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UR Here: The place is what’s Important

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UR Here
Illustration by Erin Weitzell

“If you build it, they will come” is baloney. Perhaps it’s heresy to question a platitude from one of Iowa’s sacred texts. But the ghostly voice from the cornfield seems to be whispering in a lot of ears as major changes loom for Iowa City’s downtown and near-downtown area. We have a new Downtown and Pedestrian Mall Streetscape Plan, the ongoing redevelopment of the Riverfront Crossings area south of Burlington, the Chauncey and the possible redevelopment of the Unitarian church and adjacent city parking lot properties. To no one’s surprise, these new developments have not been without controversy over what is being lost, who is being served and what is being built or proposed.

My concern is not so much about the specific changes underway or on the horizon, and it’s not even about change itself. Rather, my concern here is the process of change in our communities.

A recent article from the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), “Placemaking and Place-Led Development: A New Paradigm for Cities of the Future,” makes an important distinction between “public space” and “place.” “Public space” is “publicly owned land that, in theory, is open and accessible to all members of a given community—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, or socioeconomic level.” “Places,” on the other hand, are “environments in which people have invested meaning over time” (a classic definition of “place” straight out of geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s pioneering research). The article goes on to say, “It is not necessarily through public space, then, but through the creation of places that the physical, social environmental and economic health of urban and rural communities can be nurtured.”

Central to this concept is the fact that “a place has its own history—a unique cultural and social identity that is defined by the way it is used and the people who use it.” That is where the “invested meaning over time” comes from. “Place” is as much retrospective as it is prospective. It is at least as much about the historical legacy and current use of our community space as it is about future vision and development. In strong places, the future must originate in where we are and where we have been, not just in speculative superimposition of something entirely new. Change is not replacement.

Many often believe that if we just alter the physical environment, we will change the quality and qualities of our place. In other words, “If you build it, they will come.” That notion is belied by communities across the country filled with empty, unused and vilified buildings, parks, plazas and other public and community spaces because what PPS calls “place-led governance” was not followed. I.e.,“putting ‘place’ at the center of policy and planning frameworks,” which must be the “core incremental process of city-making.” And even if those shiny new buildings and amenities are used, they have often become so at the cost of the demolition of community legacy and the displacement of many—usually poorer—long-time citizens.

Iowa City’s current central core development is fraught with community unrest about architectural heritage, towers and shadows, new residents displacing old residents, older businesses lost to new ones and so forth. I do not advocate stagnation or the idea that “because we always did it this way” is the best approach. But as our core landscape changes, I urge all—those with decision-making power and those the power answers to—to be place-led, to start from history, community identity and current use before we wipe the slate clean and overlay it with a prefabricated economic development dreamscape.

More towers, apartment buildings, large public art installations and waterfront parks are on the docket. I know public input has played a part in at least some of this planning, but is “public input” the same as place-led governance? Have we adequately studied the history of these areas and determined what is important in order to preserve our heritage and community identity? Have any studies been done to figure out how people actually use these or similar spaces now, and how we can enhance that use—not how we might speculate or hope these spaces will be used? Have we made a serious effort to comprehensively ask what those who now live, play, shop and build community in their downtown and environs want, or have we focused too much on a predetermined, speculative new population that city leaders and developers want to attract? Do we really know what university students, senior citizens, the homeless, young families with children and the old guard who have lived, worked and played in downtown for decades want or envision? Or have we depended too much on narrow brain trusts and outside consultants?

Another recent PPS article called “Equitable Placemaking: Not the End, but the Means” says, “Placemaking offers a unique opportunity to bring people of different backgrounds together to work collaboratively on a common goal: a shared public space. When local officials, developers or any other siloed group prescribe improvements to a place without working with the community, no matter how noble those groups’ intentions may be, it often alienates locals, provokes fears of gentrification and increases the feeling and experience of exclusion. This kind of project-led or design-led development ignores the primary function of Placemaking—human connection.”

Again, our city leaders may claim that there has been “public input” into Iowa City’s new development through City Council public comment sessions and public forums, but it’s hard to deny that we’ve still ended up with negative results caused by the failure to follow place-led governance; that is, alienated locals, fears of gentrification and feelings and experience of exclusion. That tells me that the process of change in our community still needs to be more inclusive as well as considerate of the past and present, that we are not trying hard or broadly enough to fully understand community wishes, a common vision, and what the shared future of a truly inclusive, humanly connected culture might look like.

Thomas Dean always tries to lead from place. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 185.


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