People deserve beautiful places. These places are more than skin deep, they’re designed for human contact, for joy, for meaning, for using our bodies to move around. And what have we built since the 1940s? An inhumane environment with few bright spots, a bleak landscape of featureless office buildings, drab mass housing, cartoonish suburbs, strip malls, and wide, dangerous, noisy roads. Since the 1940s the system sustaining the built environment has spiraled out of control, replicating itself endlessly.
As a child, I was lucky enough to live somewhere free from sprawl and highways. But my family did use highways on holidays. To pass the time I’d gaze out the window as we drove, searching for neglected spots along the highway and imagining the happy things that could have happened there in the past. This was my way of looking for a sense of place in lackluster environments.
Many years later, I’m heading east on the highway from New Mexico into west Texas on the way to Austin. Car dealerships, cheap motels, and industrial junk yards are strewn beside chasm-like roads. Towns are sprawling, chaotic messes. Mile after mile passes and, like I’ve always done, I stare out the window looking – in vain on this occasion – for a place that suggests charm.
Even here in west Texas the difference between places built in the pre-war and post-war periods is striking. Compare the bleak post-war highway environment to the west Texan town of Post and its main street, just off the highway…
Finally, good urbanism. Here on Post’s main street buildings connect to one another and define space. Architecture is vernacular, in other words based on traditional styles, local building materials, and local needs. Notice, for instance, the covered walkway designed for west Texas’s hot days. Shop fronts are narrow, retail square footage modest, there’s a variety of businesses. This is a street with local character that doesn’t feel like everywhere else. Remember that we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. When buildings have character and are physically connected to each other people enjoy local pride and community.
But Post’s main street isn’t great urbanism. The streets are too wide, that classic New World error that discourages walking, encourages fast driving, and robs the environment of welcoming spaces. There’s no good car-free center. The only attempt, a median with landscaping and benches, makes the mistake of being located between auto-oriented streets, a big no-no for public space. Nearby housing is too spread out, disconnecting people from the main commercial street. Fittingly, Post’s main street lacks street life.
The absence of people is what’s saddest about bleak environments. Without congregation there is no society, no shared ideas, no collective memories, no celebration, and weak commerce. All this was given up in the blind pursuit of mobility.
Merchants frequently resist transitions from bad to good places. But in Post we have a different story and this is where the hopeful part of this tale begins. A few years ago Jackie Cruse, a Post local and merchant, was trying to figure out how to drum up some liveliness in his sleepy town to support business around the holidays.
Jackie’s solution was, on a single town lot, the best urbanism that Post has seen in the best part of a century: Silent Night Village.
Yes, Silent Night Village is derivative and kitschy. But look deeper into this imitation of a traditional 19th century main street town… The architecture is fine-grained, designed for the pedestrian eye. Buildings are modestly-sized, helping to concentrate businesses in a smaller footprint, increasing walkability. Walkways (or streets) have modest widths, easily enlivened by small numbers of people. There’s even a small square and gazebo, fronted by a faux courthouse, a nod to the concept of the center, a heart that most modern places lack. And of course it’s car-free and walkable. This is urbanism far superior to what’s outside. It could be a magical little spot when populated.
True, it’s not perfect. The buildings, as in the rest of west Texas, don’t touch, watering down the space definition and concentration of uses. The architecture is not in the local vernacular, copying east coast traditional, rather than west Texas, style. Nobody lives close by or in the Village. Buildings are made of factory materials and assembly techniques. But of course, let’s cut Silent Night Village some slack – it’s a retail environment at a modest cost, not a new town.
In some ways, Silent Night Village is a sad reminder of the world we live in. This is a place whose traditional-style charm tries to but cannot hide the loss of local skills and traditions that our culture once had, the elements without which authenticity and charm cannot exist. We constantly place our hopes in non-local companies, bureaucracies, and factory systems. They constantly fail us. And yet the system lives on.
And yet I cannot help but find Silent Night Village inspiring. Surrounded by a world that has forgotten the craft of urbanism, one local’s inspiration – combined with small-scale finance (large budgets tend to produce sterile, non-local-feeling mega projects) points toward the authentic, well-defined, small-scaled, fine-grained walkable places that were our past and could be our future.
What could happen if just one decent-sized parking lot were turned into a traditional car-free village of low-rise residences, commerce, institutions, public spaces, short blocks, and narrow irregular streets, all made by local craftspeople using local styles, techniques, materials, and incremental finance? Andrew Price’s excellent article “Let’s Build a Village From a Parking Lot” actually thinks this idea through. If this happened a great place, like what Silent Night Village is aiming for but better, would be born. All we need is one – just one! – of the thousands of parking lots or vacant land parcels blanketing the land.
If one person can revive even a hint of good urbanism in a windswept corner of west Texas then so can people in towns and cities everywhere. We just need to do it.