Do you want to better understand your place in the world and leave it better for the next generation? Or maybe you are interested in green architecture, sustainable planning or historic preservation. If so, this blog might be for you.
I tend to think of our natural environment as both a gift and a resource. It gives us everything we need. Unfortunately, modern culture appears to be causing more negative impacts than positive. Do you see this too? What if we could work to lighten our environmental footprints while also strengthening our communities? This may be possible with a simple shift in thinking.
Based on the decisions we each make every day, we all have influence on our global ecosystem. No matter your religion, vocation, or even who you know, we all inhabit our respective place within the built environment. Even outliers living off-the-grid or in tiny, mobile houses affect the natural world.
Some decisions, like buying a house or car, demand we spend big money to purchase, maintain and operate them. Still others, like walking to the library or to visiting a neighbor - instead of driving - are totally free. Shop local or buy online? There are different direct and indirect benefits to both.
But, what kind of influence can we have? Two, as I figure. The first level of influence is associated with consumer behavior and public policy. Think of this as broad strokes painted for us to follow. The second level of influence is based on simple direct action. Taking action for something or someone dear to us is hardwired into our psyche.
In my first semester of architecture school I took “Introduction to the Built Environment.” It was a simple one-hour survey course that delivered a sweeping picture of the history of world development and closer look at development in the United States. The excellent thing about our built environment is that we have quite good records of it - certainly since U.S. Industrialization.
This class, plus a lot of reading since, illustrated to me that the built environment could be broken down into distinct physical realms. There are three realms each one of us can influence in our daily lives.
According to Merriam-Webster, a realm is “a region of activity, knowledge, or influence” or “an area over which activity, capacity, or influence extends.”
Home: Whether we rent or own, we all have a home, and to a certain degree are responsible for its purchase, ongoing operations and maintenance. Homes can have kitchens and closets. Patios and private spaces. More importantly, homes are where our closest relationships can grow.
What place do you call home? What do you keep there? What one word describes how you feel about your home?
Neighborhood: Neighborhoods are composed of “neighbors” and their homes. These folks are traditionally the ones we commune with and rely on day to day. They are there to help out in a pinch, and watch your place while you are gone.
Our neighborhood may also expand to include the places we go for recreation, school, shopping, and work. Many daily needs can become a part of this realm. How close-knit is your neighborhood?
Downtown: It is traditionally the center of town. In a rural community, the downtown may be no more than a general store and post office, but the idea is the same as the traditional Main Street districts we see in small historic towns. It’s the community’s living room. It’s the place that evokes nostalgia and sense of place.
What if you are new to a community, and the downtown does not feel like its “yours” yet. Or, perhaps you live in a suburb, without a true town center? I think your heart can show you where this place is for you. Maybe you still feel connected to your hometown, or a funky urban neighborhood with a great coffee shop a quick bike ride from your door. Downtown may be more than one place.
Do you believe that being connected to the evolving history of your downtown is important? How do you feel in a historic downtown versus a modern commercial development?
The commonality between these realms: Identity. Together they give us our core place-based identity, and we feel a certain way about it.
What kinds of direct action will strengthen our realms, and our identity? To do this we are going to need to examine each realm in more detail to explore our options. I may not be able to find the solution to your exact situation, but together we can work on the equation.
We are also going to need to look at the spaces in-between each realm. What are the systems that help each realm relate to one another?
Please note that there are larger realms, such as Regions, Continents, Oceans and the Earth. We undoubtedly affect them, but our direct (per person) influence becomes hard to perceive.
Even still, we should still take have regard for our Regional realm. As the country was settled, varying conditions from region to region allowed unique architectural styles to develop. You might have noticed this when visiting places far from home on vacation.
By looking back at historic architecture and development patterns we should see the truth about sustainable development in our communities. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, our town fathers did much with little. They did it well, and with pride.