Friday, August 12, 2005

Sense of Place

I’ve always felt lucky that I fell into a career in visitor destination marketing as a perfect match for my degree in history. I believe that to truly market a community as a “place” to draw visitors requires understanding that community’s historical personality.

This isn’t just facts and dates or buildings and people but a feeling for what I’ve always called a community’s “unique sense of place.” This and similar descriptions come up more and more frequently in discussions about destination branding, in Joe Cortright’s theory of the “economic importance of being different and in books like Philip Kotler’s Marketing Places.

Barbara Lau at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies recently put me on to a book called The Power of Place by Delores Haden, a professor of architecture, urbanism, urban history and American Studies at Yale. She puts it all together along with well taken cautions to avoid clichés in tourism marketing.

Ms. Haden frames one area for discussion about buildings and cities as theatres of memory vs. futuristic theaters of prophecy’. Discussion also centers around cultural landscapes and urban buildings for social and political meaning as much as physical. This is timely grist if not overdue for community-wide discussion and debate in Durham.

Durham’s unique sense of place is at risk:

1) because people new to the community often perceive themselves as the Cavalry, here to save Durham and make it like other places,

2) because while major developments like The Streets At Southpoint emulate Durham’s unique sense of place and Federal Historic Tax credits incent the adaptive reuse of historically unique structures, architects for public facilities like the Detention Center or the new Multi Modal Transportation Center seem totally unaware of the community’s formal “Design Guidelines.

It isn’t a question of offense and defense or who’s right and who’s wrong…the issue needs broad discussion and debate because once lost, a community rarely if ever can recover its unique sense of place.

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