There are several reasons why a community won’t seem to have or value its distinctive sense of place.
The most common is that its boosters and politicians may place emphasis not on what is unique or distinctive but instead on the promotion of mainstream venues and events, chasing after the appearance of seeming “major league.”
The reference was coined as a way to be distinctive but the reality is that a community then becomes just one of many. For a classic essay on this, click here for a 1997 essay Garrison Keillor penned for Time Magazine.
But research reveals that even visitors, convention planners and relocating executives who may seem to be enthralled with the ubiquitous are always drawn more to authenticity in a place.
Below the surface though, while at risk of being suffocated, these communities usually have pockets of ardent “stayers” vs. “boomers” who work tirelessly to breathe oxygen into its sense of place before it really is too late.
Communities such as Durham, North Carolina can seem to have more of their sense of place remaining, because their community marketing organization hones in on distinctive ingredients and used them as leverage to outperform counterparts in other communities that don’t.
But even in these communities, sense of place remains at risk if it isn’t also embraced by other boosters and politicians. In fact, taking it for granted, they may be in greater danger of being complacent.
Raleigh, North Carolina, a metro area distinct from Durham with which it shares a co-owned airport located in a community midway between, is one of those places that to many, has seemed to surrender its sense of place.
But below its “mainstream” hype and veneer, there is a valiant cohort fighting to save its soul and because it is so much more at risk, possibly making up with desperation and determination what the community’s distinctiveness lacks in promotional materials and visibility.
Raleigh may look generic because it often gives promotion emphasis to aspects you can find almost anywhere including mega-facilities, but below this mainstream veneer are some incredible sense of place best practices.
Far ahead of Durham, officials there have steadily funded historic assessments not only inventories by neighborhood but by period. Of course, having a unique sense of place is about far more than just history or historic structures.
For instance, Raleigh had not done as well when it comes to growing indigenous festivals, seeming more interested in importing them or in the natural elements of sense of place, e.g. its tree canopy, which has now shrunk to just 36%.
Evidently, Raleigh failed to heed the unsolicited observations published by America’s soon-to-be foremost architect of sense of place when in the early 1850s it was a village of only 2,500 souls:
“It is hard to admire what is common; and it is, perhaps, asking too much of the citizens of Raleigh, that they should plant for ornament, or even cause to be retained about such institutions as their Lunatic Asylum, the beautiful evergreens that crowd about the town…”
These things are all emblematic of sense of place, which at its core is about values and traits that while not unique are distinctively manifest. Unlike Durham, Raleigh has not yet plumbed that deep.
When, or if, it does, it may find that placing the ambitions of “boomers” above the values of “stayers,” to adapt the words of Wendell Berry, has always been one of its near-temporal but fatal values.
But I want to share a study just completed for Raleigh that is the envy of many communities concerned about retaining sense of place. It is a plan unveiled a few months ago that quantifies the value of its historic assets and its cultural identity as part of its economic development, at least on the traditional supply-side.
The study quantifies the role of its historic districts as havens and magnets for creative class workers (knowledge workers) and enterprises as well as various measures of livability including walkability, property values, ownership, stability, diversity and tax base contribution.
It was conducted by a team of real estate and economic development experts led by Donovan Rypkema at PlaceEconomics. Click here to review slides from a presentation Rypkema made on this topic a few years ago in Mississippi.
What caught my eye is how much more powerful and effective historic tax credits have been as a self-funding form of economic stimulus.
Most of the areas studied in Raleigh have undergone gentrification, yet the analysis documented that historic districts there, at least collectively, have retained a healthy mix of household incomes.
Raleigh is much less diverse than Durham, which no longer has an ethnic or racial majority. But the historic districts there are more diverse when it comes to whites and African Americans than the Raleigh is as a whole.
For anyone seeking secondary research, a good amount can be gleaned from this report as well. One reason Raleigh is now the second largest city in North Carolina has been its ability to sprawl out into one of the largest counties in the state, three times larger than Durham County’s footprint.
Before the recession, a friend in economic development there told me that the area surrounding and including Raleigh had been developing at a rate of an acre a minute.
That is far too fast a rate for rational decisions to be made about sense of place. In fact, in the thirty years prior to the great recession of 2008, The county including Raleigh increased impervious surface by 7.6 acres a day.
Ironically, Durham may owe some of it sense of place to Raleigh. A third of Durham was set aside in watershed and a huge reservoir that fueled Raleigh’s much-too-rapid growth, while incessant bad-mouthing of Durham may have also helped tap the breaks on Durham growth.
But it was interesting to note in the PlaceEconomics report that a little more than a hundred years ago, Raleigh’s population density was three times what it is today. Development such as this puts incredible pressure on taxes.
This is not only because residential development does not pay for itself but because with sprawl, while the tax paid by individual units is higher, the tax revenue generated per square foot and per acre plummets. Meanwhile, the cost of replacing infrastructure is much higher in newer developed areas than it is in historic districts.
Myrick Howard, a native of Durham who lives in Raleigh as head of Preservation North Carolina recently penned a very thoughtful piece entitled Ten Reasons Historic Preservation Matters for North Carolina.
He touches only briefly on tourism. But I know from the metrics, that communities, such as Durham, that put their authenticity and distinct sense of place forward in their community marketing are outperforming those that focus instead on mainstream facilities and events.
Even more intriguing, those that do the former also outperform or at least hold their own for visitor participation in less authentic areas such as performing arts, sports and conventions.
Want the best of both? Always lead with what’s distinctive and authentic about a community.