When I was recruited to Anchorage, where I spent most of the 1980s, I hadn’t yet given much thought to the “commons,” including the spectacular views in every direction.
But it was clear someone there had by the time I arrived in July of 1978.
Often, as a hobby and for my work in community marketing I would snap photos from the tops of tall buildings - the Alaska Range across Cook Inlet, Mt. McKinley to the north, the Chugach Mountains backdrop or Mt. Saint Augustine, up inlet to the southwest.
It wasn’t necessary to be on top of a building to see these views but something else struck me from up there, just how long a shadow they cast.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn recently that towers being erected today in Midtown Manhattan will cast a shadow nearly a half mile long, enough to block out the sun in Central Park.
A few towers in Anchorage of 14 stories or so had been built in the 1950s. Hotels of 15 or more were built in the 1960s, followed by several others, some as high as 18 stories in the 1970s.
But several office building of 20 or more stories were going up just as I arrived. So it is in this context that I first became aware of viewsheds as part of the commons and a community’s sense of place, a term just coined back then by Wallace Stegner.
From comments in passing, I get the feeling that officials in Durham, North Carolina weren’t too worried about either viewshed, sense of place or blocking much of this district from the morning sun when they approved a new 26-story City Center tower here.
Renderings were careful, it seemed, to show only the angles from where the sun was setting.
Officials and developers here have been sensitized to the importance of Durham’s sense of place by the community’s destination marketing organization but currently boomers seem to have more sway than stayers and boomers seem rarely concerned with the “commons.”
Unfortunately, friends of mine in high office has a few months earlier slapped down those who wanted to preserve even the skyline, let along viewsheds.
Maybe this lack of concern for commons is because most boomers fall under the spell of building icons when they should be concerned with creating settings, according to acclaimed architectural expert Witold Rybczynski (pronouned Vi-told Rib-shin-skee) in his book Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities.
In another book entitled, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, former Penn dean of architecture Rybczynski reminds us, as well as developers and architects, that new buildings should seek coherence with place not personality cult.
It isn’t just blight such as roadside billboards that rob us of viewsheds. I don’t actually have anything against billboards, I am just very pro scenic character and preservation.
So I try to read not only from the viewpoint of developers and architects but also from those who are concerned about the privatization and surrender of the commons.
Important to preserving a community’s sense of place is the ability to hold contradictory viewpoints and perspectives. Leveraging a community’s sense of place requires differentiation and differentiation of place requires continuity.
But according to researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgia State, we have a natural defense mechanism to avoid cognitive dissonance or having to admit we may be wrong.
The study concluded that it is far more comfortable for many of us to be close-minded than to endure the ambiguity and uncertainty of being open-minded.
What makes me pessimistic that Durham may be on the slippery slope to surrendering its sense of place is an increasing unwillingness to engage in discourse about attributes such as viewsheds for fear it may result in losing a project.
Researchers led by social ecologist Dr. Paul Piff at the University of California, Irvine have found that things that inspire “awe,” such as gazing up at a grove of huge trees, significantly more than say a tall building, have the effect of lessening our self-absorption.
They encourage us to forgo self-interest, be more ethical and take action to improve the lives of others, our neighborhoods and communities, what the researchers call prosocial behavior.
This gives me reason to believe that community discussions of the commons is worthwhile, including developers, regardless of whether they are incentivized with public funds or have so-called “air rights.”
Anyone concerned with preserving a community’s distinctiveness is well advised to include viewsheds as an ingredient and the subtle “awe” created by these settings.