If only we’d had an extra hundred years. I can’t help thinking that if the United States were just a tad bit older, perhaps we could have built more places that were lovely. Imagine how different our cities would look if more of them had reached maturity before the invention of cars, zoning laws, big box stores, and the commodification of real estate.
I get this way when I travel. If you’ve had the good fortune to experience the beauty of great old cities, you know how demoralizing it can be when you come home to stroads and strip malls. It’s a tough transition to go from Prague to Petsmart or from Budapest to Bed Bath & Beyond.
But without a magic wand, I’m not sure how we can fix the structural problems of the modern suburban landscape. And without a time machine, it’s going to be tough to replace the vibrant neighborhoods and architectural treasures that we destroyed at the altar of the automobile.
So what can we do? What are some things that normal folks with limited resources can do to help make great places for people? The answer might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s simple: think small. If you have control over any small piece of property, you can always make a positive impact on your neighborhood. Whether you call it tactical urbanism or urban acupuncture, all you need is a little creativity and some basics from the hardware store. (Bonus points if you have a buddy with a pickup.)
When in doubt, add planters. They’re versatile, affordable, colorful and portable. They offer physical separation between spaces while adding a nice dose of nature to urban environments. You literally can’t go wrong here. Planters are like bacon: they improve everything.
Use them around sidewalk dining areas to define the space and build an outdoor “room.” Use them as a physical barrier to create a protected bike lane. Put them by your front door to welcome people to your home. Fill them with anything from flowers to cacti to trees, depending on your needs. Heck, fill them with fake flowers if necessary. But never doubt the power of planters to help liven up a sterile space.
“A society grows when old men plant trees.”
If you want to achieve one lasting thing before you die, plant a tree. Trees give dignity to a place. They shield us from the scorching summer sun. They create a sense of refuge and intimacy. They embrace us under their sheltering limbs. In the absence of buildings, they can create an attractive street wall. They make the best of bad situations, and they bring majesty to good ones. All the while, they add value to our properties, lower ambient temperatures, convert CO2 to oxygen, provide habitat for wildlife, and help reduce stormwater runoff. Trees are your friends. If you care about your neighborhood, find a spot that needs one, and plant a tree. Everybody benefits.
3. String Lights
All too often, city lighting is of the harsh and cold variety. In the name of “security” we’ve lit our streets like prison yards. In doing so, we’ve killed the romance of the evening stroll. This is where string lights come in. They’re warm, they’re soft, they’re welcoming. They create a whimsical canopy, a happy-go-lucky enclosure under the infinite sky. Who can resist a good string of lights, when they cheerfully announce: “Hey everybody! The party’s over here!”
4. Deck Chairs
Nothing says casual comfort like a good deck chair. Unlike their prim and regimented cousin, the park bench, deck chairs will not be confined. They’re the swingers of outdoor seating. Pull two aside for an intimate conversation, or drag a dozen together for an impromptu party. Either way, they’re happy to abide. “Come on in!” they exclaim. “Relax! Have a beer! Make yourself at home!” Combine deck chairs with a couple large wooden spools and you’ve just transformed an empty lot into an inviting patio space. (Of course, don't forget the planters!)
I’m always amazed when a city goes out of its way to prohibit street performers. You can pay consultants to convince people to “Live! Work! Play!” in your downtown, but if local ordinances prevent folks from singing on the sidewalk, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. A good street performer stops you in your tracks. They surprise and delight. They add beauty and joy to your day, and they remind us of the power of human connection. The value they bring to a place? Priceless.
6. Food Courts and Street Food
Next time you go to a party, pay attention to where people congregate. Usually it’s by the food. (Some folks never even leave the kitchen!) Perhaps we’re compelled by some ancient instinct, a relic of our hardscrabble days on the savannah to stick by the sustenance, but I think it’s a good lesson to apply to the urban landscape. If you need to enliven a space, add food.
While food trucks are proliferating all over the country, I’m a sucker for a good food court. (And I don’t mean at the mall.) Like food trucks, these places provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to start small and test culinary concepts without a massive capital investment. Unlike food trucks, they don’t rely on noisy generators for electricity, which makes it a lot easier to create cool places to hang out and enjoy music and conversation. Either way, food trucks and food courts celebrate small, local businesses while offering people the opportunity to sample a variety of unique cuisines.
7. Canopies and umbrellas
I find it downright ridiculous when developers build outdoor plazas and patios with no provision for shade. Are they intentionally trying to repel people, or are they simply that dumb? Because unless you’re a lizard, or you live in the Pacific Northwest where every ray of sun is worshiped like an ancient god, you’re going to need some shade.
While permanent architectural awnings may be prohibitively expensive, you can add a burst of color, a lot of shade and even some protection from the rain with the simple use of canopies and umbrellas. Like planters and lights, these can also be used to help define the space and give people a “place to be.”
8. Humor / Whimsy
One of my favorite things about older places is how they act as a canvas for the imagination. This is another case where old neighborhoods with a multitude of owners and operators working at a human scale have so much more opportunity to express their personalities in the urban landscape.
Unlike modern, large-scale developments, which suffer from homogenized design and restrictive property management, old places are delightfully independent and unruly. My favorite discoveries are the ones that make me laugh out loud. Humor is an under-appreciated form of intimacy. If you can make a stranger laugh, you’re making the world a better place.
None of this is rocket science—or even particularly cutting edge. Obviously, none of these examples is my own invention. But I'm sensitive to spaces that “feel good,” and I’ve started to notice some patterns. A lot of great places have one or more of the ingredients listed above. The real mystery is why we don’t have more places like this—why more people don’t borrow that pickup truck, invest a few bucks, and get busy doing what they can to create cool little places people would love... if only they existed.