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, the meeting of the year.
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.
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.
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. …
If you tune in to CBS at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of April, you will hear the following introit, delivered by Jim Nantz: “Hello, friends, and welcome to this tradition unlike any other.”
The final round of the Masters Tournament, hosted with meticulous precision by the Augusta National Golf Club, is held every year on that day. The veteran sportscaster’s greeting is one of the few tournament traditions not scripted by the club—though I have no doubt it is appreciated, since it captures the notions of heritage and distinctiveness that have made the Masters the signature golf event of the year.
Augusta National has long been an anachronism… The club polices speech jealously. It is said that at least two established broadcasters have been banned for life for verbal slip-ups: One referred to the patrons as a “mob,” and the other—take a deep breath—said that the perfectly manicured greens had been “bikini-waxed.” This year, club security has been ordered to remove any patron who shouts the popular Bud Light slogan “dilly dilly.”
But these regulations are not arbitrary: They are designed to preserve the mystique of the club as an Eden set apart from the vicissitudes of the world. At the Masters, there is no opioid crisis, no gun-control issue, no Donald Trump, no cultural and political decline. The only ads you will see on the television broadcast are for hand-picked, blue-chip companies more stable than most national governments: IBM, AT&T, and Mercedes-Benz. You won’t even see promos for other CBS programs, and so you won’t be reminded of the existence of Celebrity Big Brother.
Augusta National has used its cultural (and financial) capital to carve out a niche for itself to be itself, on its own terms. Not only does the club achieve something close to perfect consistency in what it controls directly, such as the appearance and condition of the golf course; it also controls the public’s interface with the club by controlling the intermediaries. If a broadcaster violates the rules, he will not be invited back. If CBS does not do its part to enforce the rules, it will not be invited back. The club insists on signing only year-to-year contracts with the network, so as to ensure its compliance.
By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived. This is a startling achievement in a society that finds security in featureless and easily comprehensible cultural landscapes, and consequently seeks to smooth anything too complex and particular into a barely distinguishable example of a type: just another sporting event; just another television broadcast; just another weekend distraction. …
People don’t make quasi-spiritual pilgrimages to just another championship golf course. They treat Augusta National as special because it has made a massive effort to demonstrate that it is special.
“By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived…” There’s an evergreen lesson about authenticity in this, for people, places, and things interested in being precisely what they are.
I’ve written about the value of murals as both public art and as “creative responses to failure.” That is, the physical space for so many murals is a result of a failure of architecture in terms of the existence of “dead” spaces between buildings, or disappeared adjacent buildings, or whatever. Great murals serve not only as forms of public art, but they also stitch some of the aesthetic fabric of our public spaces back together. A great example of this stitching-back-together can be found in Georgetown at N and Wisconsin:
There’s this low-slung little one story vanilla-yellow building, an unoccupied former restaurant where nothing’s been happening since at least September. And there’s this incredible exposed brick wall that towers above the little corner place. Its owners are approaching ownership in the classical sense, recognizing that their property doesn’t justify itself solely by fulfilling bureaucratic minima like filing taxes papers or occupancy certificates, but rather that one has a responsibly to enliven one’s place and, as much as possible, contribute to a sense of harmony in daily life.
Simply, but powerfully, it succeeds. It turns that large blank wall not into a place either for an advertisement or for a loud and bombastic mural that draws a purposeless attention to itself. Rather, with its simple painted windows it acknowledges that such spaces should rightly have such windows. And not just glass orifices in a utilitarian sense, but true windows as places for looking out, with sills where living plants might root themselves. And most importantly, an interested woman and her dog peer out at passersby, as the New Yorkers of Jane Jacobs’s day did in contributing to the life and character and safety of a neighborhood in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and in some way that painted woman reminds one of the sort of neighborhood life we can have again, if we choose to—a life where we know and care about the place we live enough to make it beautiful, and nurture it as a place worth living.
In the 1960s, when the suburbs were taking over America, a keen real estate developer from Pittsburgh, Thomas Frouge, dreamed about building a city on top of the Marin Headlands—Marincello.
His vision: a city rising from the slopes of the Tennessee Valley, where residents could gaze across the shimmering water, past the Golden Gate Bridge and on to San Francisco. Frouge described the headlands as “the most beautiful location in the United States for a new community.”
But thanks to some persistent conservationalists, red tape and shoddy planning, that vision never came to life—and those rocky headlands just north of the bridge remain a natural haven. The open hilltops and ridges are still cloaked in coastal shrub. The flowing, open natural landscape is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Northern California. …
In 1972 the land was sold to the Nature Conservancy for $6.5 million, and the area soon became part of the newly formed Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Aaron Renn writes on civic branding, but also on themes of promise, authenticity, and looking to the future with a real awarenesses of one’s past:
At its most basic, a brand is a promise. Branding, by extension, is the act of managing that promise. Branding is a management practice.
This deceptively simple statement is actually quite powerful. For example, when you make a promise, you promise something to someone. You don’t promise everything to everybody. You commit to delivering something specific. If you want your promise to have value, it has to be something at least relatively distinctive, something that everybody else isn’t already promising the other person. And when you make a promise, you have to keep it or else suffer a huge loss of credibility. …
Cities are not start ups. They already have residents, businesses, a history, a culture, a set of values—a brand, if you will. The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. It will also send a subtle message to existing residents that there is no place for them in the future—that they are of less value than a new class of people the city wants to attract.
So in addition to being distinct, brands need to be authentic. They need to speak to the people who already live in a city as well as to potential newcomers. They need to be an expression or a reflection of the history, heritage, and reality that already exist. To be sure, a city’s reality needs to continue to grow and evolve, and, at times, corporate brands need to be reinvented. But successful reinventions and evolutions generally try to stay true to the authentic core of the brand.
This is even true in the fashion industry. When fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld revived Chanel in the early 1980s, he did so by drawing on inspiration from the firm’s archives. This became a model that others followed. As the New York Times stated, “Lagerfeld’s wildly successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past.” By contrast, “New Coke” was one of the great rebranding flops in history. Coca-Cola is as American as apple pie. Changing such an iconic product was a betrayal of its brand promise. The company swiftly backtracked.
In short, cities too often have decided that they need to replace their existing brand to copy another’s that they think is necessary in order to compete. This typically fails because a brand needs to promise something distinct. Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it thus: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”
There’s nothing wrong with having bike lanes or coffee shops. But today, these things aren’t going to sell a city to businesses or potential residents.
I’ve developed a love affair with the Nittany Valley, but I’m not from there—I’m from Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The two places share some similar characteristics: historic in their own ways, filled with farms and woodlands and rivers. But Bucks County has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its population has exploded in a suburbanized, sub-division way at the expense of many beauty places. Today in Bucks County there are 1,034 people per square mile. In Centre County there are 138 people per square mile.
When I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, one lesson was that conservation only works if people are prepared mentally and financially and communally to protect what they love. It’s why we protected Mount Nittany, but lost Hort Woods.
Too many of the farms, fields, and quiet places of the Bucks County of my youth have gone missing. I’m glad that, even as Centre County’s population grows, it remains a comparatively homelike place to capture some of the spirit of a different time among the old farms north of Philadelphia.
Since Sunday was our rest day at Notre Dame, during an otherwise intensive Vita Institute, I left my room at Ryan Hall and hopped onto a nearby Limebike for a ride down to Eddy Commons for lunch.
I’ve been to Eddy Commons a number of times before; it’s a compact “downtown” in miniature adjacent to Notre Dame’s campus that was built something like a decade ago. But on this bike ride, I pushed past that compact downtown area and discovered an incredible, growing neighborhood behind it. I rode through it for about an hour taking the photos below, and generally admiring the aesthetics, the walkability, and just how pre-World War II and traditional the entire neighborhood is.
At one point I rode past a guy who had pulled over to retrieve his mail from the neighborhood’s mailboxes, and he explained that the whole neighborhood had been transformed starting about a decade ago into what it is now: a place with intentionally and appropriately narrow streets, a place made for walking or biking just as much as driving, a place where mail is delivered not to each house but to one set of mailboxes, a place where (as a result) neighbors have the chance to bump into one another and catch up, a place where every home has a porch of some size to encourage community feeling and create spaces for gathering and resting, a place where garages are accessible only by alleys running behind the homes rather than facing the primary streets, etc.
The Northeast Neighborhood (NEN) of South Bend is located immediately south of campus at the University’s “front door.” While the NEN historically offered both desirable housing and a variety of commercial businesses, the neighborhood deteriorated badly over a period of decades. Family homes were converted to student rental properties as families moved out and there were no buyers to take their place; the housing stock deteriorated and housing values declined, and commercial businesses closed down or moved away.
In 2000, the University of Notre Dame joined with four other area institutions – the City of South Bend, Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, and (later) the South Bend Clinic – to form the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO). Working collaboratively with the Northeast Neighborhood Council (NENC) and area residents, the NNRO organized and funded a comprehensive redevelopment plan featuring five residential and two commercial zones, and created a set of comprehensive redevelopment guidelines. This plan laid the foundation for Eddy Street Commons, the Notre Dame Avenue Housing Program (NDAHP), and The Triangle Residential District.
The Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO) is the sponsor of The Triangle Residential District in the area bounded by Eddy Street Commons on the north, Eddy Street on the west, and South Bend Avenue on the south and east. The Triangle offers buildable lots for owner-occupied, single-family detached residences, with 70% of the lots available to market-rate buyers and 30% of the lots reserved for Affordable Housing buyers. The homes must be designed and constructed according to guidelines established by the NNRO. While these guidelines require that new homes honor traditional architectural principles, they still allow for a great deal of individuality.
Aren’t the benefits of a neighborhood like this clear? Why aren’t we building more of these, everywhere? These are the sorts of suburbs worth having, where there is space for everyone, but not so much distance that encountering your neighbors (or even family members) becomes basically the exception rather than the norm. These are the sorts of neighborhoods that continue to make places just outside of Philadelphia across the historic Main Line communities like Narberth and Ardmore and Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr still so desirable.
When I was young, I had a recurring dream. I’d be walking home from grade school—it was a walk of only a few blocks—and I’d pass the house that sat next-door to mine on the school side. I expected to see my home beyond the neighbors’ tall hedge, but it wasn’t there. My home had ceased to exist.
It was only a dream. But as I think about places in which I’ve spent periods of my life, I do sense a disturbing trend. The hospital outside Sacramento where I was born is gone, replaced by a tidy subdivision. My elementary school is no longer an elementary school, and my junior high school is no longer a junior high school. In a few years, my high school will move to a new location. My college dorms and classrooms have been torn down and rebuilt.
The small newspaper chain at which I held my first real job was bought out by its daily metro competitor, and the office in which I worked is now an auto-parts store. Even that metro paper has moved to a new, less expensive location. Another paper for which I worked has since closed, and its building, celebrated as technologically advanced when it was built in the 1960s, was torn down—ostensibly for a grander development, which has yet to appear more than a decade later. A Fortune 500 company for which I later worked, a company with a long and proud American lineage, has since been taken over by foreign interests that swept in, ransacked, and restructured the office and its culture. Only the governmental offices that employed me, such as the State Capitol, seem resistant to change—for good or for ill.
Our throwaway culture has come to include entire buildings. Everywhere one looks, one senses the impermanence of place. …
When one thinks of monks or nuns, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience come to mind. But many also take a vow of stability. In The Sign of Jonas, the journal that traces the time around his ordination as a Trappist priest, Thomas Merton describes that vow: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’”
St. Benedict had little respect for monks who lacked stability, and he applied to them the perfectly fitting term “gyrovague.” His Rule states: “These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.”
We all need to learn that “perfect” doesn’t exist on earth; the greener grass is probably artificial turf. Stability is a commitment to life as it is now: the relationships, the places, the joys, and even the sorrows we deal with each day. It is a refusal of the temptation to run away from our lives when they get dark or uncomfortable. And it is a recognition that the places we know will change. …
The maps of our lives beckon us to explore new places while urging us to take along those things that have shaped us and made us who we are: the memories, the people, the ideas, the beliefs, the virtues and values we hold most dear. Stability keeps all this intact when the world of matter outside wants to make us think it is more important than it really is.
A few years ago I wrote that nostalgia lives in places that, in the context of what we do have in our daily lives, tell us what we no longer have (or never had) but recognize as good and worth pursuing. Stability is the foundation for special places like so many of America’s college towns, places that seem to stand outside of time, to some degree, and offer aged alums as much as first time visitors a sense that, “Yes, this place is enough.”