Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Fiery Soldier For Sense of Place

He walked unsteadily into the room using two canes but still with the grace of a former soldier.  More than 30 years after I first began to benefit from his wisdom as a national sense-of-place reformer, I recently found myself meeting him face to face in a room that was immediately filled with his passion and his intellect.

I first became aware of Edward T. McMahon when I was just a decade into my now-concluded 40-year career in community-destination marketing and a little full of myself after receiving a 1982 CLIO Award in the television/cinema category as producer for the still evident Wild About Anchorage campaign which was created in part by Bob Kurtz who, by the way, gave me the nick name I use on Twitter, Topbull, as in the bull moose mascot “Seymour of Anchorage” which was part of the campaign.

Some jump to the plausible, but inaccurate, conclusion that the handle relates to my time as head of the community marketing agency for Durham which is known as “The Bull City,” but I had it long before I arrived here.

While sense-of-place was just emerging for me as a concept back then, it had always been in my subconscious approach to my work.

Back then Ed was teaching law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center after earning a law degree there subsequent to receiving an M.A. in Urban Studies from the University of Alabama.

At the time, Charlie Floyd, a friend of mine now in North Carolina and Ed were part of a group resurrecting a national roadside reform movement much like the National Roadside Council had been from the 1920s-1960s.  Initially it was called the Coalition for Scenic Beauty which morphed into Scenic America in 1989 just as I was arriving in Durham NC, where I still live, to jumpstart community marketing here.

Rivaled only by Dr. Scott Russell Sanders and his seminal essay entitled The Geography of Somewhere, Ed’s prolific writing, both when he worked at The Conservation Fund and also since 2004 at the Urban Land Institute where he currently holds the Charles E. Fraser Chair for Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy, has shaped my understanding of the central importance of sense-of-place.

When my friend Tania Dautlick recently turned me onto The Sustainable Cities Institute, I wasn’t at all surprised to see Ed on the advisory board there.

Favorite Edward T. McMahon essays of mine include his most recent entitled The Distinctive City where he poses the thought provoking question: “Do you want the character of your city to shape the new development, or do you want the new development to shape the character of the city?”

Another of my favorites of his is The Place Making Dividend which is filled with observations about the economic importance of being different such as “…many American communities are suffering the social, economic, and environmental consequences of being places that simply aren’t worth caring about. The more one place (one location) comes to be just like every other place, the less reason there is to visit or invest.”

Another is Lessons In Community Development Learned from Traveling where he writes “Travel teaches us that those communities that have retained their unique character are places that use vision, planning, and design to preserve the features that make them special. It also teaches us that progress does not demand degraded surroundings.”

In an essay entitled Tourism and the Environment, Ed put his finger on why sense of place is about so much more than facilities and activities when he writes, “… anyplace can create a tourist attraction, but it is those places that are attractions in and of themselves that people most want to visit.”

I feel so blessed to hold the many perspectives I learned from Ed and then to finally meet him in person and be able to tell him so.  I credit him for much of the success I enjoyed in my career and and also for the passion I have as a roadside reformer in retirement.

If you are involved in community-destination marketing or you want the destination marketing organization in your community to assume its customary responsibility of serving as guardian of sense of place where you live, you can do no better than to relish and share this one last “Edism”:

“Place is more than just a location or a spot on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provides meaning to a location.

Sense of place is what makes one location (e.g., your hometown) different from another location (e.g., my hometown), but sense of place is also that which makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.”

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