person making the map.” The result? A beautifully rendered idea of a place. It’s interesting to think about all the different ways a place can look if mapped by multiple people who have experienced that same place differently.

Mapping places through fiber art led to entire narrative quilts about neighborhoods or personal stories.

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Valerie ended by offering this on-point quote from Muriel Rukeyser, thereby suggesting, like Majestic, that there is much more to the concept and idea of a place than its surface: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

These three speakers brought a really unique perspective to thinking about a place. Place can be defined in different ways and must be designed in context with people’s experiences. After giving thought to the things that the speakers and audience talked about, Valerie determined that architects and designers don’t consider the people or the life of the place when they’re designing and drawing things, and that they need to think about how to enable what already exists there instead of closing it off. Similarly, Joel said that we tend to think of things as mechanical systems – when something doesn’t work, you find the faulty part and either repair it, reform it, replace it, or remove it. We can get a greater understanding of a place and its potential if we think about its past, how it’s come along, and its layers of evolution.

Here are some quotes that stuck with me with me after the lecture:

“We have to be willing to accept the messiness and fuzziness and overlap and lack of clarity and problems and conflict in order to reach a resolution.” – Valerie Goodwin

“The only way to understand potential is to understand where we come from.” – Joel Glanzberg

“Social issues may not be able to be solved by our places alone. If you move the people, you’re not getting rid of the problem, you’re just moving it to a different place.” – Majestic Lane

“We plan and design for what could be, but the funding and political leaders and decisions don’t align with that. They just consider the square footage and how many people can fit into the building but don’t consider the people. Marrying the ideas and aspirations with politics and economics will bring that to bear.” – Majestic Lane

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