Six Good Places
by David Oates
There's a workaday village - or its ruins, anyway - hidden in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. I found it by following a feeling, one mapped onto my brain by ancient forces. Lately this map has begun guiding me in other places: Venice. Vancouver. Aix-en-Provence. Seattle. Even Portland, where I live. And it has been telling me something crucial about how we ought to be building our lives in the coming urban century.
The map works like this. I was in the southern Sierras, walking along a lesser fork of the Kern River. Wide sagebrush valleys, sandy and hot, led me upwards towards cooler elevations, and eventually I began considering where to camp. I'd been making solitary explorations in mountains for many years and my mind knew precisely what it liked: Big trees behind, maybe on steeper slopes going up to cliff so my back would feel covered. Campsite elevated a little, on open ground sloping down to a stream or lake. Views off that way and that way, as if to watch for danger or for dinner. Some rocks to sit on, flat and duffy between. That's what I wanted, and when found it brought a satisfaction I had learned to notice, in fact to heed because if the place was wrong then the night would be long and restless, I would morosely consider my fate and my sins and be eager to leave. But when it was right ...
I sat a moment with my feet resting in open sagebrush but my back in the tall trees, the creek mumbling a few paces off. Ah.
But soon I discovered that my mental map of a good place, so precise and demanding, was not my own at all: Obsidian chips like a glittering city lay scattered all over the sandy soil. I had come to make my camp amid broken arrowheads, chips, middens everywhere. Suddenly I felt like a man in a crowd of invisible strangers. But not strangers, really - they had known this was a good place in exactly the same way I had: by following the inner map.
I looked up and saw the smoke-blackened boulder, the ancient fire-ring. All afternoon, I walked directly to their best places, found their reminders. In something like a trance, I let my larger mind, the one that includes the body, make the decisions. It knew right where to go. Uncanny.
Later, I discovered these people had called themselves "Tubatulabal." They lived there for about a thousand years.
Time after time, in remote untrailed places, I have found my feet carrying me unerringly to the cold, rain-washed hearths of other sojourners, a few years old or centuries old. Invariably, they are in places that embody that same exacting inner/outer template. It seems we know what we like, and when we find it, we find each other there, too.
This inner map is the source of wisdom increasingly needed by our species. Because we are now building cities, not villages, and they are making a huge demand on the planet. Some 75 percent of the developed world now lives in cities; and in the developing world, according to a UN report, a majority of the population will be urbanized by 2020. This is how we're going to be living for quite a while. We had better get it right.
It's an ecological imperative as well as a hominid one. For a while now, environmental thinkers have been pushing us to revise our green disdain for cities. If we are to avoid overrunning every wild field and rural acre with flaccid semi-civilized sprawl, we must make good, compact, pleasing cities. Places we really like being in.
And what I'm noticing is this: The places I gravitate towards in urban environs are not so different from those good places I find in the mountains. Take those hours I enjoyed in Vancouver, B.C., a week ago. There I was in the window seat, Granville Island Public Market, with my chin on my hand as I gazed and read. False Creek sparkled before me, alive in sun and quick-cloud-shade. On its other side, downtown residential towers rose like greenglass cliffs. In the foreground, passing crowds strolled just beyond the window with dogs and prams and half-heard laughter, rivery and alive themselves.
I like this public privacy. I seek it out wherever I go and even at home, repairing to some urban plaza where, without having to speak or be known, I can observe the passing spectacle. When it feels right, it offers just what makes those mountain sites appealing: some sheltering topography, a clear line of sight, a little water, and a certain sense of habitable proportion.
We're living in an era of urban renaissance and, especially out here in the West, I think this may be one reason: We've begun looking past our mythic, open-spaces individualism, and finding each other in good public space. We're rediscovering sociable pleasures that older civilizations have long known about.
Six months ago, for instance, I found myself settling into the oddly shaped Place des tanneurs in Aix-en-Provence, which somehow works equally well as human habitat though it could hardly be more unlike that spot in B.C. I'm no Christopher Alexander (the genius of A Pattern Language), but here's what I noticed.
First of all is its scale. Just-rightness in habitat requires spaces fitted to the human body, spaces cozy and expansive in just the right ways. On that day in Provence, I strolled into the Place and saw a Moroccan proprietor dragging out his two small tables, for the hot sun had just angled low enough to shade his tiny shop. Both tables filled instantly.
I sipped. People local and exotic, old and young, entered the plaza, visited the record shop, the minute grocery, the eateries of many qualities, the hip graphic-novel shop called Le bateau livre. A quiet human stir, as of a breeze in the canopy. They liked it there. So did I.
The triangular plaza was not huge: I stepped off its base at just 13 paces. The plaza itself was elevated by three steps up from the walk-street thoroughfare. Four-story structures enclosed it, faced in that Provence sandstone of buttery yellow, the upper residences opened by painted shutters and windows. In the midst, a great plane tree, and beside it a fountain of humane dimensions, cool and sittable. I measured it with armstretch, giving the cool grey stone a brief hug: six feet to a segment. The shape of a fountain - what's it mean?
It means that, if scale matters, so does design. A bit more majesty for that fountain would destroy its fitting-in-ness and my pleasure. A few feet of roofline the wrong way would cost that proprietor hours of trade.
For a contrast - which yet proves the larger point - you could swing by San Jose, California's "urban village" of Santana Row, where some five or eight brand-new blocks look strikingly like Aix: quaintly shuttered condos rising (too high) over almost-walkstreets, with tree-sheltered cafes and even a purloined bit of pointy gothic stonework by a fountain. Here the simple pleasures of sitting and strolling together draw citizens from all over the automobile-dominated wasteland of Silicon Valley - despite the fact that it seems really like Aix corporatized: Aix passed through spreadsheets, inflated to 150 percent, and denatured with a kind of Disney/Epcot design process. Even so - people come. We're famished for this.
There's a language for this sort of thing. Geographer and historian Jay Appleton, writing in 1975, defined the essential qualities as prospect and refuge. He observed our attraction to certain edge-of-the-wood settings and offered an evolutionary explanation: The ecotone is good for us poorly defended omnivores, who want to see but not be seen. Reading Appleton I had that unmistakable feeling of confirmation: shelter, view, water, topography. The human habitat.
You could criticize this explanation - many have - for its essentialist tendencies, for ignoring the ways our minds and cultures reshape the inherited peoplemind. But for me, the explanation still works as a rough template. We may translate cliffs into buildings, waterways into artificial ponds, and potential game animals into passersby with shopping bags. But the habitats we gravitate toward are surely a reflection of our animal nature, in some considerable degree. With ecologist/anthropologist Paul Shepard, I'll hold that we are, at root, evolved beings whose past informs our present social and emotional needs.
So I'm happy with "prospect and refuge" as good serviceable concepts. But to complete the transition to urban places, I find I need to add a term. The best refuges and prospects in the world won't help an urban place that has no life. We say it without knowing quite what we mean - "oh, it feels so dead there." What's missing?
In natural settings, process is always present. Time passes visibly, in decay and death and rebirth, falling trees and rockslides, moons and seasons. When we stare contemplatively at river or shore, as often as not we're noticing this passage of time (water its ancient symbol) and the poignancy of our own fluid and temporary lives. In town, however, we may miss it, especially in the shinier bits of the New West that have obliterated all evidence of the past and with it, all sense of the temporal. Home is a now as well as a here. Process is time made visible, and the best urban places find a way to moor us - safely but vividly - in the stream of change.
I was thinking about this in an unassuming campo behind Venice's renaissance jewelbox church Santa Maria dei Miracoli, earlier this year. I took in the diminutive arching bridge, the three- and four-story houses fronting the square, the lone cafe. Lingered of course over the narrow one-boat canal, its water higher today than yesterday, the sun dancing on it and on puddles of backed-up seawater still standing in the courtyard from the overnight tide.
Venice itself is the most humane place I've ever been, and in that campo moment I realized how the presence of tidal water infuses vitality into the place - a freshening vigor stronger than the stupefying presence of a million tourists and tourist shops, able to wash away the corruption of Venetian politics and sweeten even the stink of history. There it was: Process. No town in the world feels the natural pulse more immediately than Venice. And among this city's many assets - Mediterranean light, a thousand years of history and architecture, good plazas and good food waiting everywhere - nothing keeps it alive like the mere sea, this immemorial ebb and flow looping nature and culture together as they should be (and truly are).
That's what I want for the cities of my home range: something not static in our midst, a living process. I wonder if it might even lead us to the other virtues of scale and design, prospect and refuge. Some towns in the West are energetically rediscovering their riverfronts: San Antonio; Portland; even L.A. is planning to unlock its river. And yet to some extent the need for motion can be answered even without an ocean or stream to play with. In Aix I enjoyed the seminatural process of pedestrian circulation, the parade of all ages imparting a sense of movement and transaction, perhaps even offering reflection on age and time. Maybe this is another way to understand urban guru Jane Jacobs' insistence on a bustling street life. There is time and movement in peoplewatching.
In our brand-new Western towns, a lively sense of time and process-unfolding is the element hardest to come by. We need to think about it more intentionally. Where there is a tide or a river - even a dry one - there is an opportunity to engage our place in its place. Where there is weather, there is opportunity. In Portland and Seattle you can find many fine new places to linger in. The ones that have a river or that look across at the Olympic Range do pretty well. Some that open onto street life are surprisingly fine too. Bigness isn't necessary, though a keen sense of proportion is.
In Seattle, try a window seat at the French Bakery across from Pike Street Market, or the PACCAR Pavilion that lets you overlook the new Olympic Sculpture Garden, with Elliot Bay in the offing. See if you don't think these places are sheltered-and-prospected pretty nicely, with a vivid sense of the dynamic world. In Portland, come to the Keller Fountain and experience a secluded cosmos, scaled right and connected profoundly to water. Or ponder why the industrial-leftover patio space next to the giant brick smokestack in the Brewery Blocks satisfies as it does. A fine mystery to consider with a draft pint.
Hanging out in public may seem a trivial focus for thinking about what makes a good life. But let's not underestimate the importance of what sociologists have called "the third place" - an available human gathering that is neither home nor work.
Good public places actually encourage us to remember our connectedness and thus foster that most urbane phenomenon, democracy. For such places embody "the public realm" - a crucial space (both actual and virtual) where we meet ourselves and experience the puzzle of our separate and shared identities. Here citizens speak and the public good is hammered out. It's no fluke that coffeehouses in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston fomented our famous Boston Tea Party and its private-property-destroying, government-defying mischief.
Yet many Americans today seem to have lost the feel for being citizens as well as consumers. The public realm tends to disappear in our corporate-consumerist environment, which always wants to isolate people into individual units of consumption and fast turnover. But the agora of ancient Athens, birthplace of democracy, was both forum and marketplace (as well as hangout, legislature, and university). Our public urban spaces can be, too.
That invisible company I kept creekside in the Sierras formed the starting point for my own journey back to town - where the natural good place becomes a natural public space, a shared space reminding us that we sit on the banks of rivers no one owns - rivers of generations and tides and currents. In answering our private habitat-yearning, good places also anchor us back to our other, larger self of fellow humans. People sitting just over there, strangers, laughing and talking together.
David Oates' recent books are City Limits: Walking Portland's Boundary, and Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature.© High Country News