Playground in Aspen, CO | Image by PPS
The placemaking movement is focused on strengthening the elements that make places engaging, livable, sustainable, and worth caring about. These are important efforts, and I believe the open and curious minds of children can be a significant resource for strengthening the bonds between people and places throughout the entire lifespan.
I am neither an urban planner nor a developer; neither an environmentalist nor a human geographer. Rather, my profession makes me witness to the intimate challenges people face every day as they struggle to find meaning and connection in their lives. As a social worker and psychotherapist, I am passionate about enhancing the quality of the bonds that form between people and places, for the health and well-being of both. This interest has led me to study the subject of place attachment from many different angles, and through many disciplines. What makes a person feel a sense of belonging, meaning, and connection in a place?
Most theorists of place attachment agree that childhood experiences of places—both the events that happen there and the environments themselves—play a pivotal role in the development of place attachment bonds throughout the lifespan. As teachers, it is important to remember that just like close observation of a drop of water can show us an entire ocean in microcosm, a neighborhood or a street can tell us much about the world. When that place is also one’s childhood home, it becomes imbued with multiple layers of meaning. Further, when we teach young people to view the places they live as important and interesting enough to learn about, we begin to see that almost any subject that interests them can be studied through the lens of place.
I grew up in the small Midwestern city of Dayton, Ohio — a place that on the surface might seem drab, uninteresting, or not worth caring about. In all my years of schooling, while I was required to take classes in history, math, science, social studies, the place in which my classmates and I actually lived was never a subject of inquiry. Everything I loved about Dayton as a child had to do with my own experiences in nature, in my neighborhood, and in my community. In fact, all I know about the rich history of my hometown I learned as an adult, and only after developing a personal interest. Had I been exposed as a child to some of the city’s rich history in the classroom, I may have grown up with a remarkably different understanding and appreciation of the place.
Here is my proposal: Imagine that every student were required to take one class dedicated to the study of their local community in order to graduate from high school. This class could be a multi-disciplinary course in which students would create an individual project focused on a particular aspect of their city, town, or neighborhood. In the process of studying the history of a local bike trail, for example, a student might discover its origins as an ancient indigenous footpath and explore community efforts to preserve the trail over the course of many decades. Others might choose to research art in nearby public spaces, building heights and noise pollution, the quality of water, or the history of local war memorials.
In thinking about these possibilities, I have turned my focus to the street on which I currently live in East Bethesda, Maryland, just two blocks from a metro stop on the Washington, DC Metro area subway system (and just one block from Bethesda-Chevy Chase Public High School). In order to complete this kind of place-based educational requirement, students might explore some of the area’s local memorials or public art, or the varied histories of local institutions like the Farm Women’s Market in downtown Bethesda, or Capital Crescent Trail—a shared-use rail trail running from Georgetown to Silver Spring.