The other day, I had an experience that reminded me about he importance of placemaking – the idea that cities should be composed of neighborhoods with distinct characteristics.
I’m quick to criticize suburban communities for being bland and monotonous, to blame the twisting and winding roads when I inevitably get lost searching for whatever destination I’m looking for. Among other crimes, I often accuse suburban neighborhoods of failing to create neighborhoods distinctive enough to remember.
This past Saturday, while I joined the throngs of last-minute shoppers to find the last of the Christmas presents I would purchase for the year, I was determined to shop locally. I left my South Minneaopolis home and headed east towards the local shop – one of those hole-in-the-wall stores in one of the small commercial nodes at the intersection of two otherwise nondescript streets right in the middle of a residential neighborhood – a surviving evidence of a previous era’s streetcar system.
…But I couldn’t find it. I drove up and down the streets of the Longfellow and Corcoran neighborhoods looking for it – certain I was within a mile or two of it, but unable to find it. I’d driven past it dozens of times previously, each time thinking, “I should go there sometime…” – each time thinking, “Remember where that is so you can come back sometime.” But I couldn’t remember.
And that’s when I was reminded that there is more to placemaking than just avoiding a maze of disorienting & winding streets. This local commercial node, despite its near grid-iron network of identically sized blocks and predictable street names, and despite being filled with one-of-a-kind local stores, wasn’t distinct enough to help me remember where it was. I only eventually found it after placing a frustrated phone call to someone who could google the store name and provide me with an address – at which point I drove directly to it.
So what makes a neighborhood memorable? Ever been lost in the middle of a grid-iron street network – always knowing exactly where you are – but never quite sure where anything else is?