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Hiss, Tony. The Experience of Place: A New Way of Looking at and Dealing with Our Radically Changing Cities and Countryside. New York: Knopf, 1990 (233 pp.). Hiss’s book keeps popping up in many bibliographies of other studies on "place," but we’re not sure why it has gained something of the status of a classic in the "place" genre, except that he’s a personable writer and he was probably one of the first to write about the idea of "place" in this way. Some recommendations involving technology (simulation videos, computer maps, etc.) are so dated now that they are barely meaningful. His point is well-taken (that we should simulate development before building to "see" its effect), but a 13-year-old kid with Simm City software can accomplish 100 times as much as one of these videos – in 10 minutes at 1/1000th the cost. Also, the book is so New York and East Coast specific, that much of it simply does not apply to other parts of the country. There are entire chapters on the history of Times Square, Prospect Park, Grand Central Station, and other New York landmarks – leading to a discussion about why they qualify as unique places (he literally gives the reader a map while walking through the park: "Turn to your left, there is a large oak, I feel wind on my face, etc."). These places provide what Hiss calls "connectedness" and "simultaneous perception" – that is, when all of his senses are working together (actually, he calls it a sixth sense, and we think he’d do better peddling this stuff in Sedona). Hiss cites some groundbreaking (for the time) research from Europe about the way people actually use public spaces, which is helpful. Similarly, his history of the parks in New York is useful, because most towns have parks and the elements that make parks work (i.e., people visiting them) are generally common whether you’re in New York or Tucson. Later on, we’re introduced to the New England countryside and many of the people who have lived on this land for generations; they seem like nice, hardworking, committed farmers, and all of them are under the gun to sell to developers (the notion of "threat" runs throughout). This last half of the book is more relevant, especially for regions outside New York City. Hiss discusses some interesting experimental programs that cities, regions, and states have enacted to protect farmland. He explains (and shows with drawings) how land can be developed in clusters to avoid the usual suburban sprawl that almost completely obliterates open space (here he foreshadows the New Urbanists). He also presages a lot of the discussion going on today about regionalism (natural landscapes, working landscapes, urban landscapes), and he anticipates the interest that the outdoors will have for the next generation of tourists (that’s about it on tourism, except as it relates to New York’s theater district). Perhaps that is the book’s lasting appeal – that it codifies many of the land-use concepts in place today. His thesis, of course, is that nice places make nice people, and too many of our nice places are threatened by not-so-nice development – so let’s act! And he provides dozens of examples, large and small, of what individuals and communities are doing. (We like the Amish story: They show up at the town meeting to protest a highway, don’t say a word, sit in the back, and the town rejects the plan.) For CHG, an interesting part was reading about Benton MacKaye, the father of the Appalachian Trail, but who also wrote eloquently about people and the land. Benton, who was a colleague of Aldo Leopold’s in the 1920s, said one thing about development to take from this book: "The job is not to ‘plan,’ but to reveal," by which he meant that what gets added is less important than discovering and then imparting what is already there.


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