Commodification of Character

As conversations continue to circle around the notion of “unique” identities or the bastardized term “placemaking,” true urbanists lament the commodification of character. Paradoxical as it may seem, there is nonetheless an overarching quest to create culture as if it were a thing with a formula-based aesthetic. Yet, it becomes painfully obvious the more one travels and visits new places – sameness is defining “culture.”

This is not a new observation, but it is growing harder to ignore. A shiny, new, expensive shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City has the same shops as urban Congress Street in Austin as ultra-trendy Houston Street in New York’s SoHo. What is it, then, that separates places such as these – stunning topography, bustling music and urbanity to the nth degree. Those simple descriptions help you differentiate the aforementioned cities much more so than if it read, “Apple store, Brooks Brothers, lululemon.”

In his engaging book, Smart Cities, author Anthony Townsend delves in to cities’ deployment of technology to address a range of issues. In the book, Townsend defines culture as, “the creative social expression of humanity in a particular local setting.” The word particular here has the greatest meaning, since it is that which defines one place from another and which provides “those intangible aspects of urban life they may never be capable of measuring.”

Context and culture go hand in hand, whereby an island belies affinity. As Townsend writes, "Cities are deeply complex, built up through a vast array of small activities that accumulate over time." In other words, trying to create culture anew disregards history and local milieu.