My last blog post described the 1993 "What Makes a City" conference in Saint Paul that featured Gail Thomas of the Dallas Institute and my spouse, Elizabeth VanderSchaaf, as co-keynote speakers. Together they provoked reflection in the Twin Cities community about how to discern the myth (deeply true story) of a city, and how to perceive landscape patterns that manifest that myth.
One objective of this conference was to prepare the way for launching an institute similar to the Dallas Institute in the Twin Cities. My wife and I created a proposal for such an institute, which we were calling The Placeways Institute. The name was chosen to honor and draw on the perspective articulated in a remarkable 1988 book by E.V. Walter entitled "Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment." The author, a sociology professor at Boston University, had concluded near the end of his career that a purely quantitative approach to urban issues was leading to a dead end. Consequently, he set out to reimagine the way in which he thought about cities and other human environments.
Early in Walter's book he framed his central issue in a quote that has remained a favorite of mine since the time I first read it nearly 25 years ago. I share it here as background to my upcoming blog posts: "We are threatened today by two kinds of environmental degradation: one is pollution - a menace that we all acknowledge; the other is loss of meaning. For the first time in human history, people are systematically building meaningless places. However, we are living through the end of an era, experiencing the demise of modern architecture, a revulsion from 'futurism,' scepticism about planning, and a reaction against urban renewal programs. As we contemplate the ruins and dislocations of our cities, another way of understanding the built environment and the natural landscape is struggling to emerge. Today, everyone yearns for renewal; but from a holistic perspective, what does the renewal of a city mean? It is not merely physical reconstruction, as many people think - demolishing slums and replacing them with new buildings. Historically, the renewal of a city was experienced as a mental and emotional transformation, an improvement of the spirit, a rebirth of psychic energies." (Walter, "Placeways," pp. 2-3)
In honor of the upcoming Holidays, I'll be taking a break from my weekly blog post, and resuming it after the first of the year. At that time I'll explore how our work with the Placeways Institute idea began to address the task of bringing about the improvement of the spirit and the rebirth of psychic energies in out city.