When I was a child I lived in a small town in central Florida and we had brick streets. I loved those streets: I would ride my bicycle out of my way to ride down a brick street. They were so different from asphalt, so interesting, so beautiful. I also loved the streets where the trees bridged the street and made tunnels. In hot, bright Florida those tunnels transported the girl on the bicycle to her version of Narnia.
I don’t know whether all children respond as much to the physical environment as I did but I do know that all my earliest memories are about place. How the Lithia Springs smelled (wet ferns and slightly sulfurous spring water) and looked (coquina stone walls set by the CCC in the 1930s, overhanging live oak trees covered with Spanish moss). How the white sand on Crescent Beach squeaked under your feet and was somehow cool even on a hot day. How the dry oak leaves rattled on a November day when it was going to rain soon.
When I was 10, just old enough to ride my bicycle downtown and buy sewing fabric, one of the two department stores in my small town closed its original store on Main Street and moved to a fancy new store around the corner. I hated the new store. I had loved the original store with its high ceilings and oiled wood floor. I loved the way it smelled of the oil used on the floor and the dusty smell of fabric. The new store had KenTile on the floor and a low ceiling and air conditioning that was too cold. No one could understand my aversion to the new store. But Ivy, my mother said, it’s so much cleaner and brighter. I didn’t care. The new store was just like every other store; the old store had been its own particular place.
Place creates who we are. I lived in a town compact enough that I could ride my bicycle everywhere, giving me a measure of freedom seldom available to today’s suburban children. Those streets with the bridged trees enclosed the world and made it manageable and beautiful. Lithia Springs’ trees and walls and shadow made a whole world.
And isn’t that what we do, those of us who are engaged in placemaking? We’re making a place, a world, that is human-scaled and beautiful and interesting and different from other places. We do it by observing the places we love best and respond to and figuring out what it is that we are responding to so that we can make more of it. I work in New England now, so what I observe and try to replicate is not identical to those formative places in Florida but there are surprising overlaps. Bridging street trees, narrow places, shelter, complex places: those are still the things that make a place a good place, an interesting place. A place you can ride your bicycle and see into front yards, a place where you can walk downtown and buy four yards of Liberty lawn, a place that when you go there there are other people there.