Place Matters: How One Radio Show Makes the Case Every Week

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Katherine Loflin interviews a diverse group of people, from celebrities to students, about the importance of place from their perspective

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"Place matters" is a familiar declaration. Its common use shows that profiling places, especially creative, urban places, is very much in vogue. For instance, the phrase graces The Atlantic Cities' masthead, is the title of a New York City project that protects distinctive local environments, frames a non-profit corporation, and is a campaign of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Similarly, the term "placemaking" has reached critical mass. The founder of the place-centric Project for Public Spaces (PPS), Fred Kent, recently recounted the increasing role of PPS around the world, including an interview in The Atlantic, here.

While placemaking is not a profession, it is certainly a practice that has spread across multiple disciplines, far beyond design and planning roots.

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One placemaking premise is to avoid politics and pedantic debate (such as "new" vs. "landscape" urbanism) -- one of the tenets of the movement is efficiency, often without "starchitecture" or directed urban redevelopment. Rather, placemaking is frequently a low-cost, facilitated exercise which helps enhance people's faith in their cities and neighborhoods.

Accessible media about placemaking includes articles (e.g. Lisa Rochon in the November 25 Globe and Mail), webcasts (e.g. last year's National Endowment for the Arts panel discussion here), and the currently touring film by Gary Hustwit, Urbanized. In my home town, the Seattle Times' "Seattle Sketcher," Gabriel Campinario, often champions placemaking concepts through his regular, community-based illustrations.

Since writing my article last week on how best to portray city life, I have been pondering which form of media is best-suited to convey the stories of places where people want to live.

Based on my own familiarity with the role of public comment and expert testimony in regulatory decision-making, including the influential voices of citizens at a public hearing, I began a search for compiled, consolidated voices on a variety of topics addressing what makes a livable place. I wanted more than generic "happiness surveys" and similar, more data-oriented presentations.

I concluded that we need more than instructive YouTube videos, such as the Streetfilms series. Rather, we need a syndicated, 60 Minutes-style production, which offers interviews about the universality of placemaking, while distinguishing the narrative, custom stories of varied communities.

Then, I discovered such a radio show is already at work, on the other side of the country, in Miami: Place Matters, with Dr. Katherine Loflin.

From my direct follow-up with Loflin, it is clear that the show is off to a promising start.

Place Matters runs Thursday at 11:00 a.m. EST on Miami's WZAB, 880-AM. It is podcast accessible, and Loflin's interviews and unique focus are well worth a listen. According to Loflin, it is the only nationally focused radio show in the country explicitly devoted to placemaking:

Through the show I wanted to bring on representatives of diverse systems in "community" (i.e., political/municipal leaders, young people, corporate, philanthropy, researchers, planners, university presidents, filmmakers, celebrity, technology folks, everyday residents etc.) and have them at some point testify how their work and/or background informs a discovery or conclusions that "place matters." My thinking was if you could look at my guest list and see a very diverse group of folks coming to the same conclusion on the importance of place from their perspective, it would make a powerful, almost universal, statement.

As a veteran, former program director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and lead national expert on Knight's Soul of the Community project, in partnership with Gallup, Loflin is no stranger to the relationships between people and place. The study's findings on what ties people to their communities helped to frame the show's concentration.

Loflin explained the project as backdrop to her pursuit of a radio show:

We had been doing well-being studies for a while. They have been called happiness studies, well-being surveys, indicator projects, and the like and they stay important. But they only tell half the story.

Soul of the Community went further. To understand our experiences and existence, we looked at personal outcomes in the context of place -- why people wanted to live where they do -- and why location matters to them to begin with. We then derived roadmaps of indicated action. These roadmaps are available for further use to help grow people's attachment to a place and perhaps impact economic growth as a result.

When we spoke last week, Loflin's graduate degrees in social work with journalistic and community practice concentrations were clear. I asked her about the show's goals, and about the challenges of translating placemaking to the public over the air. She replied enthusiastically:

The show was an experiment at first. But clearly audience interest and feedback shows a continued need for a 30-minute shot of placemaking each week, perhaps even an hour, as this topic continues to take off and take root across the country.

Through the show, I wanted to raise the placemaking conversation, reflect that conversation back to the field and provide a platform to show the wide range of sectors coming to the same conclusions about the importance of place. I think I am off to a good start, but there is more to do and many more stories, ideas, research findings, and thought leaders to showcase in order to move the field forward.

Loflin's "good start" is notable in its diversity, and often builds from Soul of the Community findings. The first show featured PPS's Kent in late September. Loflin's further shows have featured several on-the-ground examples in Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago.

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Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.

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