Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sense of place vs. community

The Washington Post has an interesting article on LA's $10 billion dollar downtown remake, not for the details of what's getting built downtown, but the comments about LA's sense of itself.
They say Los Angeles is 100 suburbs looking for a city. With any luck, they are finding one.

A development boom worth $10 billion is remaking the face of downtown Los Angeles, leading boosters to predict a renaissance in what used to be the desolate center of the capital of sprawl. From concert halls to condos, developers have built or are planning hundreds of projects that they say will end the sense of Los Angeles as a rudderless megalopolis with a rotten core.

"They used to say, 'There's no there there,' " said Margie Busch, a 30-something financial analyst who moved to a downtown loft recently with her girlfriend, Suzie Jones, a waitress and aspiring actress. "But we're here and we're happening. L.A. is changing. It's becoming a city."


California historian Kevin Starr said he was unsure all the development would combine to create a center where they was once none. "I think L.A. is still uncertain as to its urbanism, unlike New Yorkers who are fundamentally certain about theirs," he said. "Over and over again we debate this issue: Are we or are we not a big-time city?"

Even some participants in the downtown boom wonder if Los Angeles can remake itself into a more traditional city.

"Angelenos are different than the rest of Americans," said Dan Rosenfeld, a partner at a downtown real estate development firm. "We are a collection of individuals, not a community." He noted that Los Angeles has some of the best private gardens in the United States but the worst parks, some of the most stunning private architecture but disappointing public buildings, the greatest private art collections but middling museums.

"L.A. is impossible to plan," Rosenfeld said. "Its civic character is a bundle of energy and not a place."

Houston is notorious for continuously wondering if we've finally passed some "world class city" threshold. I think LA is commonly considered one, certainly one of the two most renown cities in the US along with New York (being the background for the majority of the world's entertainment will do that for a city). Heck, the Wikipedia has LA's picture under the "Global City" entry with it ranked just below the "Big 4" of NY, London, Paris, and Tokyo as a "world city" (a way of implying "world class" without the low-class act of actually using the word "class"). Yet clearly they are insecure in their "big-time city" status, which doesn't bode well for Houston's insecurity on the topic for quite a while into the future (not being the background for almost any of the world's entertainment, as well as about one-third the size).

I'm certainly not one to argue that the New York urban form is the one-and-only true path to world class city status. I actually happen to think of New York as a relatively unique product of history (as are London and Paris) - in particular the evolution of mobility and interaction technology - and future cities are unlikely head that direction, at least in America (more centralized and densely-populated Asia is a different story). The car has fundamentally altered the character of the city, and I don't think that will change anytime soon (not to mention what virtual presence technology will do on the Internet over the next decade). LA may actually be able to spawn a mini-Manhattan in its core - it certainly has the population pressures and the pedestrian-friendly weather. Whether that will permanently resolve the world-class/big-time quandary is an open question.

I think they hit on the bigger problem in the article: the lack of a feeling of real community. Maybe that's one of the reasons the NFL has such a hard time making a team work there? (they've lost two) Or maybe the entertainment industry in not very civic minded? (at least at the local level) How does one go about building a "sense of community"? Is it as simple as having a vibrant downtown? "A there there"? It may be helpful, but I doubt it's the answer. And is a "sense of place" the same as a "sense of community"? Is it possible that a lot of cities have lost their "sense of community" and are trying to get back a faux semblance of it through the physical building of a "sense of place" (aka "a vibrant downtown"). Can a "sense of place" really rekindle a genuine "sense of community"? I don't know, but plenty of cities are trying.

Houston's had a pretty strong sense of community for a long time, even before our own downtown renaissance. We may not have a tourist-level "sense of place" (i.e. it's hard to get a feel for the unique identity of Houston during a short trip), but I think most residents who've been here a while do have a strong "sense of place" about Houston. There's an indefinable feel of home and community. Even though it's not a very tangible thing - it's not a building or a neighborhood or a skyline or a stadium or a monument you can point at - we should recognize our sense of community as a precious asset to be nurtured, because, well, once you've lost it, the strategy for getting it back is pretty unclear.


At 12:43 PM, January 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I noticed on the Wikipedia entry you reference that Houston is condsidered by at least one source to be a "6-Point Gamma World City" along with other cities such as Amsterdam, Boston, Geneva, Melbourne, Osaka, Prague, and our nation's capital. Not a bad list of peer cities by any means.

I also can't help but notice that another Texas city is on that same list of 6-Point Gamma World Cities, even though said city continually thinks that they are better than Houston...



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