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« Of Communities and Creampuffs | Return to Perspectives On Place

It's the Little Things that Count (Too!)

Here at the Foundation, we endeavor to help people identify “heart and soul” elements of their communities, and to work with them to celebrate, maintain, and build upon these elements in the future of their communities. This means incorporating those elements into planning policies and practices, and through institutions and programs within the communities.

Planners are trained to see the big picture –What are the big trends, and how can communities, regions, states best accommodate those trends? What land use plans and policies will serve the community well?  It can be a particular challenge to look also at the little things - What are the small ingredients that make up the unique DNA of any community?  Are there particular landmarks? Views? Gathering places? Special vegetation or water features? Perhaps there are important elements as small as a community bulletin board, or a work of art or garden crafted by a distinguished citizen. Even more difficult, are there practices that are unusual and held dear by the community – some special events hosted by local institutions that have become important local traditions?

I like to think about this, even apart from my job at the Foundation. In my own community, I think of a particular bulletin board, two idiosyncratic general stores, kids fishing on the creek bridge, hidden swimming holes, fire department suppers, a set of likely-illegal but wonderful handmade signs, the village center buildings, the exchange corner at the transfer station - I could on and on.

I do the same thing when I visit other places. I just returned from Nicaragua, where I had the pleasure of observing the small stuff of places….. comedores along beaches with a table or two among the chickens where you can eat fresh fish and the local gallo pinto; tiny, historic hotels around postage-stamp gardens; steps in front of a church that go nowhere, yet are conveniently arranged to invite seated people-watching; families on Sunday outings in the parque central; the well-organized chaos of the local market. It is this kind of uniqueness that beckons so many of us to travel and revere the wonderful mosaic of places that make up our world.

Of course it will always be important to understand the important and “large” social, economic, and environmental factors that must underlie any good planning effort, but we need to add the practice of looking at smaller and sometimes more nebulous aspects of communities to the planners’ normal way of doing business.

I know that I am not alone, and that others enjoy thinking about the minutiae of communities. Historic preservationists, architects, and conservationists, to name a few, are among those who are trained to look at distinctive aspects of place.  But I do believe that there are opportunities to broaden this thinking – to get more people to consciously think about the DNA of the places where they live. The Foundation has recently researched organizations engaged in what we call “heart and soul” planning, including some organizations only loosely related to planning. We applaud the people and organizations doing this kind of work, and will be on the lookout too for people, programs, and organizations even far afield from planning who join us in a campaign against “Generica,” helping communities to continue to be the special places we love.

Helen Whyte 

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