Last week, while in Sterling Illinois, the City Manager asked for my first impressions of their town. I spoke candidly and bluntly (shocking, right?). Told him that Sterling had done a very nice job with the public realm aspect of downtown. The streets were dotted with gorgeous flower baskets, they had clearly invested heavily in traditional light poles, the flower beds were lush and full. The city had done a nice job in creating an attractive landscape. Kudos.
Sadly, the private sector was not playing along. Most of the downtown businesses were not inviting. Nearly all the storefront windows were heavily tinted. Signage was inconsistent, or absent, and nothing felt welcoming. The experience of walking through the downtown was a mixed message. The flowers announced that you were somewhere special and somewhere that was given extra attention and care, but the businesses sent the message that you were not welcome and you should move on. This is how place works. We are constantly picking up messages, be it subconsciously or consciously from our surroundings.
A business with big open, clean and unobstructed windows lets the inside out, and invites the outside in. When you can see what’s going on inside, you are far more likely to join. The French Quarter is one of the great business districts because of this- with Bourbon Street and all of its tributaries allowing their shops to open out into the street. But dark windows, closed doors and unswept breezeways send another message all together. You are not welcome. Move along. Don’t come in. A series of these kinds of storefronts all in a row lets you know that you should probably, quickly, get out.
I commend the City of Sterling and Sterling Main Street for putting so much time and money into setting the stage for the private sector, but unfortunately, businesses were not playing their parts. The downtown was only reaching a portion of its potential and was just not yet a welcoming public place. All the beautiful flower beds in the world can’t overcome the dark storefront windows.
This conversation stuck with me throughout the evening and kept me up that night. What might seem trivial to some, I believe, is actually a huge big deal to the well-being of the community. I realized I had to address the issue. I woke up early the next morning and added in a handful of slides regarding the concept of place and good urbanism.
I decided that we can’t keep dancing around the idea of good urbanism, which we do because everyone is so scared of the word urban. Urban simply means, characteristic of a city or town. A town of four houses is still urban. Urban is a landscape, that’s all. Good urbanism will not induce gang violence. But towns are so afraid of the notion of ‘urban’ that they wont address their most glaring problem. There is sever lack of this quality urbanism in so many of these towns. Communities around the country have removed all the places that people want to be and are most decidedly not building any new ones.
You know which towns still embrace good urbanism? Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans- the top three of a (sadly) very short list here in the US. Yes, you can find pockets of it in almost any city, but to embrace it and prioritize it, that’s hard to come by. So how will you know good urbanism when you see it? You will know it because it’s the part of town that is the busiest, the most fun, has the highest real estate values and the most visitors. It is the part of town that has changed the least in the last 100 years.
Good urbanism is, in essence, creating a built environment that is attractive, social, welcoming, and healthy for businesses and residents alike. It’s the notion of designing places that help to make society stronger, make a city more resilient, elevate the lives of residents and provide people with places to be with one another. Because there is no community when people can’t commune.
Good urbanism is the modern way of describing something that is as old as civilization. If fact, it is civilization. Far from being a new concept, your grandparents had good urbanism as did their parents before them. So don’t let any idiot in your town try to dismiss the notion as being too progressive, it’s the most conservative idea of all. Since humans started building cities, they understood that there is value in building them well. Why we ever accepted the idea that it wasn’t worth the time, money or effort to build with quality is a little harder to understand. Inhabitants adapt to their surroundings, so the nicer the built environment is, the better off residents will be. Is it any surprise you find trashy people in trashy places. This is not an accident or an anomaly- we are simply a product of our environment.
So here’s my advice- cities of every size better get real comfortable with the notion of good urbanism if they have any interest in remaining relevant. It’s the secret sauce AND the silver bullet. See, when urbanism gets good, it does a whole host of things for a city all at once. It makes a place more attractive and in turn, more photogenic. If your town isn’t cute in the age of instagram, you might as well throw it in the sea. It makes a town more lovable, which makes people want to get involved and do their part to protect it. It makes a town easier to get attached too, which keeps the best and brightest from moving on down the road. It attracts new people, the kind that want to live in attractive places, the kind you probably want.
Good urbanism is a better economic development and tourism strategy than you currently have. It’s also incredible for business. The better the urbanism gets, the more people want to show up, this just adds up to more customers (visitors and locals), more sales, more revenue. The best businesses are attracted to the best urbanism.
The other and most important thing that good urbanism does, is bring people together. Quality places attract people. Those great public squares call people out of their living rooms and backyards to come and be together. Those plazas beckon people with their charm and vibrancy to come spend time with other people- which is what our places need most. We need places to be with other people. We are desperate to be with other people and we don’t have the places to do this anymore. We got rid of them and now are suffering the effects. As people spend less time around other people, we have grown less civil, we have become isolated and, at times, afraid and angry. It has turned our politics to shit. People must be with other people and good urbanism is how we provide this.
And finally, there is something about good urbanism that just dawned on me this past week. A little professional epiphany, if you will. I was talking with an old friend in Ohio recently and he told me that he and his wife will be hosting a Spanish exchange student next fall. We laughed about what the student would get into in her spare time. Maybe pick up a bowling habit, get deep into YouTube or start fixing up old cars. Because it’s humorous to think of what someone from Europe would do in a small Ohio town for fun. And then it hit me. I doubt that this student is doing a bunch of bowling back in her town, she probably isn’t in a dart league or part of a sewing circle either. It’s not that her list of potential hobbies has been decimated- there aren’t more activities in these European towns. There isn’t more to DO – there are more places to GO.
We keep making the mistake in our towns of thinking people need more to do, but that’s not right. We always say there is nothing to do here, but what we mean is that there is nowhere to go. Nowhere for kids to just go and play. No quiet streets to play ball, no free-roaming the neighborhoods just having fun. Cars killed that. No place for adults to go and just sit to catch up with a friend, no place for families to hang out and bump into other families. No places for the old timers just to sit and pass time, watch the day go by or play some chess with friends.
It’s not that there is nothing to do, there isn’t anywhere to go. We need places to go. We need places that don’t cost anything where we can just BE. Places where we can hang out and be with other people, places to watch other people. The types of public places where toddlers and the elderly are all welcome. The type of places where you can show up anytime and be sure to find other people, you can be sure to find someone to chat with or someone watch. You can be sure to feel welcome. Where you can feel like you are a part of a community.
Good urbanism provides places for kids to play freely and enjoy some autonomy. For parents to have a drink while their kids discover their town. For teens to hang out and push the boundaries in safe ways. For individuals to sit and read a book, while still getting to enjoy the feeling of being around other people. It provides a place for couples to fall in love and for friends to reconnect.
Good urbanism is about providing a place to bring people together. Friends, lovers, family. Young and old, rich and poor. Because when we build places that bring us together, only then do we have a chance to be a part of a community.