Specialness of Place

  • Farmers Market at Monroe Street Market

    Monroe Street Market in Brookland is a special part of Washington, DC. Monroe Street Market was conceived and built starting about a decade ago by The Catholic University of America and Bozzuto, a redevelopment of the university’s lands that had run down dorms on them and little else.

    Today, Monroe Street Market is home to 500+ homes across four apartment buildings: Cornerstone, Brookland Works, Portland Flats, and Everton. It’s only a small part of the Brookland neighborhood, but it was built so thoughtfully that it has many of the qualities of the perfect town. It’s walkable, close to Metro, build with placemaking in mind from branding to permanent outdoor seating to fountains, and it has a variety of restaurants and shops (but not enough) open during much of the day.

    Subscribe to continue reading

    Subscribe to get access to the rest of this post and other subscriber-only content.

    Already a subscriber?

  • Doug Sanders writes on Poundbury, the New Urbanist community begun in 1993 by King Charles III:

    Poundbury offers a window into the mind of the new King. It was the controversial test bed for his outspoken ideas about architecture and urban planning, ecology and community. It has been a highly lucrative part of the portfolio of property-development and retail ventures that made up his business empire, now passed on to his son William.

    And, you realize after spending a day or two here, Poundbury is meant to be a statement—about the importance of tradition and its place in a modern high-tech world, about the relationship between community and authority, and, by extension, about how Charles envisions institutions such as the monarchy, and imagines them functioning during his time on the throne. …

    “Personally, I like living here because you can live in a nice Victorian house that doesn’t have all the thermal and energy problems of a real Victorian house,” says architect Duncan Jagger as he picks up his two small kids from the Prince of Wales school. He’s not an anti-modernist, but, as he notes, neoclassical house designs and rural-village streetscapes have been a popular fashion in housing developments for decades, and master-planned towns are certainly nothing new in Britain. …

    But Poundbury is bound to be judged differently, because it was meant to be a proof of one man’s values.

    On one hand, it is a very progressive place by urban-planning standards. It is built to be very walkable, with a high population density, no yards surrounding houses, and streets designed to deter fast driving – there are no lines on the roads or signs beside them, so drivers have to concentrate. It is a mixed-use town, with retail and residential sharing the same space, including urban-style flats on top of shops. It is very ecological, with, for example, a regeneration plant that generates electricity from waste. And it’s theoretically “tenure agnostic,” so you can’t visually tell the social-housing flats from million-pound luxury homes. …

    Charles did believe that the wedding of aesthetic and organizational tradition with social progress would create a tight-knit place, on a human scale, that would foster a more harmonious community. And in the view of many of the people who live here, it has.

    Leon Krier, Poundbury’s lead architect and planner, wrote ten years prior to Poundbury’s opening that communities should be built to human-scale and to be adaptable rather than premised on a single model of human/economic behavior. Krier wrote in Architectural Design, in a piece titled Urban Components, that:

    “[T]he whole of Paris is a pre-industrial city which still works, because it is so adaptable, something the creations of the 20th century will never be. A city like Milton Keynes cannot survive an economic crisis, or any other kind of crisis, because it is planned as a mathematically determined social and economic project. If that model collapses, the city will collapse with it.”

    Krier descries the drift in the 20th century to single-use zoning, where certain parts of a community become strictly residential, other strictly commercial, others strictly industrial, etc. When communities are built this way, you end up with places that become dead or dangerous at certain times of day—think of corporate office parks with their desolate parking lots, or residential subdivisions whose codes can even prohibit gardening or clothes lines, and whose life drains away during the day when children are at school and parents have left for corporate or commercial activity zones.

    Contrast this with the city or town core of our best cities—places like New York, Old City Philadelphia, Rome, etc. where homes, restaurants, art studios, schools, etc. are all naturally layered together, resulting in communities that are always alive.


  • The late Roger Scruton on the “metaphysical nature of our city temples and tombs:”

    Adolf Loos, founding father of architectural modernism, maintained that only in two of its applications is architecture an art—in the temple and the tomb. For it is only in these structures, built to house the non-existent, that architecture escapes from its everyday function as a shelter against an inhospitable reality. …

    Tombs, temples, and memorials form the heart of our ancient settlements, marking the public squares, the crossroads and the places of pilgrimage. They are the nodes of the urban network, and the streets radiate out from them, carrying the message of belonging to the furthest reaches of the city. Every town in Europe is built around a church, and public spaces are marked by monuments and chapels, reminding us that the place has a meaning more durable than the people who reside there. …

    People moved out to the suburbs, and into the suburbs from the fields. And yet no new places were created. The suburbs were no-places, and the city itself became a concrete platform, on which the glass boxes could be shifted back and forth like pieces on a chess-board. In an astonishingly short time, many of  the places that we knew had disappeared, and no places had come in their stead.

    … I have been even more struck by a deeper metaphysical difference. The old buildings belong in the places that they create; the new buildings typically belong nowhere, and create a nowhere wherever they are constructed. Physically the old city center is a space; metaphysically, however, it is a place, a somewhere to which buildings, people and the institutions that unite them can belong. But the new developments are spaces that refuse to be places, spaces where nothing belongs. …

    How does the peculiar experience of belonging enter human consciousness, and to what end?

    These questions return me to Adolf Loos’s observation concerning the temple and the tomb. In constructing these memorials to the non-existent we are fixing ourselves to a space. Temples and tombs are massive, immovable, as though the spirit contained in them has been fixed forever to the ground. The god and the hero cling to their allotted space with all the force of the imagination, and this causes us to reimagine that space as a somewhere to be shared and defended. In a space that has become a place it is not the body only but also the soul that finds a home. So much recent attempt at placemaking fails because it bypasses those core emotions. Yet how can you make a place for people if you do not first make a place for their heroes and their gods? We settle down by inviting our gods and heroes to settle beside us. And in that way the place is sanctified as ours.

    When the Antifa activists gather in the squares to pull the statues from their pedestals and the busts from their plinths, they are sending the message that this place is not ours, that we do not belong here, and that we want to start again outside the community that brought us into being. And the result of their destructive pranks will surely be no different from the result of so much modern building—the replacement of somewhere by nowhere. And I suspect that that is where we are going.

    I like Ave Maria so much because it is a space that strives to be a place—a place with Our Lord at its center and with the life of the community radiating from the reality of his Eucharistic presence.

  • Stars and Christmas lights

    After a Christmas party in Bethesda/Rockville on Saturday night, I left around 10pm for State College in order to get into town for the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s Sunday board meeting.

    I opted for the slightly longer but more scenic/rural route, which is great even at night. I stopped for a few minutes off a side road in Franklin County, near the little town of Lemasters, Pennsylvania, because you could night sky was very visible. It was also nearly totally silent, and I tried to capture the sound of silence.

    I got into State College past 1am and walked down Allen Street to take in the Christmas lights before heading to sleep. After the Mount Nittany Conservancy meeting and a few brief errands, I hit the road back to Washington on Sunday around noon.

  • Aaron M. Renn reviews Charles Marohn’s bookStrong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity“:

    Strong Towns, the book and the namesake organization, resulted from civil engineer and urban planner Charles Marohn’s discovery that the highway projects he designed showed a negative return on investment. The local taxes generated by new road construction and expansion didn’t even cover the costs of the roads themselves, much less any other city services. Marohn calculated, for example, that it would take 37 years’ worth of property-tax revenue from all the houses on his own cul de sac just to recoup the street’s initial cost. This realization inspired Marohn to argue that urban sprawl is a financial loser.

    According to Marohn, the current approach to suburban development is a “growth Ponzi scheme.” New developments, like housing subdivisions or industrial parks, require little maintenance for many years after their initial construction. This allows the municipal tax revenues they produce to be used for other purposes. But over time, infrastructure inevitably needs repairs, and, too often, a city can’t cover the cost. If the city goes ahead with the maintenance work, it will need to boost economic growth to generate the necessary revenue to pay for it.

    A similar challenge arises on the private side. Unlike traditional communities, which organically form in increments, modern neighborhoods are commonly built in large, uniform blocks intended as permanent developments. Zoning and building codes, along with restrictive covenants, ensure this outcome. Today’s housing developments, for instance, might feature hundreds of homes—separated into various pods—that collectively sell within a narrow price range. Since these homes get built at once, they require major maintenance, such as roof replacement, at around the same time. Homeowners confront significant repair bills, but some cannot afford the upkeep, so the neighborhood can start to look worn down.

    This convergence of public and private redevelopment costs—along with changes in market demand for building and neighborhood types that disproportionately affect “monoculture” developments—has contributed to the decline of many outer-urban and inner-suburban areas across America. In modern suburbia, dead malls and rising poverty levels bring municipal fiscal distress; government incentives helped trigger this pattern. “Today, the public sector backstops almost all private land development,” Marohn observes, “either by direct investments up front or by assuming the long-term maintenance obligations before the tax base has matured.” Marohn believes that a significant amount of U.S. infrastructure will be decommissioned due to its high cost.

    What Marohn is getting at is the difference between organic and artificial human communities. We’ve been building “artificially” for 70+ years, and the results are the sort of communities Marohn is warning will be financially unsustainable—if not in themselves, then in the supporting infrastructure that they require. We need to think about making strong towns and communities by first unmaking the sprawl that has led to so much of our disconnectedness today—our commutes, our lack of town centers, our lack of relationship with those who should be our neighbors, our tax liabilities, etc.

    Our older way of developing a place, which is incrementally, not only ensure that we have a real “center of gravity” in our communities in terms of town squares and places for sharing with one another in meaningful ways, but also that things don’t break at the same time, and that communities support their own needs as much as possible. We call that localism, but it might as well be called conservatism. It was the progressive social architects and engineers that gave us the problems we face.

    TechCrunch also has a great review of the book worth checking out.

    I’m planning to read “Strong Towns” before the end of the year.

  • Issam Ahmed and Ariela Navarro write:

    Anna Burger lives by a busy road just a minute’s walk from a metro station in the US capital Washington, but every morning she wakes up to a birdsong symphony.

    Butterflies, squirrels and even the occasional deer also come to visit the tree-covered property that she has cultivated with a focus on native species that provide nesting space and nourishment for the local wildlife.

    Well-manicured grass lawns have long been associated with the American Dream, but a growing “rewilding” movement now seeks to reclaim yard space for nature.

    “We knew that putting chemicals on grass to try to keep it green seemed to be a futile process that wasn’t good for kids playing or for the environment,” Burger told AFP.

    She and her husband bought the house in 1990 and “we’ve tried to make it friendly, making sure that we have water sources, making sure that there are food sources so these trees aren’t the most colorful but have great berries.”

    The couple’s home is surrounded by several houses whose occupants take a more traditional approach toward their green space, but a stroll through the leafy Takoma Park neighborhood reveals many more where “ungardening” has taken root.

    Precise definitions of what this means vary, but the concept of meddling less and celebrating nature more was notably popularized in 1993 book “Noah’s Garden” by Sara Stein, a Bible for the movement.

    There are some great photos of what these sorts of home look like, including some certified by the National Wildlife Federation as wildlife habitats. Not for everyone, but not bad, either. Nearly every neighborhood has something like this in it, if you look for it.

  • Knight Foundation has established “Public Spaces Fellows:”

    Launched in February, the program recognizes leaders, experts, and practitioners who are dedicated to developing public spaces that create or strengthen civic engagement. Selected from more than two thousand candidates, the seven fellows will receive $150,000 each in flexible funding as well as opportunities to learn from one another, share lessons, and raise their work up to a broader audience.

    The 2019 class of fellows includes Anuj Gupta (Philadelphia), who as general manager of Reading Terminal Market has spearheaded engagement initiatives designed to bring people of different backgrounds together around food; Eric Klinenberg (New York), who recently served as research director of Rebuild by Design, a federal competition aimed at generating innovative designs in a region affected by Hurricane Sandy; Erin Salazar (San Jose), founder and executive director of Exhibition District, a women-led arts nonprofit that works to create economic opportunities for artists at the intersection of public art and community; Chelina Odbert (Los Angeles), co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit design firm that advocates for community participation in public space development; Kathryn Ott Lovell (Philadelphia), commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and an advocate for “citizen-centric” service; Walter Hood (Oakland, California), creative director and founder of Hood Design, which practices at the intersection of art, design, landscape, research, and urbanism; and High Line co-founder Robert Hammond (New York), who had the foresight twenty years ago to reimagine what an abandoned elevated railbed on the west side of Manhattan could become.

    New York’s High Line is the obvious standout in terms of the project with the clearest public impact, but each of these fellows provides a model for how people might respond ambitiously and with a conserving spirit to build upon the best part of the existing built environment of their community and potentially transform it in the process.

  • Charles Marohn asks, “If we’re not going to maintain what we have, then why bother building anything new?”:

    It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

    I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it. …

    Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

    For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state. …

    What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

    Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once. …

    This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. …

    This is part of what I was trying to speak to when I asked, “Who’s responsible for a place like this?

  • Daniel Herriges just returned from a visit to New Orleans, and comes to the same realization that so many of us do intuitively when we visit historic towns and downtowns, namely that “we used to do this everywhere:”

    I just got back from a few days in New Orleans, where I stayed—as most tourists to that city do—in the French Quarter. The name is actually a misnomer from the particular perspective of an urban planner: most of the historic architecture in the French quarter dates to a period of Spanish rule from 1763-1801, and much of the urban design suggests a strong Spanish influence.

    The French Quarter is one of the North American continent’s most treasured tourist destinations. Tennessee Williams once said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” (Apologies to Cleveland, which I hear rocks.) The Quarter, to many visitors, feels as impeccably master-designed and curated as Disneyland. This perception is understandable but wrong.

    It brings me to something I find North Americans in particular need to remind ourselves of. We’re accustomed to environments built at the scale of the automobile, and to places where everything about the buildings suggests impermanence. When we vacation somewhere like the French Quarter, many of us slip into the false belief that a place like this—oriented to the pedestrian, with lavish attention to detail in public spaces and an overwhelming sense of place—is by necessity a tourist destination. It’s a novelty. You visit it, you love it, but who would ever try to replicate it in the places we go about our everyday lives? Impractical, surely. Too expensive, surely. Pretentious, even.

    That view says so much about where we’ve gone wrong in how we build—and maintain—our places. …

    There’s something I think more of us than not genuinely do crave about a traditionally-developed city built at a human scale. James Kunstler famously observed that Disney theme parks more or less replicate this pattern. So do college campuses and, in their own way, malls.

    And of course, countless millions vacation every year in New Orleans and Savannah and Charleston and Santa Fe and so forth. But these places’ historic districts represent a pattern of building that we’ve made so scarce that it is now mostly reserved for tourists, and the very wealthy who can live in such unique neighborhoods. In the vast majority of the places that used to be this way, we’ve torn down half or more of the buildings for parking lots, lost others to disuse, hollowed out the economy in the name of pop-up strip-mall growth on the edge of town.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. Visit the French Quarter and marvel at it because it’s the exception. But walk away from it wondering why it isn’t the rule.

    In “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” he reads from his poetry at one point (or maybe it’s only in the trailer, I’m not sure) that too much of modernity is characterized not by the human person in any particular place, but by dis-placement, literally un-placemaking as we transform the American countryside into derivative suburbia that has no center, no public square, and at its heart no shared life.

    Wendell Berry has been a champion of the traditional life of the American farmer, and we need a champion of the traditional life of the American community—as a place defined by people and the life they share.

  • I wrote about visiting the WREC in Warminster, Bucks County a few years ago before the township demolished the community center to build homes. I visited today for the first time and saw those new homes, and was glad that the little woods nearby still remain, and that Little Neshaminy Creek is alive:

    In the Philadelphia area for Easter to visit family. When we got in yesterday we visited with Fr. Chris Walsh at Saint Raymond of Penafort in Mount Airy, Philadelphia, and then visited Holy Sepulchre Cemetery where my grandparents rest. Today we visited my childhood neighborhood and places like Little Neshaminy Creek.

    We’re heading to Easter Vigil tonight at Saint Raymond of Penafort.