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"The City Is a Story" | An Interview with Elizabeth Greenspan


Elizabeth Greenspan is a writer and teacher. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Architect, The Believer, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Republic, and Places Journal, among others. She lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches urban studies and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently writing a book about the world of architecture in the 1970s, to be published by W.W. Norton.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Topograph: In lots of your work, you investigate how humans imbue places with meaning—a process we've been calling "placemaking," which is the best word, or the least worst word, that we've found for what we're trying to talk about. How would you define placemaking, and what gives a place meaning in general?

Elizabeth Greenspan: Like you say, all language surrounding these sets of questions is tricky. I'll admit that I'm sometimes skeptical when it comes to the word "placemaking," especially when it's used as a design term. It's a word that tends to signal a significant outside intervention. Sometimes that intervention work is very good, but it still deals with, at least to some degree, big change in a place. 

In my work, I tend to think more about what already exists, and what people do for themselves and others in all sorts of ordinary and exceptional ways. I'm interested in the smaller things people do, the actions they take, the relationships they have, all of which informs how people feel about a particular place and what it means to them.

So, placemaking isn't giving a place an inherent meaning—meaning comes from somewhere else?

Yes, definitely. It comes from people. Also, meaning is so context-dependent. This is partly why I'm interested in the architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. One of the points they made 50 years ago and why their work was so pioneering was because they directed attention to context, to what already exists. 

If you take a building, and you put it in one place, it's going to mean things at least in large part because of what's around it. Pick it up and put it in a different place, and it's going to mean different things. Cities are so context-dependent, and so people-dependent. Which makes them complicated but also exciting and dynamic. A place is going to mean different things to different people, and these meanings are not fixed, because we change, and our surroundings change. It's all rather unstable, but in ways that I think can be hopeful, rather than scary or something to control. 

You've taught a course at Penn called "Cities and Stories." What inspired this course? How can stories and literature affect our understanding of cities and of the notion of the City? 

One reason for the course is just that I really like cities, and I really like narrative and thinking about the craft of stories. These two things have oriented my work and how I've pursued my career for a long time, so it made sense to bring them together in a course.

I also think it's interesting to think about how we come to tell particular stories about particular places. It was an intellectual question, about how we think about the narratives that we come to tell about certain cities, but also the city in general.

Stories are powerful modes of communication. They're emotional, and they communicate at a different level—in a different way than, say, a more scholarly text, which is more about theoretical considerations and conveying information. I think all of that can be wrapped up in narrative. The narrative structure you employ and the characters that are part of the story and the conflicts that they have with one another—you know that it hits in a different way.

The idea for the course was, Let's try and bring the more emotional sphere of storytelling in contact with the more sociological and material world of the city, as it's been defined in an academic realm. Let's bring those two things together and see what happens and what we come up with—without necessarily knowing the answer myself.


The final piece of it, which goes back to the book I'm working on now about Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, is this idea that the city is a story in and of itself, because we interpret the city; we read it in very literal ways. That's a cool idea, which these two people helped invent. I wanted to mix this idea of the city as a text with actual written texts.

What did you learn about the idea of the city as a text as you were teaching this class?

The more I've paid attention to the city as an interpreted place, the more I've realized how fluid and up for grabs cities are, in ways that can feel pretty profound. It can all be discomforting, because there's not necessarily certainty when we want certainty. That's why the city, in part, is a contested place. One of the sets of conflicts that's always going on in cities is different groups of people trying to make more fixed their way of seeing and their understanding of what the city is and who it should be for and who should be making decisions. 

These conflicts are about power dynamics, but they're also intricately interwoven with the stories we come to tell and, in turn, I think, how stories can be a way to disrupt some of those power dynamics and change whose voices we hear.

What's one of the more surprising stories that's come up in the course from the students?

I encourage students in the course to write from a more personal perspective, if they're comfortable with it. Not all students are, but a lot of them like the opportunity to shift gears a little bit and tell more personal stories.

Some of the stories I'm most impressed with are the ones in which students write about a place that was meaningful and important to them, and in which their memories are very specific. Most of the writing that I ask my students to do, except until the very end of the course, is pretty short—about two pages or so. This assignment asks them to focus on one place and one feeling, there's not enough space to do much more than that. 

When you ask students to write about cities, what do you tell them to pay attention to? What do you pay attention to?

I tell them to engage all of their senses. To pay attention to what they're seeing—who are the people, what are they wearing, what are they doing? And to be as specific as possible, because these details make places, and stories, meaningful. I tell them to pay attention to what they're hearing; cities are often really noisy places. And to note what they're smelling. We see things, but there's also a bodily experience of a place.

Particularly for those writing more personal essays, I ask them to pay attention to what they're feeling. How does a place make you feel, what does it make you think about as your mind wanders, and what other places does it bring into recollection for you? We often experience places at the same time that we're thinking and our mind is wandering to other places. I tell them to be aware of that, but then also to come back to where they are, and to consider what about this place—the architecture, the sounds, the smells—might be making them think about these other things?

That kind of note-taking is nice when you're writing a personal piece, because you can be a little more internal. When I'm doing research or writing an article, I am usually directing my attention almost entirely outward, just absorbing as much as I can. A lot of my students tend to feel uncomfortable with the idea that they're a kind of voyeur in a sense, and they're interjecting themselves someplace they may not belong. We talk about that, and about how to let go of the study-research mode, and just be somewhere. It's hard to do these days when we're so engaged in our phones and technology. But it's helpful to shut all that off. 

At the same time, I do suggest to students that they take pictures if they feel compelled. It is cool to use photos not as a substitute for note-taking—that's a bad habit—but alongside note-taking. Photos can be a helpful reminder of what caught your eye and that felt important to you at the time.

When we were brainstorming questions for this interview, we had a mini-existential crisis, because we asked ourselves, "What fiction writing is not place-based? This idea of a place-based literary journal seemed like such a good idea, but what good writing isn't place-based?" 

That's a good question. I think part of the answer might lie in this idea that places themselves communicate— that places are holders of stories. Because then we can pay attention to the different ways they do. Not all writing asks that question. I also think there's a psychological component where we associate meaningful events and relationships in our lives to the places in which they happened. The memory is located in the place.

Whether it's a particular piece of furniture, or a decoration, or a kind of light, or whatever it may be, these are specific architectural details that become important and then influence our taste and what we like, or don't. It's part of why we get emotional in places and feel attached to them. Of course all stories are place-based in a way. But to think about why we feel strongly about places and have such emotional attachments to them—not all stories do that.

That helps cure our existential crisis.

It doesn't take away the importance of the subject to say that place is universal. On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, the journal can direct attention to this aspect of stories that is ubiquitous but potent and powerful in ways we take for granted. 

You talked about writing with the senses, and you have to do that in fiction, and the senses perceive the place you're in.

A lot of stories, from the get-go, will tell you, Where are we? What's the date? Where are we in time, where are we geographically? We want to locate ourselves.

That's the other piece of this idea that cities are places we interpret. One of the reasons we interpret them is to figure out where we literally are! People generally like to be oriented, it's hard to make your way through the city if you're not.  

Before GPS, people would give directions—like, walk 50 paces past the fencepost. And when you start to smell bear pee, then you're close, right?

Right. Always pay attention to the smell of bear pee. 

Could you talk about how placemaking is shared between residents on the one side and then planners, architects, and developers on the other side? How much does a place's meaning develop organically—perhaps the residents are developing this meaning—and how much is influenced by design?

I tend to lean into what people do, through their daily activities, to create places and make them meaningful within the structures and limits that exist in the city. We change things in small ways that are really important, like what we hang on walls and what we bring to places and what we leave behind. Because meaning isn't fixed, little is predetermined. 

Therefore, I don't think an architect or a planner has the ability to fix meaning in the space that they're creating.They might have ideas about what it should mean and how people should interpret it, but then whether that happens or not is out of their control and and will change as time changes and as the surroundings change. Buildings go up and come down; there's a lot of change, especially these days, in the built environment. But the meanings we interpret and align with places are even less fixed. 

The goal from a design perspective is to create places that are as open as possible—particularly public places, which are ideally used by everyone. Whenever we're talking about cities, we're talking about a lot of people who have come from different places, and like and want different things. It's part of the challenge for designers; they're creating buildings and places for all different sorts of people to potentially be together. And designers can do this well, or poorly. That's the art of design—creating a place that makes lots of different people stop and pay attention and feel comfortable and want to linger. The epitome of a great building is one that invites people in to make it meaningful in their own way. I think the most exciting places are those which introduce a new idea or a new way of achieving this inviting-ness.

What helps architects or designers do a particularly good job of inviting everyone? What architects stand out for designing particularly accessible spaces?

Accessibility is something we're aware of a lot more today than we have been in the past. There are so many different ways of making people feel safe and comfortable; or the reverse, making people feel unsafe and unwanted.

A city which drew me in a long time ago, and was probably the one which first got me thinking about a lot of this, was Berlin. I was so overwhelmed by its layers of history, and the way the city was marking and asking questions about it. The first time I was in Berlin I went to the Jewish museum, which Daniel Libeskind designed, and the timing was such that I was able to take a tour of the building before it was filled with objects. It's a museum that tells a history of Jews in Germany and in Berlin in particular, but, at the time, there was this brief window, and they were giving tours just of the building and the architecture. It blew me away.

Libeskind is someone who likes to be, say, a little more overdetermined in the meanings he hopes people take away from a space, and yet it felt like a space that invited me in and achieved that balance of direction and openness. It felt special.

How important is community input in the design process? What happens when designers and developers disregard or ignore what the community wants?

The more time I've spent reading and talking to people about this, and studying these questions, the more I've become aware of just how powerfully places communicate who they're for, and who they're not for. I think everyone viscerally feels and understands, at pretty immediate levels, if they are welcome and being included somewhere, or not.

So community input in the design process is important. The best design doesn't assume that what a particular architect happens to think is good will feel that way to others. Especially when a designer is going into a place they're not from—which is most of the time. It's important to pay attention to who's there and what they want and what's meaningful and important to them.

My head is in a lot of history these days. Seventy-five years ago, urban renewal completely transformed our cities. Officials and architects and the modernist paradigm they drew from did not take seriously the people living in the neighborhoods they were in many cases destroying. And it's important to remember that these were primarily Black neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, and immigrant neighborhoods, neighborhoods which did not have the resources or social status to resist and reject these massive changes. 


We want to talk about the book that you're working on now, which is about the remaking of cities in the 1960s and 1970s and, in particular, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. How did they think architects and planners could encourage placemaking or meaning in a place, and then how did their ideas contrast with more modernist ideas, and even with ideas that are prevalent today?

One of the reasons I like their work is because they were some of the first to focus on this question of meaning and talk about it in relation to architecture and cities. Their seminal idea was that architecture communicates, and that a core function of architecture is to communicate, in the same way that a core function of architecture is to provide shelter.

Modernist architects at the time were rather obsessed with function. What is the function of the thing or the building, and how do we have it perform that function as simply and beautifully and elegantly as possible? Scott Brown and Venturi said, "Yes, these functions are important, and communication is one of them."

The idea that architecture communicates is so important because it inherently brings all these other variables into play. It brings everything that's going on around the building into play. It brings people into focus, because they're the ones living and working and interpreting and ascribing meaning to places. Our whole conversation right now is indebted to their work. 

One of the other reasons I wanted to write a book about them was because they were doing their work at such an important moment in history, in the '60s and '70s. There was so much change. And, in the midst of all this change, Denise and Bob developed a vision for cities which prioritized people, and how they made their neighborhoods and homes meaningful for themselves.

Today, we still don't build cities for the people who live in them. For the most part, we build cities to accrue wealth; to be, in effect, like banks. I think their work is relevant right now because it's a different way of seeing the city than what we practice today.

In your writing on the Nicetown neighborhood in Philadelphia, you note that this economic-efficiency mindset that informed decisions in the twentieth century to construct city-splitting highways that link to the suburbs is similar to the mindset informing decisions to build public parks and splashy housing developments that attract wealthy residents today. How does this mindset affect the connections that lower-income or long-term residents have with their community and with cities in general?

To be rather sweeping about it: decision-making today is oriented around money and profit by design. Cities aren't being created for people who don't have money; they're being created for people who do have money and spend and therefore make property values rise. 

I think those of us who don't have money know rather immediately that a high-end housing development and a fancy extensive park next to it isn't being built for us. In terms of how this affects people—I think people feel ignored and neglected, rightly so, and are reminded that they're underserved. Which they are. Everyone needs certain, basic services. And the city, as a large and powerful entity, is one that has the capacity to deliver those services. 

When we talk about housing at a big enough scale to provide for everyone that needs it, or about transportation, getting from place to place to work and to take care of your family—none of those things can be done in piecemeal, ad hoc ways. If they are, they're really not done well. This is why we need the resources and decision-making power of large institutions, like city government. But this decision-making has to be driven and informed by people. That's something this country still has not figured out. I can't think of an American city that has mastered how to enact bigger-scale, dynamic, democratic change. 

Urban renewal was a huge, top-down, resource-intensive effort that was so terribly done and so racist in its execution. I think the only way we can repair that damage is to have a comparably significant effort driven by people on the ground.

This piece is from the first issue of Topograph. Consider subscribing to our newsletter or donating to support our work.

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