The Speed of Christmas: A Christmas Reflection

Despite what department store displays and online sale advertisements may suggest, the official season of Christmas begins on December 25th.  It was for this reason I supposed this would be a good time for a Christmas post. And of course what could be more Christmassy than thinking about walkability? Well, plenty of things might be, but that does not mean we cannot find a perfectly good Christmas reflection in the topic. After all, during the time that Mary and Joseph happened upon the quaint little village of Bethlehem and found themselves in what would become the most significant stable in human history, they did not arrive by car or plane or train, but rather by donkey and on foot. The soon-to-arrive magi from the East traveled similarly.


Walkability and Main Street protagonists often speak about the connection between the way we design our commercial buildings and the mode of transit and speed we employ to approach those buildings. Steer off the highway on your holiday journey cross state lines to visit relatives in any one of a number of brown-sign designated “historic downtowns,” and  it will not matter if the area is in Ohio, Texas, California, or New Jersey, these historic downtowns will all have similar elements. They will be composed of one, two, or three-story buildings, with modest set-backs from the sidewalk, plenty of on-street parking (parallel or angled) and wonderfully artful signs that either swing in the wind beneath colorful awnings or invitingly jut out from the sides of brick, stone, or wood buildings that have stood the test of time by virtue of the durability of their construction materials, the commonsense design adapted for the local climate, and the fact that the buildings themselves were lovable enough to inspire preservation.


A commercial building has a purpose distinct from that of a residence. In addition to being a pleasant place to be, a commercial building and its practical adornment (signage, awnings, and display windows) must serve to draw customers into its confines and then provide a pleasing enough space with which to encourage commerce. The charming downtowns of our historic past were constructed when customers travelled at much slower speeds than we do today. Customers arrived on foot, bicycle, horse, or perhaps even a Model T (which topped out at 45 mph, but was rarely driven at that speed). It is well known that the faster a vehicle is traveling, the larger the sign must be to do the work of drawing in customers. The modestly-sized signage typical of our historic downtowns would not stand a chance along a four-lane wide 45 mph road, let alone a highway. Potential customers would whiz by, not seeing the sign in time to react. Thus as we shifted to a more auto-centric society and paved fast connections between cities and states, commercial buildings and signage necessarily changed.


You can see this evolution along the storied and much-beloved old Route 66 (later to be replaced by wider, faster highways). As the cars got faster, the signs became larger, and the use of neon employed to draw customers in from further away. The buildings themselves often became a little larger and a bit more spread apart.

Drive along the highway of any major American city today, and you will be accosted by towering signs, taller than the buildings, blaring with bright lights and colors the names of their establishments, all clamoring to be seen at 65-70 miles per hour. As for the buildings themselves, there is often nothing beautiful or interesting about them, since it is not the beauty of the building, but merely the loudness of the sign, that is doing the job of drawing prospective customers inside. Thus the number and size of such signs has grown in size, competing with each other in garishness to be noticed, as the speed of travel has increased. The concession to the car is complete. When you pull off the highway, you are not greeted by an inviting storefront, but a sea of asphalt and white lines. And the shopping experience, rather than being a relaxed amble along a row of shops on Main Street, is often a fevered, fluorescent-lit experience.


It is not to say that today we cannot find new construction that matches the scale of historic downtowns. We do. We just rarely find them along highways or wide-laned roads. We find them along 20-25 mile per hour roads or tree-lined boulevards. Thus, as we endeavor to restore or create more walkable places, we will also be creating places that are by their very nature a little less rushed. And this may indeed be a very good thing.  It often feels that we live our lives at the speed of highways. The reason is that we have designed our built environment to facilitate those speeds.

The season of Advent, a quiet contemplative time of waiting leading up to the glorious event that is the birth of Christ is experienced by many as a flurry of work-related Christmas parties, a frenzied hopping from physical or virtual place in search of the perfect gifts and in maddeningly long grocery store lines. Perhaps it is not only our places that should be designed at the speed of the pedestrian, perhaps so too should be our lives. The two are connected.

To read more about the effects of speed on commercial architecture and signage, check Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture (title also listed in the reading room). To learn more about the common elements of historic walkable downtown commercial buildings, see The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture and Anatomy of Main Street.


The Power of a Pilot


Rhyme and Meter Project in front of the Albuquerque public library in 1999. This project launched during poetry month.

Several years ago, while living in Albuquerque New Mexico, I conceived of a pun-inspired public art project. The project, entitled Rhyme and Meter, brought poetry and art together in the public realm. Excerpts of poems were affixed to downtown parking meters which were then painted by local artists as an illustration of the poem. In essence the parking meter became the page in a public book of poetry.

When I first started sharing the idea, it was hard for people to imagine. After all, they had never seen a parking meter covered with art and a poem. People liked the idea of transforming a disliked but-necessary part of the downtown parking infrastructure into a vehicle for beauty, but some people assumed that I would be executing the project as a clandestine effort conducted under the cover of night and not as a project fully blessed by the city’s mayor and head of parking.

They were wrong. But they were only wrong because I inadvertently stumbled across the power of the word “pilot” program, a term whose power  I would later hear Andres Duany, the founder of the Congress of New Urbanism, espouse to a room full of urban visionaries.

The organization that made the Rhyme and Meter project possible and to whom I owe this happy discovery was the Downtown Action Team. They embraced the concept of adorning the downtown parking meters with poetry and art as part of a larger downtown revitalization effort.  They not only allowed me to pursue the project under the umbrella of their organization, but also provided invaluable guidance. It was one of their members that suggested I scale back my initial vision of a 20 parking meter project to a four parking meter project and call it a “pilot.”

It would be much easier to get permission to paint four parking meters, they explained, than 20. The project would seem less threatening and thus less risky for city officials to support. If the meters turned out terrible, then they could easily be repainted. Since there was a strong potential for positive publicity and no cost for the city in undertaking the “pilot program,” permission was relatively easy to secure.  Much to the surprise of many of my friends, the project was approved with little effort by the head of parking and the mayor’s office, despite a lack of strong buy-in.

While that stronger buy-in would be necessary for the larger project, which was to involve several blocks of painted poetic parking meters, only weak buy in was needed for the pilot project. The pilot would serve as a proof of the concept, inspiring others to get on board for the larger project.  Four parking meters also required fewer resources in terms of paint, plaques, and the number of artists required. Since fewer resources were needed, this also meant I needed to convince fewer sponsors about the merit of the idea. We were also able to use to pilot as a way of experimenting with materials. We tested sign paint on one meter and auto paint on another. We tried a metal plaque for the poetry on one of the first four meters and painted the poem directly on another.

So in summary, pilots:

  1. Make it easier to secure buy in
  2. Typically require fewer resources
  3. Allow for course correction
  4. Help stakeholders visualize new ideas

While the famous architect and planner Daniel Burhan is often quoted as having said “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” there is also a problem when we develop creative, innovative projects that are never realized. Sometimes men are not willing to have their blood stirred, and at those times a pilot may be just the mechanism needed to make the vision immediate and clear.

I understand that not all projects will lend themselves to being piloted/ But since my discovery of the pilot, I have employed it time and again.

In the end, we launched our pilot with a media event that featured an unveiling and “meter reading.” Tim Durant, the ombudsman for the mayor at the time slipped down to the project site, took one look at all the members of the media present, the positive reception by the attendees, and promptly phoned the mayor to come on over. In an on-camera interview, the mayor said “Yes, we are planning on doing all of downtown.” I nearly fainted. My initial vision had only been for 20 meters. Thus sometimes a pilot can make your project bigger than you had initially planned. Over the next two years we rolled out two more projects bringing the total number of meters we completed to 25. No, I did not get to all the meters in downtown before I needed to move back to Texas for family reasons. But the power of a pilot made progress a possibility.

Transforming Empty Storefronts 1: Pop-up Shops

By Tamara Nicholl-Smith

When I began my work with Downtown South Bend, Inc. (DTSB) in the summer of 2010, there were five empty storefronts on the primary retail block in the downtown. The Holiday Pop-up Shop Program was the remedy we cultivated in cooperation with the redevelopment commission, private landowners, the real estate community, existing shop and restaurant owners, and a small band of volunteers.

Downtown South Bend main retail block in 2010. 

Program Overview

The program offered start-up and established retailers no-cost short-term leases (November – December) in a downtown South Bend storefront through a juried selection process. Businesses were selected based on the following criteria:

  • The appeal of their product mix to holiday shoppers,
  • How well their concept worked in synergy with established full-time tenants,
  • Their ability to add excitement to the festive holiday atmosphere through in-store events, promotions, and
  • The quality of their proposed window displays.

DTSB promoted the locations and hours of the pop-up shops in conjunction with advertising and marketing of downtown holiday events and activities.

Program Goals

  1. To provide the retail density necessary to support current downtown retailers/restaurants.
  2. To build upon the success of existing downtown holiday activities.
  3. To leverage the opportunity and good will presented by the program to develop long-term lease prospects for the spaces.
  4. To shift the downtown retail narrative in the media and populace.
  5. Create hope in the midst of a recession through a successful short-term wins.

Additional Benefits

Through the juried application process the Pop-Up Shop Program gave DTSB a say in the downtown business mix, a decision usually left only to the real estate agents representing the building owners. This allowed DTSB to work from a cohesive overarching vision.

By lowering the barriers to entry to a brick and mortar storefront, local entrepreneurs had a way to test their ideas in the market place and determine if shop ownership was truly a fit for their lives.


Below are the documents we created to run the program. You are free to download them and use them as the basis for your own community’s initiative. There is only one catch, you must acknowledge the City of South Bend, and Downtown South Bend, Inc. as the source of inspiration for your project. That’s it. Otherwise, they are free!


Several of the pop-up shops remained and became permanent downtown businesses. Others, inspired by their positive experience returned at a later date, once an appropriate space was located.

Results by Year

  • In 2010, one out of the four pop-up shops signed a lease and remained.
  • In 2011, one of out the four pop-up shops, inspired by their success signed a lease and opened that spring.
  • In 2012 three out of eight pop-up shops signed a lease and remained. An additional fourth shop found a permanent downtown location the following year.

In 2010, this empty storefront was transformed by Pop-Up Shop participants into a toy store and arts collective called Imagine That! 


The rapid turn-round and intense amount of energy required to participate in the pop-up shop program seemed to favor the co-op model of business where many individuals, all with a stake in the game were involved. However, the permanent storefront seems to benefit from the single-owner model.

Final Thoughts

Solutions are contextual. The pop-up shop program was created out of a set of circumstances brought about by the recession.  The program proved to be a necessary intervention when the usual tactics yielded no results.

We always considered the program a temporary measure. One day, we hoped, the country would no longer be embroiled in a recession. Real estate prices would rebound, retail sales would recover, families would stabilize in homes, and downtown would once again be a vibrant center of retail, restaurants, and cultural activities.

Indeed after four very successful years (2010-2013), the program in Downtown South-Bend is being discontinued in favor of a year-long business incubation program currently in development. Meanwhile, downtown South Bend is stronger than it was before the recession because of the number of people engaged in its successes, specifically the number of people who are NOT employees of Downtown South Bend, Inc. or the City of South Bend who stake some claim of ownership in the downtown, and who each day, through their own personal connections are ambassadors and defenders of a vibrant downtown community.

Perhaps most importantly, the program brought hope.

Photos from 2010 and 2011 pop-up shop grand openings. 

Media Articles

Other Pop-up Shop Programs

View the links below to see how other places have implemented their pop-up shop programs. Each was designed to address different challenges within distinctly different contexts.

Contact Tamara Nicholl-Smith through LinkedIn.

Note: Posts of this sort are intended to serve as a toolkit for those in the field. This post will be permanently linked from the Theory in Action page. If you know of other programs like this not mentioned in this post, please share them in a comment.