The novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner, in his book Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, reflects that: “Place is not a place until people have been born into it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, and died in it — have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities. ... Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”
This kind of year-by-year accrual runs in striking contrast to what we’re seeing around us right now. The most visible parts of American social life are fractured and polarized. We’ve lost our ability, even appetite, to risk ties across party lines. According to the giant online dating service, Match, relational preferences are changing dramatically. In its comprehensive 2012 Singles in America survey, one-third of respondents believed it was not possible to date someone of the opposite political affiliation. By 2020 the percentage resisting cross-party dating had risen to over one-half.
In Divided We Fall, David French probes these deep fractures, even implicating himself as part of the problem. More and more, American political alignments arise from hatred of the other side rather than allegiance to unified beliefs. French argues that clustering — physically and digitally — is increasing and will lead to more extremism and cycles of anger and fear.
Clustering was first observed by Bill Bishop in the Big Sort, who noticed trends in “landslide” counties across the country that voted disproportionately Republican or Democratic. Conducting research over several decades, Bishop discovered that after 1976 the sorting was not only political but cultural. People were relocating geographically based on values, beliefs, and tastes, not just economics and familial ties.
As French sees it, we’re making the same mistakes James Madison foresaw in Federalist Papers, No. 10: the “violence of faction.” How does a nation confront the challenge of factionalism? The same way, French argues, that Madison advised in 1787: vigorous pluralism. The encouragement and protection of voluntary associations that enable a wide array of communities and groups to thrive.
How do we best chart this path? The role of placemaking — rehumanizing the places we are called to inhabit — is part of the solution. Applying placemaking principles to our communities and workplaces is a necessary step for mending our far-reaching wounds.
The Physicality of Scripture
The “slow accrual” of place unfolds in Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, God forms his people through their experience with the land. As Jürgen Moltmann observes, we’re created as both imago Dei, divine image-bearers as “God’s proxy in the community of creation,” and imago mundi, because we’re formed from dust and return to dust — image-bearers of the earth and representatives on behalf of creations.
After Eden, the journey of people and place is seeded in Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, who awakens at Bethel one dream-filled morning to declare in Genesis 28:16 what many of us have also experienced, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Through a legacy of faithful judges, prophets, priests, and kings, Israel endures and at times thrives — even as exiles in Babylon, where they’re commanded to “build houses and settle down,” and “plant gardens and eat their produce.”
The centrality of place in the New Testament is located first and most particularly in the Jerusalem temple but then more universally in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The kingdom, both a rule focused on people and a realm centered on place, finds its fully consummated form in the New Jerusalem — a garden city replete with beauty and culture, where God dwells directly with his people. Hence, the physicality and importance of place doesn’t end with Jesus’ return, but is magnified through the cosmic restoration of God’s entire creative order.
Place is and will always be vital for human flourishing.
Space or Place?
Theologian Jennifer Allen Craft, from whom I found Stegner’s reflection on place, defines place holistically — a physically located experience, landscape, community, set of relationships, memory, period of time, history, or habit. Space, on the other hand, is an abstraction of place, which often leads to fragmentation. Place demands accountability through relationships; space does not. Place is particular; space is comprehensive. Place invites somatic response. Space doesn’t necessarily do so. Place tethers us to the ground in ways that bring deeper meaning and purpose. Space often locates us in a kind of no-place that threatens our truest sense of personhood. As John Inge wisely observes, space and place exist on a continuum: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.”
We often confuse space for place, seeking from space only what place can give. Our confusion is intensified by the digitized and mediated worlds we navigate for work and leisure.
During the pandemic, most places of in-person gathering were shuttered, but video conferencing, social media, and streaming services remained open day and night. Helping others recommit to place after a prolonged season of space is a critical leadership task, for it is in place, not space, that we find our deepest personal attachments.
Even an object can hold placemaking potential. In her article in The Atlantic, “How the Loss of the Landline is Changing Family Life,” Julia Cho explains how cellphones — now used exclusively in more than half of American homes — have “liberated” communications to largely private domains. Rather than telephone poles that visibly linked us to our neighbors, cellular infrastructure is largely imperceptible. Landline phones — once so central to domestic living that homeowners constructed benches, vanities, and dedicated rooms to aid in their use — served to unite family members,” but now, Cho concludes, cellphones “silo them.”
In our digitized, globalized, and commodified world, placemaking counters prevailing currents of abstraction. As Allen Craft observes, placemaking locates “us in time, space, and community in ways that encourage us to be fully and imaginatively present, continually calling us to pay attention to the world around us and inviting us to engage in responsible practices in those places.” Placemaking asks: How can love for God and neighbor in a particular locality bring greater meaning and purpose?