On Localism

Many thanks to everyone who came out yesterday and to all of the participants on the panel. Our next panel is on politics and will take place April 13. Steve Graham will be our special guest, with our focus the topic of his next book… Cities Under Siege. Video of today’s panel will be up by the end of the day, or so I hope.

To me, the most interesting point raised by the panel was a distinction between localism and conventional ideas about local place. For many people today, localism is a counterpoint to globalization. "Locally-sourced" produce, local food (particularly slow food), and local crafts undo the sameness that globalization relentlessly imposes everywhere.

Localism is a reaction to the loss of place which, if we follow Marc Augé’s definition from his book Non-Place, is a space with significance, a space in which meaning accrues out of historical activity. Think of a market in a town square to which the same people go daily to sell or buy produce. Over the years relationships build: children grow up, adults grow old, days gone by are remembered. For Augé, non-place, that is spaces of transit that we pass through, disconnected from others, is rapidly obliterating place.I’ve argued elsewhere that in the two decades since he wrote his book, Augé’s non-place is itself disappearing: instead we live in an oversaturated world, and non-places become not spaces of disconnect but rather spaces in which we connect with others.

But localism isn’t a return to place. For many of us, the necessities of a highly-specialized job market (how many architecture historians studying contemporary telecommunications do you know?) force us to move around too often to develop a lasting connection with a place. Localism is a simulation of the local. We make connections, we became regulars, we have intense but fleeting relationships with others, generally based around consumption (either with the staff at our favorite local restaurant or with the friends we go there with), but for most of us it’s temporary. Soon we’re on our way again. The ties break, or at best, are held together by the Net. Perhaps this accounts for localism’s wistfulness. Place is tragic: a great hope shattered by the Fall. Localism is comic: a temporary reconciliation that everyone knows is momentary, a bit of light laughter that helps us forget the inevitable. 

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