Landmarks and city development

by John M.
(United States)

Are landmarks essential the city's development? What happens if a city seems to have few landmarks? What if a suburb's main landmark is a major discount store that recently went out of business? Can anything be done to develop landmarks if you don't have any?

Editors' Reply: That's four questions, John! Well, we can handle it.

Let's start with the idea that a landmark is something that people use to orient themselves or to explain to others a location relative to a commonly known point.

1) We think in theory landmarks wouldn't be necessary to having a good city. But in reality, we can't think of any examples of a great place with no landmarks. If you are asking if a city can grow larger for a number of years without landmarks, the answer certainly is yes. But can it grow, thrive, and survive and reinvent itself as it ages? We doubt it.

2) If a city doesn't have many landmarks, it isn't very memorable. That's when people start adopting really trivial stuff as landmarks. Think about it--would you prefer to have a great sculpture, garden, museum, circle, plaza, or park as your landmark, or do you want to tell visitors to turn left when you see the leaning 1950s fried chicken sign? Or the purple house?

The second thing that can happen when a city has few landmarks is that it can't remain competitive as a market for housing or for business. Who wants to live in the suburb that everybody forgets because there is no there there. Where every house is basically the same, and where there's very little business, all of it strip retail requiring a car to reach it.

3) If a suburb's landmark is an empty store, as you say in your question, John, that's not a good thing. It means you don't have much going for you. The two options are: add a landmark that brings very positive attention and distracts from the empty store, or fill up the store building with something interesting.

If you want to fill up the store--probably a better strategy since your question indicated it was a big store--please see our page about adaptive reuse for potential new uses.

Don't spend a lot of time, money, and energy looking for a replacement in terms of a similar type of store, unless the market for such stores is really strong in your area. (To check this possibility, count other vacant stores of the same general size and parking situation in your area--if there are quite a few, forget attracting a similar replacement right now.)

4) If you decide to go the positive attraction route and develop a landmark, then you'll have to do something really outstanding if you still have the ugly landmark being used by people to give directions or remind others of your town.

If you have a park or unused open space in a highly visible location, or an outstanding commercial area somewhere else in town, enhance them to the fullest.

One of the least expensive ways to create a landmark is often overlooked. Try a very flashy garden area, with a stunning centerpiece of some sort. The focal point doesn't have to be an expensive fountain, although splashing water is always a nice touch and more affordable than it used to be. You don't even need expensive public art. Maybe you can find an interesting artifact of some kind--an abandoned bell or industrial machine or piece of a building, or a donated jalopy of interesting vintage or that you can paint outrageously. Maybe you can make kids art by driving a few square posts into the ground at varying heights and decorate them by having the local kids make and paint tiles with their handprints in them. Properly affixed to the posts, this can last several years.

The best way to create landmarks, though, is to create a great place in general--somewhere that people will want to spend time socializing, shop with no particular aim in mind, walk, bike, and see what's new.

Depending on the size of your place, you might want to see our page on small town character, suburban retrofit, or urban design principles.

And of course everything under the Beautification button on the home page could help. But landmarks specifically are about making one thing really memorable, rather than general clean-up. Let's hope you can do this.


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