UR Here: Blowing the Place Down

The spring and summer of 2011 have been historically devastating. An earthquake and tsunami in Japan rival Hiroshima and Nagasaki. EF5 tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and throughout much of the South have killed more people than any outbreak in six decades. Wildfires have burned more of Arizona to the ground than ever before. Inundated fields, towns, and cities up and down the Missouri River will be underwater for weeks, if not months, before the waters subside.

The aftermath photos of these disasters can be incomprehensible. Vistas of unidentifiable rubble, boards, debris, and trees—sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference if it’s tsunami-wracked Fukushima or tornado-ravaged Joplin. As I have tried to take in these images of utter devastation, I can only ask, “Where would you start?” How do you pick up what few pieces of personal lives are left, and how do you start to put a village, community, city, or even a natural landscape back together? Or should you even try? Underlying that question is also a challenge to the very idea of place—is place left, and can it be restored?

Place is multifaceted. I have often defined it as the web of environments in which we dwell—natural, built, social, and cultural. Advocates of place usually promote intentional place-building, place identity, and place preservation. Community building, environmental sustainability, local cultural practices and traditions, and historic preservation all combine to create what some call a sense of place. With the scale of devastation we’ve seen so often this year, all of these dimensions have been severely compromised if not destroyed in these communities. So what happens to place—places themselves, and even the idea of place—when all of it can be and is literally blown to the ground in an EF5 tornado?

One of the most important lessons of place is that it does change. Place cannot be immutable. We may wish it were at times. We mourn the deaths of those who have helped shape and define our community. We lament the felling of the tree we climbed as a child as it succumbed to age. We sigh in sadness as the venerable old school building where our children learned their ABCs is closed. But usually we understand that all things must end. So one of the major problems of keeping and building place is knowing what to fight to keep and what to let go.

Place is not a zero-sum game but is often challenged by those who wish to make it so, usually in the name of “progress,” which almost always means monetary gain or a particular notion of human convenience. The first step in the zero-sum argument is “practicality.” The historic old opera house downtown needs major repairs. So the zero-sum folks first say tear it down and put up a gas station and convenience store, which would be more “useful” because it would fill a more “practical” need and increase the tax base. The twisting and turning scenic country road, a haven to bicyclists and a traditional byway of natural beauty, catches the eye of those who want to widen and straighten it for trophy homes and who deem the road “impractical” for modern traffic and economic development. When arguments for more intangible values arise—including those about a sense of place—the zero-sum thinkers often take their own reasoning one step further. The old building will fall down someday anyway. The trees on the scenic byway will die someday anyway—they can’t live forever. “Progress” is inevitable. And besides, a tornado would knock everything down in an instant anyway. A tsunami might scrub everything to the ground in seconds anyway. If place is so demonstrably fragile, its value must be low. So therefore our obligation is more toward maximal profit and convenience than toward history, memory, or character.

Zero-sum is also sometimes the argument of those who believe we need not worry about climate change. The natural climate changes by itself (true). So it doesn’t matter if human activity hastens it (false). By this logic, our five-year-olds should start working at McDonalds because they’ll have to learn to live in the working world anyway. We may as well smoke, drink, eat poorly, and never go to the doctor because we’ll die anyway. The further extension of this reasoning can be downright evil: ___ will ___ anyway, so it’s OK to ___. Fill in the blanks with your own horrors.

The zero-sum argument holds no water for those of us who fight hard for keeping place. As I’ve striven to illustrate in this column for the past ten years, the value of place is high for creating a meaningful human life and for respectful stewardship of the natural world. It very often trumps “progress” and economic “development,” and it always overwhelms fatalism.

The disasters of 2011 (which themselves are most likely part and parcel of climate change itself) do present their challenges to the very idea of place. How do we confront these monstrous devastations when, literally, barely any place—in practically all senses of the word—remains? The answer is not fatalism or unfettered capitalistic development. The answer is that even though place can be and has been changed—perhaps even to its very fundamentals—place should be rebuilt and renewed. It happened on Iowa City’s Iowa Avenue when old homes damaged by the 2006 tornado were restored to a level of historical accuracy not seen in decades. It happened in Greensburg, Kansas, when a community decided to rebuild its entire tornado-flattened town with the most advanced green practices available. And hopefully with the right vision and community spirit, it can happen in Joplin, Tuscaloosa, and Fukushima. These places will have certainly changed, and they may no longer even resemble what they were before, but they can become places of even deeper character, community, and stewardship.