American cities and towns tend to have a large amount of “non-place.” The concept of Place and Non-Place has been described by Nathan Lewis and is a great way to think about the urban built environment. Lewis characterizes Places as areas where end-purpose activity occurs. Homes, offices, restaurants, parks, backyards are all Places, or locations where people do things.
Non-Places are areas where generally no end-purpose activity occurs. Lewis considers roadways, parking lots, and undefined green space to be Non-Places. Roadways and parking lots generally facilitate the movement of people between places, but are not locations where the primary activities of life, work, and recreation occur. Undefined green space such as buffer landscaping around buildings is another form of Non-Place that can be found in any American city or town.
In some cases the line between Place and Non-place can be fuzzy. For example, a few feet of grass between an apartment building and a street: someone might one day decide to plop down there with a blanket to get some sun, but mostly it serves no activity and on the spectrum of Place to Non-Place, its closer to Non-Place.
Some locations could be one or the other, depending on use at the time. A parking lot could pull a complete switch from Non-Place to Place on the weekend if it hosts a farmers market. Anyone who has attended an Open Streets event will recognize how a even a busy roadway can transform from Non-Place to Place when recreational activity replaces motor vehicle traffic.
Non-place isn’t inherently a problem if it occupies only a proportionally small area. But many American cities and towns have what you might call a deficit of place, or a very low ratio of place to non-place. When the place to non-place ratio gets low, you get the characteristics of American suburbia: wide roads, buildings surrounded by acres of parking and landscaping, hostile pedestrian environment, massive infrastructure maintenance burdens, and other negative symptoms.
For more on Place and Non-Place, check out Nathan Lewis’ article.