If modern politics has shown us anything, it is that even in the era of the supposed “global citizen,” issues of place and identity remain connected in powerful ways. The recent election campaign in my home country of the U.K. was testament to this, as in similar ways is the recent political history of the U.S.

If not a leading role, urban planning has at least a supporting role in navigating this difficult era. You will notice that any masterplan or neighborhood vision today worth its salt will feature at least a passing reference to “sense of place.”

However, simultaneously, other forces work against this attachment to place, by encouraging (or forcing) us to “widen our horizons,” to seek employment, diversity or new experiences in novel places. Remote working may be pointing to the emergence of a “placeless workplace.”

“Placemaking” is all the rage in urbanist circles today. But it seems to me that the concept of “place” needs rescuing from its current status as either meaningless buzzword or tool of a divisive nationalism to be a much more progressive guiding principle for what comes next in our neighborhoods.

Making place

The Project for Public Spaces describes “placemaking” as the “collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.” It is certainly the new buzzword of choice, but one that perhaps needs better defining. It’s not all about pocket parks...

Years ago, with the rise of the internet and home working, some suggested that “place” itself would become irrelevant. We would all operate autonomously in an ever more interconnected world that paid little respect to location. But they have been proven wrong.

Our connection to place (known as ‘topophilia’ for the academics among us) remains potent and unrelenting, and certainly not to be sneered at by the internationally mobile elite. As one journalist puts it, even “the placeless still find themselves colliding with a place-bound world.”

Social glue

The societal shift causing tremors in the politics of western countries in recent years is driven in large part by social divergence, reflected not only in rising inequality of wealth and income but also in a physical and emotional distancing of our lives from others.

The “glue” that formerly held communities together is weakening as we retreat behind the doors of our family homes and, with a little help from social media and the age of the smartphone, we are inhabiting smaller and smaller worlds.

As British economist Paul Collier has suggested, what we need to counteract this, and indeed to reshape our toxic modern politics, are more powerful shared narratives. Moreover, he believes, and I agree, that these shared narratives can be inclusive place-based narratives.

This means building a shared identity, but one that cannot be reduced to ethnicity or origin, and one that accommodates some degree of difference. The way we plan our neighborhoods cannot do this alone (and it should probably stop professing that it can) amid a set of broader political and societal structures that encourages “looking after your own.” But it can certainly play an important supporting role.

Spreading your roots

The building blocks of a cohesive society are not individual households but relationships. And at the heart of building and maintaining relationships is the taking on of obligations to others beyond your immediate kin.

These obligations can be “light-touch,” and don’t necessarily entail going on holiday with each other or forming a cooperative… they might only extend as far as checking in on an elderly neighbor or smiling at the bus driver.

I have heard this best explained using the analogy of a tree. The health of a tree doubtlessly relies on the core support of its weighty trunk, but equally it could not remain standing without the dense web of smaller branches rooting it into the ground. Where intense family commitments and deep friendships serve the role of the trunk, keeping us anchored in the toughest times, it is the delicate web of less serious relationships which can give purpose and strength to our daily life.

It is perhaps this web that the urbanist is best placed to nurture. But where to start?

Beyond street furniture

Returning to Collier, he notes that the state has ‘acquired responsibilities that exceed its capacities’ and are in fact better met by others. These others might be what he calls ‘ethical firms’, families or social networks. This is at the heart of U.S. author Robert Putnam’s concept of “bowling alone,” which highlights our weakening interdependence on each other.

If we can create space in our cities for accidental encounters of all types, we can try to steer ourselves back on course. This probably starts with our neighbors, but also becomes part of the drive to get us out the sealed-off bubble of our cars and onto public transport and bikes. Much might be achieved by designing our cities around the principle of “private sufficiency, public luxury,” rather than our current drift toward the reverse.

This is where green space, thoughtful housing design, “living streets” and, indeed, pocket parks play a role. But crucially, this is not merely a question of physical design and goes beyond carefully placed street furniture.

It is also about the “strategic design” of our communities. That might take in the issue of ownership — who owns the stuff in the street? Is this a street owned by buy-to-let landlords? Is it a street of owner occupiers focused on protecting their roost and squeezing a home cinema into the basement?

Or is it interspersed with cooperatives and community-led housing, taking a leaf out of Zurich’s book? Or even a new generation of cohousing schemes? Are our communities structured so that they can represent a truly mixed spectrum of society, or do housing markets stratify us into separate social worlds?

The rescue effort

This new “placemaking” agenda might not offer easy instructions or a “listicle” of “5 things to bring your neighborhood together.” It means a deeper reorientation and revaluing of our sense of ‘place’ as the point where politics begins.

As Paul Collier says in a book of his, “belonging to place is a force too potent, and potentially too constructive, to be abandoned to the far right.” An authentic “placemaking agenda” needs to play its part in the rescue effort.