On our European bicycle trip in 2015, Amy and I visited the old center of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s a fascinating town, located at the overlapping zones of two major religious cultures: Christianity and Islam. The churches and mosques look down upon a bustling town of outdoor cafes, street merchants, and promenades. After a harrowing period of warfare in the 1990s, Sarajevo is once again peaceful and a first-class place to visit.
Walking around, something struck me: The social scene was richer than any place I’d ever lived, but the design of the environment was remarkably simple.
There were pedestrian streets:
And that was about it.
And yet in that simple environment every space felt complete, perfectly crafted just for people. I felt no compelling need to rush through. Every place felt like somewhere, a center at which one has fully arrived.
Amy and I spent hours just ambling around, up to nothing in particular, just enjoying the human-scaled vibrancy. Here’s a short video we shot of the area:
While shooting the video, I thought back to the common types of outdoor spaces in more modern cities…
Landscaping for aesthetic/buffering purposes only:
And we could include the following as alternatives to, or variants of, the above: Industrial yards, areas under freeways, strip malls, gas stations, and so on.
Compared to places like old town Sarajevo, these places feel altogether different. We pass through them. Often they’re ugly, polluted, and dangerous. Frequently they fulfill functions not directly related to human beings; roads and parking lots are for automobiles, landscaping is aesthetic but not functional.
Quite simply, the environments we love are Places, the ones we don’t love are Non-Places.
|Ped. streets||Courtyards||Square||Arterial roads||Parking lots||Useless landscaping|
Places and Non-Places can be described thus:
Are prioritized for people
Are where we feel relaxed, and happy, and safe
Feel like “somewhere”, a center where we are at the heart of the action
Are where we go just to enjoy being there
Are not prioritized for people
Make us feel easy, numb, or in danger
Feel like “nowhere” in particular, are for passing through or by
The Place / Non-Place distinction is a powerful way to see the world around us. It’s easy to see a pedestrian street as a Place and a highway as a Non-Place. But those are easily-identified extremes. There are many grey areas.
What about sidewalks?
Sidewalks can make us feel safe, but their proximity to the automobile environment rob them of the quality of being a center. They may or may not feature benches, detailed building facades, and so on. So sidewalks hover between being Places and Non-Places.
Are parks Places?
Certainly, a park can feel relaxing and many of us seek out parks for their own sake. On the other hand, many parks’ suffer from traffic proximity and feel removed from the comforting hustle-bustle of people’s daily lives. So, parks can hover closer to Places or Non-Places depending on the context.
Many places exist between the extremes of Place and Non-Place. Even parking lots can be Places (at least for a time) for a small number of people who choose to gather there. But even though it’s exact, evaluating the degree of Place in any particular space can stimulate us to think about how we can make places for people, not for our creations.
People travel around the world to spend time in 100% Places, towns like central Sarajevo. How about we make our own towns and cities 100% Place too?
These great articles further explore the Place / Non-Place concept: