Collective Memory and New Town Planning
Posted August 26th, 2013 in Uncategorized by Rick Hill

desigual-02In my last post, I suggested that many planners, architects, and builders of today appear to have lost sight of the true sources of inspiration: the fusion of a diversity of people, art, and technology. They fail to recognize that the built environment must be a product of the contemporary culture of its communities.


In the book Cities of Collective Memory, author Christine Boyer chronicles how early forms of art, entertainment and cultural celebrations influenced the architecture, design and creation of historic public space and civic places. Her writings explain how events, ceremonies and their associated pageantry were products of their cultural environments. She writes that today these special places have become containers of our collective civic memories, connecting us to our past, which, in part, forms our identity. She is rightfully critical of modern urban developments that combine elements from previous eras, haphazardly recombining them out of context, time, and environment to create places without meaning.


One could point to the architects and developers of residential developments labeled as “New Urbanism” with their simulated main streets and replicas of historic civic structures as culprits. This is not an attack on a historic town form that follows certain patterns of urban land division—town squares, homes on narrow lots, front porches facing pedestrian sidewalks, and rear-yard parking accessed by neighbor-friendly alleys. Far from it.


However, too many New Urbanism developments have rejected almost anything that is new in an almost zealot devotion to a bygone Norman Rockwellian era. I, too, long for summer nights of “Red Rover Red Rover, we dare you over” played on front lawns, with moms gathered on porch swings and rocking chairs while the dads made homemade ice cream in the driveway. But this view, this desire to hold on to something wonderful from the past has prevented the development industry from reconciling the essence of what made traditional places special and the way humans interact today with the contemporary consumer-goods distribution channel.


Regrettably, the corner drug store has been replaced with the big-box drug store, with its drive-through located on the town’s bypass and its internet prescription services. The local hardware store, adorned with a hand-carved wooden mercantile sign with gold-leaf lettering hanging under an American flag, and a front porch filled with rocking chairs, potted flowers, and bird feeders has far too often been replaced with the big-box chain across from the mall.


So, what is my point? Many traditional town planners are too quick to point to highly successful historic neighborhoods or to new successful suburban developments with the characteristics that they so much wish to embody in their own designs that they fail to see the reality. These examples of success are often supported by high household incomes in elite neighborhoods that support Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn, or by visitors to luxury resort destinations where specialty shops flourish as vacation entertainment, where the market changes weekly, and everyone dines out as part of the holiday experience.


Our planning, visioning, and way of thinking must allow for something that is new— to move our collective vision forward in the context of a new marketplace of commercial Darwinism. We must protect and preserve everything that was good about the way things used to be while finding new solutions to real urbanism, new distribution channels, and future retail formats.  To do otherwise actually restricts the meaningful innovation and the development of the real solutions that are required to create better communities.


Please share your thoughts on how we can do this.



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