The Power of Place

Place is where life is lived. It’s where we earn a livelihood, where we create community, where we learn and explore new ideas, where we express our humanity in art and culture, where we connect with the natural world. It’s where we seek wholeness and well-being.

Place has a terrain, a landscape, a texture, a fabric. It’s a living system with continuously unfolding possibilities. It’s animated by stories, a keeper of memories.

We create place together, contributing our own gifts. Each place has its own unique DNA, woven from shared hopes and lives lived. It is where we walk together, where we belong. It is home.

“Place,” Michael Jones writes in his book The Soul of Place, “is the wellspring from which all life flows.”

The Happiness Project

Richard Florida is an economist and social scientist who has written extensively on the forces that shape cities and create prosperity. He conducted a Place and Happiness Survey with the Gallup Organization in 8,000 communities across the United States, based on telephone interviews with more than 27,000 people. The survey looked at the effect of place on happiness and psychological well-being.

Florida describes the results in his book Who’s Your City: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life. The survey identified five major factors that make people happy in their communities:

  • Physical and economic security – perceptions of crime and safety, economic opportunity, and the availability of jobs
  • Basic services – schools, health care, affordable housing, roads and public transportation
  • Leadership – the quality of elected and unelected leadership and the opportunity for civic engagement
  • Openness – the level of tolerance for and acceptance of diverse demographic groups
  • Aesthetics – physical beauty, amenities and cultural offerings

Place nurtures human potential, Florida says.

“Places that are open let us freely express ourselves and be part of a bigger picture, a larger whole. They provide us with the space necessary for personal discovery and self-actualization – for realizing our potential and dreams; for building and raising the family we truly desire. They enable us to be part of a whole and to be ourselves, adding real meaning and fulfillment to our lives.”

Healthy places have imagination and ambition. They look to provide more than the basics of life. Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery calls cities a “happiness project” [Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design]. After meeting our need for food, shelter and security a city needs to:

  • Strive to maximize joy and minimize hardship
  • Lead us toward health rather than sickness
  • Offer us real freedom to live, move, and build our lives as we wish
  • Build resilience against economic or environmental shocks
  • Be fair in the way it apportions space, services, mobility, joys, hardships, and costs
  • Enable us to build and strengthen the bonds between friends, families, and strangers that give life meaning

“The city that acknowledges and celebrates our common fate, that opens doors to empathy and cooperation,” Montgomery says, “will help us tackle the great challenges of this century.”

Challenge and Change

The challenges are many.

As the world population grows, more and more of us are living in urban places. More than half of the human population — 3.3 billion people — now lives in cities. This will increase to 60 per cent by 2030, doubling to 6.4 billion. In developing countries 60 million people move into cities each year. According to the World Bank, the global population living in slums has increased from 35 million to more than one billion people over the last 50 years.

The urban population in China alone is expected to reach one billion by 2030, adding 350 million people in a period of 20 years. By 2025, China will have 221 cities with a population of a million people or more; 23 cities with a population of more than five million. It is estimated that 900,000 villages in China disappeared between 2000 and 2010, with an average of 250 villages disappearing every day. [Jiehao, Chen. “China’s villages vanish amid rush for the cities.” In The Telegraph. November 23, 2013]

Transportation, energy, water, waste management, education, health care, safety and security will have to be sustained as cities grow. Cities will also have to cope with global climate change. It is expected that many will be subject to heat stress, extreme weather events and sea level rise. Urban life and livelihoods will be impacted by the effect of climate change on surrounding regions.

Creating the Future

We have no choice but to live differently. Cities will be the engines of change. It is there that together we will create the future.

Benjamin Barber believes cities can save the world. Writing in If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, he says, “Voluntary cooperation among cities, civil society organizations, and engaged citizens can achieve outcomes beyond the capacity of powerful states – states that turn out to be crippled by the very power that defines their sovereignty… The question becomes how far cities can go together to solve problems that have proved intractable when confronted by individual competing states.”

Cities are now linking up globally. United Cities and Local Governments, an association of mayors and elected officials, was formed in Paris in 2004, representing half the world population. Many networks connect cities around the world, focusing on issues such as climate change, environment, energy efficiency, economic development, revitalization, transportation, sustainability, law enforcement, security, democracy, peace, human rights, education, arts and culture.

New energy for change is emerging at the community grassroots level – in makerspaces, civic labs, social innovation labs, incubators and accelerators. Cities are engaging creatively with designers, hackers, artists and social entrepreneurs. Many cities are involving citizens directly in brainstorming, experimenting, and developing breakthrough solutions.

The Social Fabric

Like a nuclear reactor that generates immense heat and energy from a critical core, cities generate the energy for change from community and social capital.

In The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, John McKnight and Peter Block describe the role self-organization plays in releasing this energy.

“The traditional way of doing something is to have a system by which somebody manages things. The community way of doing it is to count on self-organization, which is very unpredictable and unmanageable. For the exchange of gifts to become the norm in a community, it needs to self-organize, with all its hazards.”

Community capacity is built, the authors say, by:

  • Respecting and enhancing life on a small scale
  • Understanding that people’s gifts are more valuable than their deficiencies and needs
  • Recognizing that the power of community grows out of ever-increasing cooperative local relationships and connections
  • Understanding that a local place called neighborhood has unique, irreplaceable value
  • Recognizing that local resources are vital to the well-being of a community
  • Understanding that the economy and community each derive their power from maximizing opportunities for all residents to use their skills and contribute all of their gifts

Respecting and harnessing this power will be our salvation, Jane Jacobs says in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“Dull, inert cities… do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

It is in communities that we learn to be citizens, and it is there that we become citizens of the world.


Featured image: Queen Street West, Toronto, Canada.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.