In May of 1989 I accepted an offer to relocate to Durham, North Carolina and jumpstart the community’s destination marketing organization.
It was clear during my interview visit that Durham had good bones as well as deeply held traits and values that would be appealing visitors.
By good bones, I mean that many of its indigenous, core commercial districts retained the smaller, people scale, historical blocks of buildings that a majority of travelers are drawn to because they reflect a distinctive sense of place.
This is the “there” there of a particular place that so very many places long ago surrendered.
It is a term that was coined in the 1930s by Gertrude Stein that over time has come to describe anywhere that “sense of character or coherence has eroded,” as so eloquently noted by Scott Russell Sanders in his essay The Geography of Somewhere.
Of course there is a lot more to having a “there” there than just architectural setting.
It was also clear back then that Durham had given in every now and then to the temptation during the 80s to throw up a skyscraper or two, as it is currently doing.
But different than those prior to WWII, apparently both developers and local officials (as illustrated by their own buildings) have forgotten a crucial tenet noted by Witold Rybczyski in How Architecture Works.
When I mentioned a need for “coherence” to an official during deliberations for this newest and tallest building underway in Durham, I received only a look of bewilderment and something mumbled about the need for density.
More on density that later but studies show that, too, is a fallacy when used as a justification for towering structures that violate sense of place.
At year-end I will be seven years retired from that career, but last week the staff there invited me a personal tour of the new headquarters for the organization I led for 21 years in Durham.
Including the ground floor Durham Visitor Info Center, it occupies the first two floors of the six story 1905 Trust Building, Durham’s first skyscraper and one perfectly coherent with place.
It was the tallest building in the state when it was erected. It also had the first elevator in Durham and was a little more than twice the height of surrounding buildings.
There is no record of controversy at the time but there is evidence three years later when the 47-story Singer Building opened in New York as the tallest building in the world that these structures were taking a toll on sense of place.
For several decades people had complained of the canyons these buildings created, along with the wind tunnel effect and the deep shadows they cast shortening the amount of daylight for blocks in at a time.
Now, 100 years after Jane Jacobs published launched a conversation in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a new study across a wide range of metrics finds that blocks of older, smaller builders perform better than districts with larger, newer structures.
By comparison, these blocks generate more jobs per square foot, a greater diversity of businesses, more non-chain local businesses, more small business vitality and greater density, more character, walkability and a broader socio-economic residential mix.
The answer isn’t either/or. It is about mix, fit and especially coherence.
Communities that have surrendered to forces who told them they had to sell out their sense of place in order to be major league still have pockets or fragments they can salvage.
Communities such as Durham that turned the corner with sense of place in tact but may be unprepared for how quickly out of town “buyer/flippers” as well as franchise architecture developer/lenders can hollow out sense of place.
They may need to shift gears even more quickly.
Reading this study is a good start. Begin by dissuading planners and officials of any notion that coherence of place must be sacrificed for density.