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.