“The center cannot hold.” –William Butler Yeats
Once upon a time there were centers to most communities. This is still true in some areas and certainly in New England where I have lived and worked.
However, it may be that it’s difficult now days in many communities to specify exactly where the center is or even where it has moved. It may be there is not one center but many centers and many communities in a given area.
When I left the area in which I now live many decades ago there seemed to be a vibrant center of the region. There were movie houses, department stores, small businesses, jobs and many people out walking the streets at all times of the day. People lived within walking distance of a clearly defined center of the area.
Now the “center” seems to have been recreated in another part of the city and new businesses relocated there–an attempt to recreate what was once and is no more. Meanwhile, the towns and villages around what once was the center have shifted outward. What once were new suburbs are now taking on the appearance of what once was the center–call them exurbs. And what once were the suburbs have moved outward into what were farmland. And there has been some movement back to the inner cities by young people, but not nearly enough to change the landscape.
I have lived in some areas where policies built on a different paradigm or model are being employed, such as not trying to recreate a “center” like it used to be (e.g., with department stores, big restaurants, etc.) but rather focusing on rebuilding neighborhoods–creating and sustaining new neighborhood centers with parks and village like shopping areas (not strip malls) with walking and bicycle paths, even creating times and places where cars are not permitted so pedestrians can walk freely, and where there is a visible law enforcement presence to make certain people feel safe at night especially. If I ask myself the really important question about renewing a region–what kind of community do I want to live in?–it will follow the model above.
There’s a principle architects cite and which made sense to me when I was working in community programs and that still makes sense: Form follows function. Or, as someone once asked me when I was working on a new project: “What’s success look like?” Put another way: What’s your vision? Are you going down the highway to the future looking in the rear view mirror? Or are you driving as fast as you can on the turnpike but not quite sure what direction you’re headed?
Someone once asked me why people want to live in any community. Without giving it much thought but reflecting on my experiences living in and trying to create new communities, I responded: People want to feel a sense of purpose and find a place to belong. So the question is not how to redevelop a center that no longer exists, but how to adopt a different model–supporting not one center, but many, and creating spaces where people can feel they belong and where there is a wider sense of purpose. It’s not all about buildings (e.g., creating new hotels, restaurants, et al)–I used to call this the “edifice complex–but about people. Rather than one big city with a center, why not many communities or neighborhoods with many smaller centers?
So the question to ask people is: What do you want in a community where you choose to live? I suspect you would find some common responses that have little or nothing to do with building a new movie theater or hotel. Who moves to an area to stay in a hotel or go to a movie? We may travel to these but not live in them. The communities in which we choose to live have great schools, parks and affordable and decent housing, health related care, libraries and religious groups, civic clubs, government that is listening to and working on behalf of people–in other words, communities where the mission is to serve the basic human needs of food, shelter, etc.
I have lived through at least two major periods of our history where attempts were made to renew or rebuild centers of regions. Some worked, some didn’t. Maybe given the realities of our times (less money to spend on renewal, more people to serve, etc.)it’s time to face reality and adopt a different model that creates many centers of community life with smaller numbers of people in any community, with businesses and parks and places to gather closer to where people live, and with a focus that takes care of the nuts and bolts of neighborhood life that citizens have been talking about for decades: Less crime, better code enforcement, walk ways and bike paths which are accessible and safe, businesses within walking distance serving local needs, enclaves of beauty and learning, etc..
Communities are about people–their hopes and desires and needs. That sounds too simple, I know. But as a wise city planner once said to me: “Keep it simple; it will get complex all by itself.”