07 July 2012

Making sense of "sense of place"

In Planning school, we’re taught that an area’s sense of place can make or break a neighbourhood. It’s that elusive uniqueness that ties a place to its history while forging an identity of its own. We often explore this through design, where the use of visual elements is the go-to method for achieving a sense of place.

But I think it’s a shame that we don’t focus as much on sense of place in other areas of planning — in policy development, in social planning, in employment strategies, in zoning, in transit planning. Because for me, sense of place is more than the character of a neighbourhood as I walk through it. It’s the immediate emotional response I get when someone mentions the name of a place. It’s the preconceived notions and prejudices that jump to the front of my mind. It’s the expectation of who I might see there, what I might do there, how I will feel there, that define sense of place. A neighbourhood’s sense of place has far more to do with what goes on inside our heads than how the area is actually designed.

Take these Toronto place names for example:

You’ve already got an image in your head of what these places are like, whether or not you’ve actually been there. You know that Bay Street is the financial centre of Canada, glistening with skyscrapers. You know there are festivals and concerts at Yonge-Dundas Square. You know that Queen’s Park houses the Ontario Legislature and that the words are often used as a replacement for “the government”. You know that Rexdale is home to many new immigrants. The connotations around these place names have already begun to form a sense of place in your head.

And it’s the same story with Kitchener, the city I now call home. I go to school in Waterloo, and there is a definite distinction between the two cities. I avoid telling people I live in “Downtown Kitchener” — that will only conjure up images of cheque-cashing establishments and the dirty bus terminal. Instead, I tell people I live in “Kitchener, close to Victoria Park and the Library”. With my careful use of words, I’m already creating the sense of place that I want people to feel.

There is no “Downtown Waterloo”. The city centre is called “Uptown”, which boasts vibrant nightlife, chic restaurants and cafes, a public square, high-end lofts, and government offices. “Downtown” is Kitchener. “Downtown” is where you go because you need to, not because you want to. “Downtown” is where you’ll get harassed for spare change on every other street corner. These are the things people think of when they hear “Downtown Kitchener”.

But the differences are not only perceptual — there are real divisions between the two cities. Melissa and I went for a night on the town this evening — we caught a bus to Uptown Waterloo (naturally), where we were going to attend a free ballroom dancing lesson in the public square. Sadly, the lesson was cancelled because they were setting up booths for tomorrow’s Turkish Festival. But we enjoyed ourselves with dinner at a small fish and chips place, followed by drinks at Starbucks and a slow meander back home to Kitchener, where there is no Starbucks.

As we walked along King Street, we tried to define exactly where it stopped feeling like “Waterloo” and started feeling like “Kitchener”. Such an intangible concept, but we both agreed that there was something utterly definite about the perceived character of both cities.

We walked past the Bauer Lofts, with its accompanying bistro, hair salon, and high-end grocer. This was most definitely still a Waterloo atmosphere. Once we crossed John Street, though, the ambiance had drastically shifted. The changes were subtle - a Dairy Queen that should have been renovated 10 years ago; streetlights placed just too far apart; a flickering neon sign on an old brick house that read HOLISTIC MEDICAL CARE; a once-grand estate lot that now looks haunted and decayed. We had crossed the boundary into a “Kitchener” sense of place. Never mind the fact that we were still technically within Waterloo. The sense of place was totally incongrous with the vibrant Uptown where we had spent our evening.

We hopped a bus to zip through the concrete wasteland of undefined urban space between Uptown and Downtown. When we reached the edge of Downtown Kitchener, we got off and continued to walk, trying to hammer out the reasons exactly why this city feels so different from Waterloo.

Transit patterns

In Waterloo, the Uptown bus stop serves the busiest mainline bus routes. The stops are located right on King street, adjacent to the public square. From there, you’re a stone’s throw from shopping, eating, and people-watching. The constant flow of buses encourages you to be spontaneous, hang out, and wait for your next transfer in comfort.

Meanwhile, nearly all the buses in Kitchener bypass the main Downtown strip around City Hall. They all detour a couple blocks before to get to Charles Street Terminal, the massive transit hub where schedules and maps are plastered everywhere, where clocks count down the seconds until the next departure, where you need to know which of the three staircases to take to get to your platform.

Charles Street Terminal is not a place to hang out. It is completely removed from the streetscape, and even though it is located right next to beautiful Victoria Park, there is no access through that side of the property. It encourages you to turn your back on the city and get out of there as fast as you can.

Retail environment

There’s no escaping it: in the 15-minute walk from the north end of Downtown to our house at the extreme south end, Melissa and I counted three cheque-cashing establishments, two dodgy furniture leasing stores, three pawn shops, and a “WE’LL BUY YOUR GOLD” store. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these places, and I’d expect any city to have some of them. But to have them all concentrated along the major main street in Kitchener is detrimental.

Most importantly, these are the kinds of establishments that prey on poverty. I don’t know what disturbs me more, the fact that so many informal lenders are still in business, or that other business interests haven’t pushed them out of Kitchener’s prime retail space yet.

Indoor Malls

I hadn’t noticed until today, but Kitchener has a lot of cavernous, glassy-walled indoor malls. Some of them, like the Manulife building, are a kind of unassuming labyrinth that offers no visual stimulation from the streetscape, and no incentive to come inside and explore. It also doesn’t help that it’s closed weekdays after 6PM and on weekends. The Market Square proudly boasts a McDonald’s sign and a Canada Post emblem on it front entrance, but peering in will leave people confused as they see a run-down tailor’s shop, a private college, and not much else. Those who continue down King Street looking for an alternate entrance will be rewarded with an entire city block of blank brick walls and service bays.

Employment

When I ask the question, “What’s missing in Downtown Kitchener?”, I think the answer is employment. Manufacturing and heavy industry was the lifeblood of this city for a hundred years. That has stopped. the old factories have been converted to lofts. The residential boom is here, and we’ll have a critical mass of people soon that will be commuting to Waterloo.

Sure, The Tannery is a tech-sector success story, and I’m hotly anticipating the live-work development at the Breithaupt Block. But those are on the fringes of Downtown. We need major employment to come to King Street. We need to make use of the second- and third-storey spaces that are currently abandoned. We need to fill in the missing teeth in the streetscape.

Final thoughts

This post has become horribly long. If you’ve read up to this point, I congratulate you. But I would be remiss to neglect the lack of a full-service grocery store in Downtown Kitchener. Central Fresh Market seems closer to Waterloo than to Downtown Proper, and the Kitchener Market is only open on Saturdays. I think the Bargain Shop at the corner of King and Benton would be a prime candidate for renovation into a grocery store.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on sense of place - can it be expressed tangibly, or will it always be an elusive concept? Leave a comment.

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