Understanding History

by Bill Detweiler, A.S.L.A., Castle Rock, Colorado

In today’s fast-paced world seeking refuge from the constant barrage of social media or the hyperactive 24-hour news cycle is difficult.  I find relief, perhaps as many of you do, hiking I the wilderness alone, sitting in silence watching wildlife pass by or through one of my favorite pastimes, reading.  It is amazing how quickly I can separate from today’s world and find my childhood imagination through the written word, while intrinsically learning something new each day. 

Given western U.S. settlement and urban/rural development are fairly recent compared to Asian, Africa, Central and South America or European history, those of us who work in the Rocky Mountain Region have the unique opportunity to recognize and understand how the built environment was influenced by social, religious and cultural values.  I remain fascinated by the variety of historical accounts of western movement across the U.S. and how the West is shaped by the confluence of English, Spanish and a variety of European and Asian cultures.  Some of you reading this article may represent several generations of western settlers.  Where else can you find such diversity and newness other than the Western states? 

I have spent most of my adult life in the community development profession.  It is helpful to understand the social and environmental impacts associated with community development by reading historical accounts of the built environment.  And, if the opportunity arises, traveling and experiencing environments transformed from the native countryside to buildings and roads and the social and visual impacts associated with that change.  I also find myself painting a mental image of what the built environment will look like in the future, hopefully within my lifetime so I can enjoy the benefits of growth. 

Mark Twain stated, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”  Recognizing that many themes in community development are renewed, such as new urbanism, reinvented art deco design and the never-ending cycle of post-war housing types across the Western states, reading can provide us with insight into what led us to this time and place and the impacts or our decisions on the environment.  It also provides us with a predictable vision of what the near future brings.  The distant future is somewhat harder to predict, but nonetheless, equally as fun.  Reading the history of the built environment can provide insight into current trends and influence our thoughts on future development activity and assist our community leaders with a knowledge base to recognize that many generations will follow us and they will be influenced by decisions made in 2017. 

Whether it relates to the history of community development, history in general or historical biographies, I hope you take time to open the page of a book or flip through your electronic reader and escape into the always expanding world of our minds imagination.  Please do so, and you will not “remain always a child.” 

Reading Recommendations

In terms of historical accounts of community development and urban development, I suggest anything written by Edward Rutherford.  He writes historical fiction.  I read New York the development of New York City starting with the arrival of the Dutch in the 1600’s.  Paris about the development of Paris from the year 1,200 through today.  Sarum development of eastern British Isles from the ice age through today and Ruska covering 1,800 years of Russian history.  The stories center on fictional families and are easy to read and very informative.  There are also the classics in case you have not read them – A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, The Last Crossing by Vanderhaeghe, War of the Roses by Leeson and Brooklyn by Toibin.  They all describe how the built environment impacted agriculture, social, political and religious norms. 

I also suggest, if you like podcasts, to listen to Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History.”  The podcast typically centers on empires and leaders within those empires but also includes really good tidbits about how cities formed and how they were influenced by powerful families, individuals, and cultures.


Bill Detweiler, A.S.L.A., is the Director of Development Services for Castle Rock, Colorado. He serves on the Western Planner Editorial Board.

Published in November 2017


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