Specialness of Place

  • Human-scale towns

    I’m returning to something I first wrote about last year in considering how architecture contributes to neighborliness. In essence this means “human scale” towns. But what does “human scale” mean in practice? And what isn’t human scale? I’m sharing some photos from Philadelphia and State College that I think illustrate the differences.

    At heart, a human-scale town is one that’s built for human experience. That means the street-level experience, which is the experience anyone will have when physically waking through a place.

    A challenge of our time is reconciling two competing goals: function and beauty. So much today is built cheaply, purely for its function. A lot of our city architecture (architecture built for density) is built for beauty—to impress and to look impressive, sometimes even at the expense of its function on the human-scale. These are buildings that look wonderful from a distance, or aerially, or in renderings, but are hell to actually get into or deal with on the street-level. I think the challenge for the places like Philadelphia and State College that I particularly care about is reconciling function and beauty.


    A great example of human-scale development in Philadelphia that successfully reconciles function and beauty can be found in Center City just off of Washington Square.

    A few years ago Jefferson University bought some semi-historic buildings (but probably not really historic) that they could have easily torn down and replaced with a glass tower. Doing so would have destroyed the human-scale experience of the street on these blocks. Instead they demolished the interiors of the old structures, but saved the facades and built their glass towers inside the footprint of the old structures.

    You can see this along the 700 block of Walnut Street. These Google Streetview screenshots tell the story. The street-level experience looks normal. They’ve conserved the feel of the street and the complimentary of the architecture as it’s felt by passersby. But look up, and you find that the denser needs of Philadelphia are also served:


    I think this is the sort of design thinking that we need in State College if downtown is to be saved as a place worth being or visiting. If the whole downtown becomes a series of super-block style Frasier Centers and Metropolitans then we’re toast.

    The Borough planners should prioritize human-scale development for downtown. This doesn’t mean everything needs to be frozen in time and ornamented like Victorian Bellefonte, but simply that street-level facades should be conserved/created throughout downtown even as their superstructures become high rises.


    The Metropolitan is an example of basically good architecture at the corner of College and Atherton. There was an Arby’s and parking lot here a few years ago, and in that light you could hardly do worse. The Arby’s had function, but no beauty. The Metropolitan (opening this year) looks like it will be both functional and (relatively) beautiful, despite the lack of any real ornamentation. It probably shouldn’t serve as a template for future development though, unless that development is replacing other surface-lots like the gas station across the street or the Soviet-style 1960s/70s era apartment blocks that spot downtown.


    What looks great about the Metropolitan is that it pays attention to the street experience, offering shops and tables and benches and tree-lined sidewalks that should calm a busy intersection. But the ideal for a small town like State College should be closer to the little red-brick homes across the street, or the A-frame style home that’s survived behind the Metropolitan with it’s little porch and lawn. One of the reservations I have about the Metropolitan is that no renderings show the back of the building that faces that little A-frame home. I assume it’s not showing that side because it ain’t pretty. We’ll see.


    The Frasier Center in State College is an example of a (failed) attempt at beauty and a lot of function and density. Again, for human-scale and older perspective, note another little red-brick home that’s survived to the left of the Frasier Center’s Hyatt hotel. The larger problem with this structure is that (in the context of Downtown State College) it is a superstructure. It occupies an entire block of Frasier Street. Further down this block toward College Avenue there are something like 10 shops that can all be visited within about as many minutes.They’re super-dense on the street-level. Then there’s this Frasier Center, with its Target and Hyatt that occupy this whole stretch. An older person will have to walk the whole block to get to Target’s corner entrance. The Hyatt requires a further walk. And that’s it: just these two things here. It’s vertically dense, but not horizontally dense like the rest of town. In this sense it’s not human-scale, and it’s fundamentally out of character with the rest of the community. This is to say nothing of the overall development’s conflicted and domineering character.

    Another example of terrible superblock type architecture can be found in Philadelphia behind the Franklin Institute. There are the older, dense rowhomes that have their own character and closeness. And then there’s this enormous, deadening structure that destroys half the block. The Frazier Center does this same thing:


    Remember I mentioned that the back side of the Metropolitan is probably unattractive, since no renderings of it have been promoted? This is the backside of the Frasier Center which runs along Calder Way and is an arterial pedestrian walkway through the entirety of  State College’s downtown. What have they done with this space that could have been benches and tables and retail storefronts? They’ve put giant, blank stone walls and loading docks here. This is just across the alleyway from Cafe 210’s beautiful outdoor deck and patio where so many spend the spring and summer months. This sort of architecture desecrates State College in a serious way. It’s just the worst.


    We’ve been here before: constructing blank walls along key stretches of downtown. A bit further along Calder Way McClanahan’s has spruced up its blank walls with a beautiful mural. But murals themselves are often just creative responses to the failure to build appropriately in the first place.

    Why does any of this matter? Why is human-scale development important for maintaining the spirit and magic and verve of a place like State College? We’re in the Christmas season, and no film better illustrates the values of function and beauty like It’s a Wonderful Life. The idyllic Bedford Falls is a place of human-scale, where it’s possible to run from one end of town to the other, and to breeze from Bailey Building & Loan into the candy store and then into the bank within a matter of five minutes. This breezy familiarity with a place is made possible by smart density, which is fundamentally on the street and human level. (Density comes in both horizontal and vertical forms, in other words.) The heart of State College still has that, in stretches like College Avenue between Pugh and Allen Streets in particular.


    The magic of Happy Valley comes from both its natural and built landscapes. In building the next generation of State College’s built landscape, we need a lot more of attention and love in creating and conserving the Allen Streets, and a lot less of the grand master-planning of the Metropolitans and the urge to create “signature”/super-block architecture.

    Wi-Daagh’s spell wears off a bit more with every piece of franchise-style architecture that breaks the experience of distinctiveness and exceptionality and differentness and replaces it with familiarity and sameness of every other place we’ve been.

    Nostalgia lives in places like State College because it retains the character of the past in a way that you can physically visit and experience. Any State College planner should be thinking about how to make State College more distinctive, rather than more similar to its peers.

  • Discretion in little places

    A thing I wrote in May 2013 while having a beer:

    I’m sitting here in The Queen Mary Pub in a small town deep in South Florida, on the fringes of the Everglades. It’s nearly midnight and I find myself alone at the bar reading C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra.” A few inches away, my glass of London Pride finds itself nearly missing.

    It’s been a pleasant evening, one of those where the bar isn’t too crowded, and even with mostly college students ordering pitchers an aura of warm feelings and consciousness soaks the place.

    And yet, because it’s in our nature, probably, to end up meddling with the moments that should most please most of us, I hear one of the bartenders, a woman, whisper to the barman who’s been nearby… “See that girl over at that table? How old is she?”

    My barman’s filling a drink. “I dunno,” he says. “But she hasn’t ordered anything and she’s been there without a glass.”

    “I’m going to grab her ID,” replies his colleague decisively. “I mean, ask for it,” she quickly corrects herself.

    It turns out the girl doesn’t have her ID with her. She’s asked to leave. Her friends at their table are left to finish the night without her, and she’ll be walking home alone.

    Let’s break away from this scene for a moment to visit our friends at Merriam Webster. Specifically, “discretion,” which we’re told is the “freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation.”

    I feel for this girl who was made to leave, even if she wasn’t of legal age. Because despite doing no concrete or true harm to anyone here among us, one among us was compelled to do a concrete harm to her evening.

    In law, there’s a general idea that a case can’t be judged unless actual harm has come to some party. Law is not meant to be decided abstractly—which is why we have philosophy.

    In the case of the girl here at the pub, from whose company we’re now the poorer, there was no harm. Even presuming she was, in fact, underage, my barman had been watching her. She was enjoying good company even if not good spirits. Even if she was underage, no genuine harm was done to anyone.

    And yet, our culture has developed in such a way that we send her away anyway. An abstract law protecting abstract principles occupies a higher place than the barman exercising his own discretion.

    In a sense, we’re no longer in some out of the way place on the fringes of a national preserve. In the act of eliminating discretion, a barkeep became an agent of Tallahassee, the Florida capital. She became an agent of something other than her own conscience, disrupting private fellowship for an abstract principle.

    We become poorer people as our chances to exercise discretion—to personally decide how a principle might best be applied in a particular situation—disappear from our culture.

    In a constitutional culture constructed to favor the concrete and local culture of a place over the distant and abstract sentimentality of a state or federal capital, it only makes sense to leave as much room as possible for acts of discretion.

    Just as “one size fits all” rarely suits fashion, it certainly doesn’t suit our cultures and communities well, because it frustrates their ability to be authentically unique, special places. It makes them like anyplace else.

    And it feels more and more difficult to go anyplace anymore that anymore feels like any special place.

    Anyway, back to my Lewis and London Pride.

  • Rail Park

    The first quarter mile segment of Philadelphia’s Rail Park is getting underway after years of planning. Confidence in The Rail Park was certainly bolstered by the overwhelming success of New York’s Highline, but the fact that it’s coming together is also a sign of the continuing success of the redevelopment of Philadelphia.

    The Rail Park:


    The park has three sections: the Viaduct, the Cut, and the Tunnel. Three miles, all told. 10 neighborhoods. 50 city blocks. It all stands on the unused tracks of the old Reading Railroad, connecting Fairmount Park to Center City, running from Brewerytown to the Northern Liberties. The Rail Park will be a green space, a gathering space, and a public space for all.

    A lesson of the Highline is that the value of property along the park increases. It’s tough to imagine that the parking lot adjacent to the park in the rendering here will stay a parking lot.

    What’s tough to imagine is exactly what sort of development will occur. I hope it’s remarkable and dense.

  • Sarah Kobos, writing at Strong Towns, quotes one mayor’s perspective:

    There is no excuse for anything to ever be built that does not add to the beauty of a city. Every investment in beauty yields an economic payoff. If you build beautiful places — whether they are parks, parking garages, or public housing — the land next to these places becomes more successful. They become catalytic agents to generate economic activity.

    Since discovering Strong Towns I’ve been following them. Their mission matters, and it intersects with the idea of where nostalgia lives. Here’s what they’re about:

    The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

    We are a media advocacy organization that is growing a national movement for change. We seek to make the Strong Towns approach the default for every city, every state and nationally.

    We believe that the change we seek will occur when a million Americans care enough to share our message with others. Our efforts are to create those million people.

    A Strong Towns approach:

    • Relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects,
    • Emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution,
    • Is designed to adapt to feedback,
    • Is inspired by bottom/up action (chaotic but smart) and not top/down systems (orderly but dumb),
    • Seeks to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale, and
    • Is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math).
  • I think it’s healthy to have a few mental topics that you can return to again and again throughout life, thinking through challenges and opportunities, turning them over in your mind, working through them, etc. One of those topics for me is college and life in college towns.

    It’s why I’ve stayed involved with Penn State, and it’s also what leads me to continue thinking about college in the abstract.

    In many ways I think we still conceive of the college experience as a sort of otherworldly bubble. The idea remains ingrained in the language—the idea that finishing college means “commencing” adult life. It also remains a part of the idea of adults who urge young people to make the most of their college experience before joining the “real world.”

    Despite the trends which seem to suggest college will become more and more like the real world and less removed from its concerns, I think there remains value in retaining the idea of college as a bubble, or campus as a place that should be in some sense removed from the concerns of the immediate culture.

    I think of the college experience as a useful bubble, preparing people through wisdom and accumulated knowledge so that they can later go and engage with the world as it is. Specifically, I think the implicit purpose of the college experience is to prepare people to do the work of mending the world’s fraying edges.

    We will always need both economic and spiritual fulfillment, so there will always be a need for Herodotus and Homer and Shakespeare and Beethoven. There will be a need for people to learn about to speak about the longings of the heart and how we can satisfy or exacerbate the problems that confront our souls.

    And many of those fraying edges related to our specific time and place, because of the success or failure of things like war, public policy, economic disparity, etc.

  • A beautiful way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment at Penn State: success with honor for students who are also athletes.

    Hours before his death in January 2012, I wrote the below. I still believe it, for these reasons and more.

    It’s because Joe and Sue Paterno have for two lifetimes taught us about ourselves that we feel as strongly as we do about them. For the lifetimes of most, Joe and Sue have been there to embody legacy, to be our history, our identity, our guide.

    Now we’re tasked with forging ahead without them. We perceive the impossibility of the challenge of forging a future without first rejecting our trustees’ rejection of them.

    This is why we think and speak of Joe and Sue Paterno—because no family that destroys its own can hope to have a future.

  • Enchanting the landscape

    I spent most of Labor Day weekend in Quebec City. I had only been there one before in the dead of winter, so it was great to properly see the city and explore its hills without stepping cautiously on ice sheets or avoiding snow drifts.

    Quebec City is old, as practically age-of-exploration old. A part of New France from the 16th-18th centuries and only later ceded to the English in the loss of the Seven Years/French and Indian War, it retains its French character and language if not its Catholicity which even the English had agreed to protect after taking Canada from France.

    In the course of a few days exploring on foot, on a short run, and in Ubers, Quebec provides a small case study in how to enchant a landscape—how to make a normal place a bit thicker through the accumulation of historical layers, monuments, and remembrances of times past that live in the present.


    When you think of monuments, Champlain’s along the boardwalk abutting the Saint Lawrence River at the Chateau Frontenac is probably pretty much a textbook example. It stands so apart from the landscape that it remains a natural gathering place day-to-day, a focal point for the life of the community at the intersection of past and present. Here, a comedic tightrope walker entertains the gathered crowd.


    There are simpler and more characteristically modern (muted) ways to honor the figures of an era. This bust (it doesn’t matter who it is) is an example that I walked past from my hotel in downtown Quebec City on the walk up the hill to the old city. If our own time is one in which monumental Champlain-style monuments simply can’t be done, it’s certainly one that could incorporate more remembrances like this one into the facades of otherwise unremarkable buildings.


    Then there are the little facades of the homes and stores in the neighborhoods themselves, like this striking little entryway to an old workshop that (as far as I could tell) isn’t functioning despite the lingering signage. The present occupants lose nothing by leaving these memories of an earlier time in place, and visitors gain from an enlivened imagination of the pre-modern diversity of communities before their segregation along live/work/commerce lines. These are monuments in their own right.


    There are the dead spaces of any build landscape, like this alleyway. Just past Hotel Clarendon in old Quebec City, this arresting figure commands the attention of passersby simply by its unusual presence where one expects nothing. This isn’t truly remarkable, but it is worth remarking upon as an example of bringing a bit of life to an otherwise dead space. This figure does his best with what he’s given.


    Not far is this folkloric alley companion, who one imagines had just arrived having slid down this unfurling ribbon from an entirely different time or place. This creature reminds the passerby that there’s no proper cause for him in our reality, yet neither is there definite cause for our own reality—and with this reminder our walk becomes a bit more enchanted, like a child’s first encounter with any literature where the rote facts of life are as strange and difficult to accept as the enchanted ones.


    In ending this little walk through an enchanted landscape we arrive at a table beneath the trees of a little bar’s back patio, where even the bark-stripped insides of the trees find from their interiors the emerging figures of strange personalities—perhaps there to watch over or encourage the drinkers below to drink in a bit more of life than just the most obvious and routine.

  • Peter J. Leithart writes on the connectedness of family and community life:

    In a 1977 Daedalus article on “The Family and the City,” French historian Philippe Aries argued that “the real roots of the present domestic crisis lie not in our families, but in our cities.” As cities “deteriorated” and urban culture weakened, ”the omnipotent, omnipresent family took upon itself the task of trying to satisfy all the emotional and social needs of its members.” The stress on modern families, Aries says, is a result of overextension, an effort to compensate for the failure of cities: “People are demanding that the family do everything that the outside world in its indifference or hostility refuses to do. But we should now ask ourselves why people have come to expect the family to satisfy all their needs, as if it had some kind of omnipotent power.”

    Leithart dives much farther into Aries’s analysis on family and community life, and I think illustrates an important way in which the segregation of city/community life into distinct zones (commercial/residential/educational/leisure/etc.) also resulted in the segregation of individual and family life into zones that were less than the sum of their parts.

    Some of this is being rolled back in the return to what we’re now calling “mixed use development,” but even with the still-distant promise of a more physically distributed workforce through the internet, there’s the discouraging reality that for way too many people, their lives are worse off for having a home, a family, and a career that are too physically, intellectually, emotionally, and functionally separate.

  • Kevin Horne writes on Baltimore, a city he loves:

    In high school, I spent what added up to a month each summer in Baltimore going to Orioles games, working, and taking in the city. Few feelings elicit as much nostalgia as a walk around the outside of Camden Yards on a warm Baltimore night, close enough that you can hear the fans cheer again for what is inevitably another hopeful but not-quite-good-enough season. Less enchanting memories, like walking upon the aftermath of a shooting, or being offered drugs you didn’t even know existed on every street corner, or suffering multiple car break-ins, also persist.

    But that’s part of what gives the “Charm City” it’s charm. It’s the legendary beer vendor at the game, the bartender at Max’s Taphouse, the professor at John’s Hopkins, the guy selling bootleg t-shirts in the Inner Harbor, or the short order cook at Chaps Pit Beef, all sharing in these same experiences in that beautiful, fucked up place—as Dan Rodricks says—holding out hope that the city will rise to a better place in their lifetimes.

    I’ll take that authentic, collective spirit over the well-manicured streets of Silicon Valley any day.

    What I wrote in response: “The only type of love there is, I think, is it-could-break-your-heart type of love. It’s a reciprocal sort of love that’s tough to have in a New York or a San Francisco, because those cities will be fine (better off?) without you. But a Baltimore, a Philadelphia, etc. need people more–they need love more. And it’s always in real loving that there’s vulnerability and authenticity.”

    On the other hand, you can create or contribute to “specialness of place” anywhere you go. This was, in a way, once the idea of civilization—that you could bring a love and a sense of culture with you to a deserted tundra, if you wanted, and eventually make it a special place worth living and worth visiting.

    And if you can do that in the tundra, you can do it in Baltimore.

  • Johnny Sanphilippo thinks your town is a financial time bomb. So much of his point is illustrated in pictures, so you really need to click through to understand his point. But to excerpt a bit:

    I keep up with the reports and journalists proclaiming that America’s suburbs are thriving and will continue to do so forever. Yet I keep scratching my head since these depictions are in conflict with what I keep seeing on the ground as I travel around the country.

    The folks who declare the permanent triumph of suburbia must live in the prosperous enclaves near the lake and golf course, not the poorly aging subdivisions that are rapidly losing value and becoming reservoirs for the downwardly mobile former middle class. …

    If the 1950’s subdivisions are looking dogeared you should check out the older neighborhoods from the early twentieth century. They’ve been neglected even longer and the collective deferred maintenance shows. I checked the real estate listings in this Georgia town and many of these homes can be bought for as little as $20,000. The average price seems to be closer to $40,000 or $50,000. …

    Downtown and the adjacent residential areas are mostly small-scale, compact, multi-story buildings with a minimum amount of roads, pipes, and wires connecting them. The new stuff is overwhelmingly huge roads, attenuated water and sewer lines, endless cables and a tremendous amount of surface parking and grass. The productive elements of the shopping malls are puny in comparison. And those buildings are extraordinarily disposable.

    How much of suburban America is destined to be reclaimed by nature as state and municipal governments wipe away entire neighborhoods and shopping districts? On the other hand, how many cities and towns are vulnerable by comparison? Cities and great towns are the safest bet, and suburbs in general are poor bets.

    Rehashing what I wrote in May: “Suburbs kill dynamism because they fragment people, families, and communities that could have existed as towns. Cross pollination, randomness, and locality aren’t possible in these physically stretched out places.”

    (It’s important, by the way, to distinguish between “towns” and “suburbs.” Towns have a center of gravity. Suburbs tend to literally be company towns, built as a corporate project, lacking a downtown, lacking gathering spaces, lacking throughways, etc.)

    New York isn’t going away. Boston isn’t going away. Philadelphia isn’t going away. Their fringe suburbs might. Where do you want to live for the next 50 years?