Small Towns: The Value of Unique Places

Sanford fountain by C Woods.JPG

Rural and small towns suffer from a loss of faith in their place, and seem desperate to be recognized in our new, standardized world. Plenty of our developed land remains specific and even unique, but the highway does not go to it. Outside the cities, unpretty feed stores, the availability of tractor parts, and the presence of cattle hardly contribute to scientifically measured success. The refuge of the individual, the ability of a person to see his or her life as meaningful while it is separate and apart from a larger mass, is crippled. You’re only as good as your income; you’re only as witty as your social media posts, and you’re only red or blue.

In Sanford, Florida, the mayor recently sat down with my urban design students and discussed the future of this small town. Sanford, once larger than Orlando, was a significant port, loading Central Florida’s farm produce onto ships and railroad cars for hungry Northeasterners. Now diminished, its quaint downtown reeks of history, beautifully preserved, but only a few jobs exist. Today’s brick-paved Main Street, with its galleries, bookstores, and restaurants, caters to a trickle of visitors, but Sanford feels the effects of being on Orlando’s periphery.

“People come to me,” said Mayor Jeff Triplett, “and ask me to help bring jobs to Sanford. They wish we had a national chain drugstore like a Walgreens or CVS on Main Street. That,” he declared,” is their measure of having arrived.” Sanford citizens, he explained, see something like this as true progress.

“That would kill your Main Street,” protested one student. Enjoying Sanford’s originality, the students encouraged the Mayor to consider that Sanford could do better than a franchise’s low-paying jobs. The quest, however, for some sign of progress continues.

The conversation reflects how meaning, or a sense of place, is measured only in relation to a greater national homogeneity. People petition their leaders to bring meaning to their towns via a national chain. This monolithic built environment is, by itself, a giver of meaning. To someone living in a small town, the standardization of our lifestyle is the normal condition, and the lack of homogeneity is seen as impoverishment. It is somehow a disease, a condition of malnutrition, to be deprived of the physical structures of standardization.

Today’s homogeneity can be a strength, providing a level playing field for society. Its virtues are equity, efficiency, and supermobility. As a single, unified scaffold, our homogenous built environment has grown outward and filled our land to the edges, and it places cities at the focal points of a grand grid. Mainstream literature extols the virtues of this grid, and celebrates today’s urban life. But homogeneity has its downsides, and places that are outside of this grand grid of progress suffer deeply. Variety is subsumed by today’s great global culture.

Once, writers like Alvin and Heidi Toffler, and George Orwell, warned against this kind of growth, citing the hazards of the rational, scientific underpinnings of modernity. Objectifying everything and extinguishing the mystery of life seemed to them to be an exercise in nihilism. Other thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s also foresaw that the monolith of western civilization would consume everything in its path. Indeed, this consumption of unique places has been largely accomplished, and those that remain are considered stunted and backward. Everywhere one looks, the loss of variety and individualism is profound.

And so small towns suffer in silence, their best and brightest arriving like refugees into bigger cities. Smooth, suburban density levels set our current standards, while agriculture and ranching seem unable to retain people.

Science has brought us to this point, but blaming science is like blaming the trash can for the garbage within it. If the manmade environment we’ve created is imperfect, then it is a reflection of us. It probably isn’t going away anytime soon. We now exist in a nearly wholly manmade environment. Even the most rural exurban dweller lives in a substantially more technological and manmade environment — house, car, job — than the most urbane city dweller did a century ago.

No, this crisis of is not a failure of science. It is a lack of quality. What we’ve built is everywhere, but it isn’t very good… yet.

What to do with this homogenous world is the next generation’s big task. But we, too, must act now to confront the physical evidence of this imperfection. Change will come when we accept that we must fix it, and not wait for a deus ex machina to swoop down. Those longing for an apocalypse are seeking the easy way out: let flood, fire, or epidemic take care of the mess.

I’d rather take responsibility for what has been created, and take better care of it. This monolithic, homogenous latticework of roads and buildings is the new frontier. Where man has already strongly modified nature, there is plenty of room for improvement.

More cities that nurture native industry will create this new future. Balancing that approach with the Jeffersonian ideals of a strong, rural economy will bring equity to areas that are suffering. And that will build upon our strength.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo of Sanford by Christine Wood


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Speaking of the future of small towns

Richar Reep might be interested in this little booklet: