The Setting: Some Cities Are Just Lucky

It’s safe to say that some cities have more of a “sense of place” than others.

A few cities were born with it and didn’t have to do a thing. Colorado Springs is at the base of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. Honolulu is on a narrow piece of land between green mountains and wide beaches.

Some cities started with a geographic feature and then built something more. New York City and Chicago had lots of water, but their skyscrapers made them memorable. San Francisco had the Bay, but built the bridges. Seattle had Puget Sound, but built the Space Needle.

Other cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, and Las Vegas didn’t start with much at all – flat land and no obvious natural features – but still built impressive skylines that give them an identity.

In the early days of our country - before the development of railroads for transportation - most cities were built on rivers and other bodies of water. Today, those rivers and lakes and bays give their cities a character (and often a beauty) that others just don’t have.

Most of our big rivers have important cities along their banks: the Mississippi has Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans; the Ohio has Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville; the Arkansas has Wichita, Tulsa, and Little Rock.

Medium-sized rivers such as the Alabama and Des Moines give their major cities (Montgomery and Des Moines, respectively) an identity; even the eight-mile long Providence River provides the capital of Rhode Island with a scenic space downtown.

The success of San Antonio’s Riverwalk inspired other cities to make their rivers more accessible to the public with parks and walkways. Today, there are river pathways in such cities as Hartford, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Detroit, and Grand Rapids.

Coastal cities have memorable settings of their own, from San Diego on the Pacific to Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico to Boston on the Atlantic.

The Great Lakes have big cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee on Lake Michigan and Buffalo and Cleveland on Lake Erie. Lake Champlain has Burlington, and Lake Mendota and Lake Monona have Madison.



Pikes Peak From Colorado Springs
(Photo by David Shankbone)

Even small lakes can give downtowns a sense of place: Orlando has Lake Eola, Oakland has Lake Merritt, and Huntsville has Big Spring.

Other lucky cities such as Salt Lake City, Denver, and Albuquerque have nearby mountains in view.

And then, there are cities with settings that are not particularly memorable. Some locations were determined by the railroads: Birmingham, Amarillo, Cheyenne, Fresno. Others, such as Raleigh, were placed at their sites for convenience as a state capital.