It is fair to say defining a “sense of place” is a tricky proposition at best. Wikipedia’s definition is a good starting point, but remains incomplete. I’ve been struggling for almost two decades to define it, but it still eludes me. I just know it when I see it. Somewhat similar is this year’s presidential election campaign, as John Oliver points out, that includes the argument that the country “feels” headed in the wrong direction or the economy “feels” stuck. I don’t doubt a great number of Americans feel this way, but it is also possible to prove this argument wrong by a number of metrics. The same can be said for a sense of place, as it’s easy to say you like a place, but harder to define why. Sometimes it just “feels” right. So let’s provide a few baseline prerequisites to prove a “sense of place.”
Blue Tree Music, for example, is located in a building at East 35th Street and 23rd Avenue South in Minneapolis, across 23rd Avenue from the original Chatterbox pub. I’m familiar with the building because my children take piano lessons there and I’m friends and colleagues with its owner, Andy Root. It is one of those classic Minneapolis streetcar commercial node buildings – straightforward red brick with a few flourishes and several storefronts facing the sidewalk.
The building is perhaps 90 years old and has no doubt accommodated numerous tenants across the decades while still maintaining its general outward appearance. It is about 100 feet wide, with five retail bays of about 20 feet. Each retail bay has a door and large plate glass windows facing the sidewalk. Those 20-foot wide bays can be combined or separated depending on tenant needs, and Blue Tree occupies three of the five bays. The bottom of the windows are about two feet off the ground and about five feet tall, allowing pedestrians to see in easily and assess what type of tenant is inside. The five doors on 100 feet of frontage equal a “Gehl Door Average” (GDA) of about 15, easily within the range to make this a pedestrian-friendly frontage. Four of the five doors are set back from the facade slightly, providing shelter from rain and snow, and the corner door is at a 45-degree angle, essentially facing both streets, something I really like.
Frontage on 23rd Avenue is therefore pretty good. The building is fundamentally good urban frontage, although it could use a little love and embellishments like pedestrian-friendly signage, awnings, and maybe outdoor planters. That takes care of the private realm that interacts with the public. The public realm has some of the basics but needs work. The sidewalk is plenty wide, the bus stop consists of a bench that could be upgraded to a shelter, and the boulevard is bit weedy and could use another tree and overall better tree trimming. The intersection is a four-way stop, so traffic is generally calm. Overall, although some upgrades would be nice, most of the boxes are checked: there is a pretty good sense of place due to good basic architecture, a high GDA, wide sidewalk, transit service, street trees and calm traffic.
Moving to another example in Chicago, we focus on a small section of Southport Avenue next to the Brown Line. Here we have everything to create a great sense of place: wide sidewalk, greenery and trees, benches, frequent retail frontages with doors and windows, and signage, on a street with relatively slow speeds and located near transit.
Even the new infill buildings on Southport Avenue work pretty well, although I would have brought the red brick down to the first floor and had larger retail windows if the structure allowed. The point is, while a “sense of place” is indeed a justifiable feeling you get about a street or neighborhood, you can also prove it to some extent by counting doors, trees and benches, and measuring windows and sidewalk widths, and by observing if people are hanging out there. So next time you are someplace you like, take some notes and try to figure out why.