(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Times Square, the focus of a century of theatrical excitement, looms in the imaginarion of most Americans as a locus of tawdriness and danger, a symbolic center of much that is threatening or depressing in contemporary urban culture. Yet for Tony Hiss, staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Experience of Place, Times Square is a welcoming physical space that is still brimming with life. Behind the down-at-heels pornographic theaters and the drug pushers, Hiss sees a complex of variegated and interesting buildings, lit in the daytime by a flood of sunshine and at night by a host of changing signs that vie for the attention of passers-by. Who else would think to stop on West Forty-fourth Street for a quick “celestial calculation”: a quick pause to appreciate a view of white clouds skidding across a brilliant patch of blue sky?

The Experience of Place offers a literal revision of the way to view one’s surroundings. Many of the components of Hiss’s perspective are not new; he quotes nineteenth century landscape architects and such eminent precursors as the urban sociologist William Hawley Whyte, writer Lewis Mumford, and regional planner Barton MacKaye. In this slim guidebook to regional planning, Hiss assembles the observations of environmentalists, geographers, educators, psychologists, filmmakers, and ordinary people who care about their surroundings, and welds them into a unique instrument for focusing on the spaces we inhabit and how we experience them. Although more optimistic, invigorating, and refreshing than most cautionary tales, The Experience of Place is ultimately a warning that we must see ourselves as the residents of a planet with limited resources. In order for pleasure to remain a component of the environment, Hiss encourages planning that is characterized by a broad and appreciative understanding of the role of these resources in ordinary lives.

Hiss’s work is described as a part of “the emerging science of place,” but the author who speaks in this book impresses the reader less as a scientist than as a humanist. To those inclined by experience to despair over the depredations of developers and the damage done by unplanned growth to the country’s physical environment, Hiss offers hope. Not content simply to warn people of disaster, he brings the message that positive planning is possible and, moreover, it is taking place all over the country in laboratories, municipal offices, and universities. Growth and change are inevitable; however, with a realistic sense of priorities, a clear understanding of what was effective in the past, and careful attention to present changes in communities, everyone can help to create more satisfying natural environments for the future.

Hiss identifies the primary value for use in the planning process as “connectedness,” the sense an individual has of belonging to a place and a time which are, in turn, connected both to past and future times and to other places. By talking to a wide range of people and analyzing the elements that make up a positive experience of place—its smell, the quality of light, the width of its walkways, or the size of its trees—researchers can exploit the human sense of connectedness to gauge the effect of change on an environment. More important, researchers can use their knowledge to retain the essential elements of the experience when change is unavoidable. By observing what really happens to the senses in Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, or Prospect Park, to name three of Hiss’s most effective urban examples, one can both assess the damage done by ill-considered development and identify qualities that can be built into new projects to preserve a place’s unique flavor.

The Experience of Place is...

(The entire section is 1543 words.)