Adding grace to place


Below are listed sixteen sweet ideas for adding grace to a place. Some of these ideas may sound like simple steps, but I am always amazed how few American communities actually employ them on a regular basis as a way of gracing their community.

As will become evident from reading the list, art and landscaping ideas are prominently featured. The ideas are presented in no particular order of preference. Rather the presentation is in the order I thought of them. : )

  • Flower boxes – One of the first things I noticed when visiting the United Kingdom were the gorgeous flower boxes located under the windows of numerous homes, flats, and businesses. They are a simple, yet colorful way to brighten even the most drab building exterior, whether residential or commercial.  In addition, flower boxes provide an enhanced exterior view for those inside the structure. Here is a photo of the Exmouth Arms Pub in London, UK that has been adorned with flowers followed by one in Old Town Lansing.

Exmouth Arms Pub in north London

in Old Town Lansing

  • Art – Want to add some pizzaz to your community? Artwork is a great way to do it, particularly sculptures. The artwork does not have to be expensive or massive. It can be simple pieces bought or rented through organizations like the Midwest Sculpture Initiative from Blissfield, Michigan. Often, simplistic art appeals to me the most. In fact, one of my favorite local pieces is a sundial made out of tuba outside the Tuba Museum (see first photo below).  Another favorite of mine is a sculpture of an oak tree in the Old Town area of Lansing (see second photo). From a distance it looks real. Lastly, is a ceramic tile mosaic map of Evanston, Illinois that I relish as a map collector for its uniqueness and charm.


  • Doors – If doors are the gateway to the soul of a structure, then colorful and unique ones must lead to laughter, joy, and fun. In St. Andrews and throughout much of Scotland, brightly painted doors add luster and sparkle even during the dampest days (see photo). In other instances, ornately designed doors depict strength and power, while artistic ones reflect fun and whimsy.

Source: flickr.com

  • Pocket parks – My favorite pocket park anywhere is the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, dramatically adorning the heart of Michigan State University’s campus. Wedged into a narrow vale between several edifices of education, the garden softens its brick and mortar surroundings with a delightful humanist-scale of finely tended floral greenery. A subtle place of peace and reflection amidst the scurry of school.  It is amazing how the simplest of parks can soften the most brutal surroundings with tender loving care.

Source: flickr.com

  • Sidewalk gardens – In Edinburgh, even the tiniest patch of green between the sidewalk and rows upon rows of flats were dedicated to flower and in some cases vegetable gardens. Some of the gardens were hugging a thumbnail patch of land below sidewalk level, barely saw sunlight for more than a few hours per day. Nevertheless, they were often filled with charming floral display unique to its proprietor. It was one of the most memorable, endearing, and charming aspects of Edinburgh.
  • Bicycle parking – Okay, some people may wonder where I am coming from with this one. Aside from walking, bicycling is the most human way to experience a city or town. Cars are too confining and get in the way of a true “experience.” Aside from that, bicycle parking racks can be artistic, whimsical, avant-garde, or merely functional. But, the most important part is that they are available.   My preference is for a mix of art, whimsy, and functionality. (see photo)

from Old Town Lansing’s Scappy Bike Rack contest

  • Ornamental fencing – Rod iron and similar ornamental fencing does much more than depict boundaries, it adds refinement to the streetscape. Forget the cheap and flimsy looking chain link fences and add some style and charisma instead.
  • Streetlights – One of my favorite aspects of any city or town is the decorative streetlights. Unfortunately, if not done properly, they will reflect the surroundings poorly. But when done correctly, they are a magnificent way to adorn the community with style and grace. Two places that immediately come to mind at Lockerbie Square in Indianapolis and the Michigan State University campus.  (see photo)

  • Curbside flowers – One of my favorite ways to grace a community is when flowers are planted/grown in the green strip between the curb and sidewalk.
  • Fountains – One of my favorite placemaking features as they bring freshness and a sparkle to almost any setting with the dancing plumes of water. Always a popular gathering spot for conversation or a brown bag lunch, fountains have a magical way of attracting attention and people. (see photo from London – fyi taken on a very chilly morning)

  • Hanging baskets – Whether adorning porches, entryways, streetlights, or foyers, colorful hanging baskets of flowers are a simple, yet elegant way to grace a community without breaking the bank.
  • Historic markers – Personally, I love historic markers as a way to define the heritage of place. Aside from interesting information, well written historic markers help the visitor visualize a previous place in time. I have yet to see a poorly designed historic marker that takes away from its surroundings. Instead they tastefully provide a fame of reference in time versus space. (see photo)

Source: yhf.org

  • Historic preservation –  Nothing quite adds character like historic structures that are preserved and well-maintained from a variety of eras. Nothing quite says fake as “Dislandic” make-believe. To grace place, the history must be real and honest, not a reasonable facsimile. Granted, not all buildings can be preserved, but if enough are, they will compliment the rest. Save it while you’ve got it, because it is never going to come back.
  • Seating – Originally called this “resting places,” but that sounded too much like cemetery plots.  Seating is an important aspect to gracing a place because it allows time for rest, relaxation, and reflection. Otherwise, the subtle nuances of the community may be missed. Seating also opens up more opportunities for human interaction and is an imperative rest feature as population’s age.
  • Courtyards – A favorite feature of Edinburgh, Scotland is the narrow walkways (called closes) that lead from the street to an amazing interconnected system walkways, staircases, and/or courtyards that are virtually hidden from street view. These places of quiet solace are wonderful barriers between the noisy streets and the residences and businesses connected to the courtyard.

Source: scotlandinfo.eu

  • Trees – Plant them, preserve them, and protect them. They add value and charm to a community. They also help reduce pollution and the heat island effect of hard surfaces in urban areas. Nobody ever moved to a place because it had ample parking lots, but they sure do prefer beautiful and cared for trees.

The list above is certainly not exhaustive. Decorative sidewalks, stylish footbridges (like in New York’s Central Park), and sidewalk cafes are three graceful additions that come to mind. Please feel free to submit your thoughts and ideas on how grace a place. Thanks!

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11 Responses to Adding grace to place

  1. Great post! With your permission I’d like to repost this one.

    I like how the English use the term garden instead of what we call a yard. It has an implication that they can make due with less just by having a lively “outdoor room.”

    Staying on the term of garden… the German version – beer garden, might be the best of them all. A communal space with trees and tables adjacent to a restaurant/bar of sorts. It’s a pocket park for adults! There is one in Munich that I still dream of.

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  2. Carol says:

    As a geographer, I love how you categorized places in this way! A “sense of place” is often evoked from just these types of features! I like the way you used regional cultural variety to showcase the human-environment interaction. Awesome!

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  3. Vivian Spencer says:

    I plan to e-mail your article to the Community Advancement Coordinator for a small town in Kansas. She is quite artistic and she will be pleased to see that a number of these suggestions are already present in this little town of less that 18,000.

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  4. Reblogged this on Reader Area Development and commented:
    A great post by Rick Brown on Panethos. Hits the nail on the head with all of these points of great placemaking!

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  5. Edward Russo says:

    Landscaping is of course a very tedious task. You also need to do some research before embarking on a preferred landscape design. ,`;,` Kindest regards supplements resource

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  6. Nice post. It evoked memories of “A Pattern Language” in its attention to the small, the subtle, the graceful, and the useful. Thanks so much paying attention to bike racks–most are so god-awful… a lost opportunity for injecting a bit of beauty into the utterly utilitarian. Benches are another overlooked opportunity; I like to use them not just for resting, but also as a prop for stretching during a long walk, which can take its toll.

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