Discussion Guide for What Makes a Great Place?

What Makes A Great Place?

YES! Discussion Guides are designed to help you explore your own experiences, opinions, and commitments as they relate to material found in YES! magazine. Use them in group discussions, classrooms, or study circles. We believe that when people discuss with mutual respect and caring the critical issues of our time, they create a powerful avenue for constructive social change.

Cities have long had a bad name in America. Getting out of the city, to the green countryside, was the healthy thing to do. But that path led to abandonment of cities and to sprawl, destroying the very peace and greenery people came to the ‘burbs to find. Sprawl turned out to be bad for the environment, bad for our health, and bad for community. So if sprawling suburbs don't make great places, what do? A variety of movements has arisen to answer that question, each exploring an aspect of how to make our American landscapes once again, in James Kunstler's words, places worth caring about. This discussion guide centers on the following articles. You might want to discuss a different one at each session.

• Francesca Lyman, "The New City Beautiful"
• Kathy Madden, "Five Ways to a Great Place"
• David Wann, "Extreme Makeover: Green Neighborhood Edition"
• Angela Blackwell interviewed by Sarah van Gelder, "Cities for All: Speaking up for Cities"

The new city beautiful
The City Beautiful movement of the turn of the last century sought to reclaim cities as healthy, delightful places to live and work. That effort ended with the beginning of America's love affair with the automobile, but now a new movement has begun to work once again to make cities delightful and environmentally sustainable.

  • Is sprawl an issue where you live? How have the cities in your area been affected by it? What efforts to deal with it are being tried?
  • Are any efforts being made to green your city or community? Which do you think might affect your quality of life? Which might most affect the environment? Which ones might you be willing to work to implement?
  • How do you get to work and to other regular destinations? What are the barriers to taking public transit, biking, or walking to these destinations? What would it take to make it convenient for you to take transit, bike, or walk to these destinations? How would your life be different if you did? How might your community change if people in your neighborhood spent less time in cars?


5 ways to a great place


The Project for Public Spaces has identified a number of factors that determine what makes a place vital, beloved, and well-used. Five important ones are that a great place is full of activity, invites affection, is visible and accessible, is comfortable and safe, and is a place you can count on.
  • What are your favorite places in your area? Where do you spend the greatest amount of your leisure time outside your home? Where do you most enjoy spending time? Which of the five qualities do these places have? Which of these do you see lacking in places near you?
  • What would it take to add the five elements identified in Madden's article to a place near you and turn it into a great place?
  • What other elements do you think make great places?

Extreme makeover: green neighborhood edition
We may sometimes dream of moving to the perfect place, where there is vibrant community, safety, convenience, and beauty. But what would it take to make the neighborhoods where we already live into wonderful communities?
Just a little work with our neighbors, says David Wann.

  • Do you know your neighbors? What kinds of interactions do you have with them?
  • Why do you live where you do? Do you consider it a great community? Why or why not? What do you most wish your neighborhood had? What are the best aspects of your neighborhood? The worst? Have you lived in other neighborhoods that worked better or worse than the one where you now live? What made them work or not work?
  • Which of the steps that Wann suggests would you be willing to try?
  • What are the boundaries of what you consider your “neighborhood”?

Speaking up for cities
Angela Blackwell speaks of the importance of community, steps to take to increase the vitality of communities, the things that every neighborhood should have, and the role race plays in denying these things to some neighborhoods.

  • What is the racial and class makeup of your area? Are there stark differences between neighborhoods in your area? What role does that play in the quality of the community? What barriers, if any, prevent your neighborhood from being more diverse? What difference do you think it would make if your neighborhood were more racially mixed?
  • Does your neighborhood have all the elements Blackwell says every neighborhood should have? Do surrounding areas have them? What role does that play in the sense of community and in local politics? For example, are there stark differences in the quality of schools in various neighborhoods? Has this affected your choice of where to live? Is housing affordable in areas with good jobs or good schools near you?
  • What steps, like those Blackwell describes, might your community and region take to remedy inequities like this?

What are you doing?
Are you using this discussion guide as part of a discussion group? In a classroom? We're also looking for stories of what you're doing to change the world for the better. We'll publish selected stories in YES! E-mail stories of up to 500 words to: editors@yesmagazine.org. with “Discussion Guide” as the subject.

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