Treasuring Places of Character


One of my greatest joys over the last two plus years has been watching my son grow up. On the cusp of moving from toddler to little boy, I increasingly see the all-important role Paula and I have in shaping his character (enter, “timeout”). But environment has an impact too, and one of the best places for him to exercise his character is on the playground. Here, there are opportunities to take on new challenges such as scaling the ladder and trying out the big slide, to utilize his creativity in the sandbox, to learn how to interact with both the bigger and smaller kids alike. But as we explore playgrounds around Austin, we notice they’re not all equal. Some playgrounds are very easy and very safe, appropriate for his toddlerhood but now simply boring. On the flip side, some playgrounds are too advanced for him right now, and as a result they are filled with the “big kids” they are intended for. Finding the perfect playground, the one that meets our son where he is at and provides the next incremental challenge for him to learn and grow, is both an art and a science.

In a similar way, I think many of us are looking for the places where we fit for our stage of life. As myself and many of my peers have migrated around the country trying to find our place, I can’t help but wonder what it would take for growing-in-place to be a more appealing option. What would it take to keep us in the place where we grew up? Or if we do move, what characteristics of a place would lead us to decide to settle in? Here Wendell Berry in his essay, “The Work of Local Culture” has some great insights.

“A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this. Once we have acknowledged this principle, we can only be alarmed at the extent to which it has been ignored.”

When I think of some of the elements of great places that I’m attracted to growing-in-place in, the one thing they have in common is that they have an authentic community character that is home grown from the ground up. Some elements that contribute to that character include:

  • A Commitment to Local Art and History – Local art has the ability for those in the community to showcase their creativity and put their mark on the city. Local history that is communicated to the present generation gives a sense of richness of place and a sense of destiny. Most powerful is the combination of art and history communicates a greater story about those who have made our places what they are and gives us a legacy to build off of.
  • People Outdoors (A Visible Public) – If the playground is fun, kids will go out and use it, if not they’ll stay at home and play in the backyard. Great cities have outdoor cafes, music in the park, festivals, and people strolling down main street. There’s an aliveness that comes from the chance encounter hanging out together.
  • Economic Opportunity to Create and Sustain a Business – Is there market potential for someone to grow economically in place? Is there available capital and spaces to take a chance on an idea and be supported in that endeavor? Great places create opportunities for  people in all stages of life to find economic opportunities and incrementally grow their livelihood.
  • A Mix of Needs and Incomes Interacting – Our combination of needs, talents and treasures creates an economy based on a community that helps one another. The rich can help the poor in need, while the poor provide the rich the opportunity use their wealth for the good of others.

Some places ooze with character – a uniqueness, a substance and a soul – that truly is their most precious asset. The character of a place is its treasure and like any treasure it can squandered and lost especially as a city grows. A city can teach and celebrate its history or it can forget it. A city can value its private spaces over its public spaces. Major corporate chains can overcome and crowd out the local business merchants. A city can lose its affordability or its quality of life in a way that alienates those on either end of the income spectrum, causing economic segregation. Like your favorite band, a great city must stay true to its core principles so that whether the end result is fame and fortune or remaining in obscurity, its authenticity remains.

To grow in our character, all of us need to be challenged, open to change, and open to the possibilities that come with interacting with others. But growth in character, also means committing and holding true to core principles in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  In these playgrounds that are our cities it means putting ourselves out there and taking on new challenges – whether that’s falling off the monkey bars or challenging the bully. Sure, playing in the privacy of our homes and backyards is safer – but the real question is, are we better for it?

2 thoughts on “Treasuring Places of Character

  1. I find it fascinating that, for as many definitions as we have for the word character, we codify it at all.

    I had an interesting conversation yesterday about personal growth and maturity and have been coming to terms with the reality that many people just aren’t interested in growing anymore after a certain point. We reach a certain stage in life, settle into it, and choose not to move forward, not to spend energy reflecting and molding and doing away with the excess past. In a way I believe this tendency absolutely carries over into how we view our built environment. We see our communities for what we think they are, comfortable enough that they fit our current perspective on life, and thus, reject any notion that they should evolve.

    Your argument that a city should hold onto its core principles is an interesting one. I wonder, though, how many of us even know what our core principles are. And if we can’t define the core of a person we fully inhabit for our entire life, how can we define the core principles of a place we don’t fully experience?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow Chris, very insightful. I can’t speak for most people, but for myself there’s a difference between growing up and just getting older – which is each day learning from experience and life to continuously improve. I agree with you, it starts with us and then hopefully extends to our built environment. That’s more or less the premise of the blog.

      As for core principles, most cities do outline their core principles in their comprehensive or strategic plan. In theory those principles are then supposed to be applied to development decisionmaking, but often in practice there has been a lack of follow through translating the broad principles to the knotty code details that govern zoning decisions. This is the work that is necessary to make them real.

      Really good thoughts. I’m going to ponder them more over the coming days…


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