What Is a Place Without the People?

In an illustrated essay, Chuck Wolfe contrasts the ideal form of the New England town with an abandoned French village, calling out the human infrastructure essential to successful urban places.
Chuck Wolfe / myurbanist

Writing in myurbanist, Wolfe takes on the strength and fragility of urban places, and the inherent ironies of surviving town forms. 

Under the guise of "remember your past", Wolfe notes the basic elements of the classic New England town as a convenient model for today’s quest for compact, walkable urban areas. Then, using the gloss of a personal encounter with a small, French urban settlement--once called Brovès--he asks what happens when the human underpinnings for a town are taken away.

Brovès is one of several villages and hamlets in the Var region of Provence abandoned in the 1970′s in favor of a military camp, and is no longer recognized as a municipality.

Wolfe describes how its physical form lives on with decisive irony:

The former village of Brovès is a stage at first deceptively alive with structure–like the New England town, a church and surrounding buildings dot the landscape. But it is a remarkably silent landscape, a silence with military “interdit” (in English, “no entry”) signs that begged for research...

He continues:

There is a larger French sociopolitical picture, of course that speaks to military defense decisions of the Cold War era. But at core, my sudden encounter with Brovès contrasts markedly with urbanism that can be reclaimed in the New England landscape addressed above.

In conclusion, Wolfe explains two critical lessons for looking forward.

First, an interdisciplinary view of today’s urbanism critical: multiple, intertwining forces define how places evolve. Second, Shakespeare's Coriolinus is commonly cited for a reason. The people truly are the city.

Full Story: contrasting two models of how places survive


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