Making Places Special by Gene Bunnell

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Posted 2006-09-04

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Every human settlement changes over time. Whether that change is mindful or haphazard remains largely up to the choices of the people who live there. Planning is a choice to make thoughtful analysis of land use, physical infrastructure, architecture, and human amenities. In this book, Gene Bunnell makes the case for planning as a positive force for making places special.

Bunnell shows how patience, persistence, cooperation, negotiation, imagination, and attention to details can have an impact on a city's form. He presents case studies covering many cities throughout the US where planning did make a difference. Although Bunnell does not stress it, I think the strength of this book may be in the implied criticism of prior city development. For example, in several cities (Providence, Duluth, and Wichita), Bunnell shows how natural features--notably waterfront areas--were blocked from human access almost as if by some obsessive desire to obliterate any human presence or features along those waterfronts. Similarly, bunker-like civic and public buildings, massive surface parking lots, and waterfront areas used for trash disposal marred the landscape of many cities. Through patient reworking of these short-sighted uses of land, Bunnell shows how places can be re-knit for human beings through planning and, oftentimes, very persistent work over many decades.

Bunnell makes a solid, sober, and logical case for planning and presents many admirable people-oriented and mixed-use features planned for cities. However, I am left to wonder what the planners of the 20th century were thinking when they destroyed urban areas systematically. Planning logic of the 20th century seemed bent on removing historic buildings and replacing them with surface parking lots, destroying and blocking access to waterfront areas, cutting through neighborhoods with elevated freeways, destroying the urban fabric with bunkers--ugly, blank-walled, windowless, boxy, pedestrian-hostile public buildings--and everywhere making the automobile absolutely supreme by denigrating wherever possible and however possible the pedestrian environment. Those were the results of much 20th century planning, and in many areas, these same ideas reign. My discomfort is that perhaps no lessons were learned and that Bunnell's advocacy is just a prettier form of this same ignorance.

Bunnell mentions parking only tangentially. But in light of The High Cost of Free Parking (Shoup 2005), the weaknesses of some of Bunnell's case studies become clear. Although Bunnell praises Chattanooga's aquarium and other mixed-used developments, a Google satellite photo reveals massive surface parking lots near the Tennessee Aquarium. Are surface parking lots the best possible way to create a special place? Similarly, he shows how remarkable tenacity on the part of civic leaders and citizens of Wichita brought forth new development along its riverfront area. But a satellite photo reveals massive amounts of land given over to surface parking, in locations right along the river where the stunning views of the Exploration Place and other features, including rare, beautiful urban and water views of Kansas' largest city.

Examples of automobile-centric thinking abound in his case of Westminster, Colorado. Although an admirable network of bicycling and walking trails criss-cross this suburban landscape, the immensity of land given over to automobiles is striking. A satellite image shows an eleven-lane street right next to the celebrated statue of dolphins Bunnell praises so much. He claims this dolphin statue gives a sense of place. He claims that people just can say, "I'll meet you at the dolphins" (p. 680), but I don't know anyone in their right mind who would want to be next to the intersection of eleven lanes of traffic, off a massive surface parking lot, in a tremendously inhuman amount of open space and stand, waiting, in exposed indignity.

My point is that too often Bunnell seems to ignore the impact of parking and automobile-focused thinking. He doesn't make a strong enough case that rare, one-of-a kind civic views and human-oriented land use must be nurtured. He praises nice-looking street details that still exist in a pedestrian-hostile context. Too often, beautiful new museums or other features get separated from the rest of the urban fabric by access roads, parking lots, and automobile-centric, suburban-style nearby development. This is a tremendous waste of rare, urban settlement and ambience that may not exist in any other part of a metropolitan area or even state (as in the case of Wichita's urban skyline and water views). Most disturbingly, this waste is unarticulated and ignored, and even celebrated (by boasts of "plenty of free parking!").

Bunnell's case rests on the idea that planning is not some communist plot to tell people what they can do with property, but a public process that seeks to designate land use to best suit the long-term livability of a place. Planning helps because human settlement in cities results in a density where choices must be made, benefits or negative aspects accumulate and reinforce each other, and thoughtful choices seem best. However, when the tremendous amounts of surface parking and gargantuan amounts of open space are knit into the fabric of an area (Bunnell's case of Westminster, Colorado is particularly disturbing) in the process of planning, I wonder if future generations will rue those choices as much as the present generation must cope with the disasters of 20th-century architecture and urban planning.

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