Do you remember your stories of pioneer days? How neighbours would gather around to do a house-raising, or a barn-raising?

As the twentieth century dawned, the notion of communities pulling together to accomplish things fall into disuse. Companies did buildings — we merely bought them. Instead of the community pulling together, we went our separate ways.

The public sphere became the responsibility of governments — and merchant-landlords developing shopping precincts.

Look around you. Those who live in the west of North America can’t see this: it hasn’t been settled quite long enough. In the east of the continent, though, the change can still be seen.

Older farms, older villages and towns, older parts of cities are filled with buildings that may be in deep disrepair and having suffered years of abuse (slapping aluminum siding on a Federal farmhouse, for instance, a horror I saw in Vermont), but the buildings and spaces themselves are still desirable. They have grace notes, make the environment they are in inviting.

They were built by communities that had standards and pulled together to accomplish things.

Then you look at the newer stuff. Built to be put up easily, maintained cheaply, thrown away. It looks like hell, and the streets are deserted around it.

These were built by communities that abdicated their responsibility for the built world.

Going forward into the twenty-first century, we’ll be doing progressively less “demolish and build anew” or greenfield building projects, and more retrofitting, restoring, and conversions. The first require masses of capital and energy; the second can be done a bit at a time.

We would be very wise, as we do this, to keep as many grace notes as we can.

At this year’s Congress for the New Urbanism, for instance, a surprising number of young New Urbanists were looking at practising their professions not in big cities, or not to build greenfield or brownfield developments en masse, but to restore traditional Main Streets and neighbourhoods in traditional towns and villages. They saw these as the “places to be” — and the places where community values could at first be rebuilt.

They talked, for instance, of the process of the charette — the weekend of drafting, designing, working together with people in a community to get a development that works for them, or to redo building and zoning codes — being applied instead to make a town a better place one small project at a time.

To specify, for instance, that an old brownstone building on the main street have its windows restored, rather than maintain the plate glass that was put in in the 1960s. That elegant hanging signs on wrought iron be used rather than neon and fluorescent-backed signs, even if they bear logos. That the street be honoured by the building and vice versa, to produce moments of calm and grace — and a place worth spending time in.

Good for commerce, that.

Ask the neighbours to the Apple Store on Regent Street in London. When Apple built its store there, it restored a Victorian-era building to its 19th century splendour. The Apple Logos hang in the round-top tall Victorian windows (they removed the plate glass horizontal windows of the previous tenant).

People come to see this building. They walk up and down the street. The merchants around it — selling everything from coffees to T-shirts — benefit from the increased foot presence.

That’s one building, in a big city. Imagine if a town’s central business district came back to life, and what it would do for the town.

Meanwhile, of course, most of us live in monozoned suburban pods. Here the challenge will not only be finding ways to add grace notes and reasons to love the neighbourhood, but to augment it with the elements it’s missing. Converting houses to stores, restaurants and the like so that walking distances can be exploited.

For, like it or not, what we have built is what we’re stuck with.

We might as well make it better.


One Comment

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  1. William F. Spaulding 01/09/2012 — 13:32

    Great article Bruce.

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