Charles Marohn brings the same incisive creativity to Strong Towns that citizens and city leaders alike must bring to their communities in order to reinvent them for a more face-to-face future.
— Janette Sadik-Khan

Excerpt from Strong Towns: A Bottom Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

Chapter 1: Human Habitat

I had the opportunity to spend time in Italy during my mid-20s. Walking amid the ruins of Pompeii, I noted a little shop that had served as the fast food restaurant of its day. It was located on one of the direct paths from the core of the city to the edge, although it was closer to the outskirts than the center of the action.

The building was small: just two rooms. The room furthest from the street was the living quarters, closed at the back but with an opening to the front. The front room along the street was where the food was kept warm and dispensed out of pots placed under a countertop. The countertop ran along the sidewalk for ease of service.

As an engineer who had worked on site layout and project development for a handful of fast food restaurants, my initial reaction was: how quaint. Look at how these simple people lived. What a hard and miserable life. Thank goodness we are so much more intelligent and sophisticated today. Thank goodness we have risen above this.

In subsequent years, I would grow to realize how ignorant I had been.

With just two rooms, the family member who ran the fast food operation in front could also keep an eye on small kids in back, taking a break from sales when times were slow and being more attentive when they were not. Thus, half the household’s parents could both create an income stream and care for young family members simultaneously.

This freed up the other half of the household, along with any extended family that lived under the roof, to get a job elsewhere, likely outside of the city doing some form of manual labor. Matthew 20, in the New Testament, relays the Parable of the Workers, describing how people would line up in the marketplace to be selected for manual labor. This was a common arrangement of the day, with those selected earning a day’s wages.

What this family had created was income diversity. If no labor was to be had that day, hopefully the restaurant would provide some fallback income. If the restaurant had a slow day, ideally it was because there were wages to be had laboring in vineyards. If both had a successful day, it allowed some savings to accrue for those times when both sources of income dried up.

A stretch of good fortune for both income streams would cause savings to grow into a nest egg, some real wealth that could be used to improve the family’s situation. Maybe they used that wealth to expand the restaurant. Or to hire help, perhaps purchasing a slave culled from the ranks of a defeated enemy, which was common practice. Again, I’m not describing a utopia; I’m describing a complex system that imperfectly harmonizes many competing priorities simultaneously over time.

What is important is that the strategies emerging in such systems are anti-fragile. They limit the risk of catastrophe while maintaining the capacity for improvement, particularly during stress events. These are the strategies that survive the test of time, and when it comes to the Pompeii fast food restaurant, I’m just getting started.

The building was located near the edge of town. The land was likely acquired for free or at a very low price. Prime real estate near the center of town would have been much more expensive, but on the edge, someone could start with relatively nothing. Yet, if the community grew and prospered, the edge would expand outward. The shop owner would then find themselves with an investment now strategically located closer to the center than a more valuable situation.

The little shop owner thus shared a common fate with other property owners in the city. It was not a zero-sum game, where one benefits only at the expense of others. I’m not suggesting they all lived in harmony, but they had a lot of selfish incentives for altruism.

This makes the common walls of the buildings more understandable. The Pompeii fast-food structure shared a wall with its neighbor on each side. We can appreciate the lawyers and building inspectors involved with something like this today, but historically, shared walls were the norm. Common walls meant shared cost, an advantage when you were short on resources. It also meant that heat would dissipate more slowly in cold seasons, reducing fuel consumption.

With buildings sharing common walls and having their sole entrance face the street, the place was made more secure for everyone. Someone wanting to enter a home for nefarious reasons would be subject to the random watchful gaze of neighbors, both during an approach and upon exit. Even in cities where there was a paid security force, this design was a way to provide a decent amount of security at a marginal cost.

To the extent that human and animal waste in the streets allowed, the street itself was a place for people to gather, including neighborhood children. Shared parenting—I’ll watch your kid and you watch mine—took the strain off raising kids who were too old to be kept in the home, but not yet old enough to work.

The building itself was very simple, just a two-room box. It’s easy to see that if things didn’t work out with the restaurant, the building could be adapted to a new use. Or, if things worked out really well, the neighboring building could be acquired and the two merged together. If sometime in the future that arrangement no longer worked, the buildings could be easily subdivided again. The inherent flexibility meant that people didn’t need to be able to project what would happen in the future to act today; they just built structures that could be adapted to harmonize changing priorities.

The collection of buildings on either side of the fast food restaurant were built in a line. They faced a mirrored set of buildings on the opposite side of the street, also in a line. These opposite rows of buildings were spaced at ratios comfortable to human beings. They were not so close as to feel constrained, but they were not so far that they failed to create an edge.

Edges are very important for humans. In our habitats, we are drawn to edges. This is a phenomenon observed by Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, then elaborated on by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language. In public spaces, Jacobs notes that people “stay to the sides,” while Alexander states that people “naturally gravitate towards the edge.” This street in Pompeii provided that opportunity.

Biologists call this wall-hugging trait thigmotaxis. Think of a mouse scurrying along the edge of a wall, instinctively fearful of journeying into the center of the room. Humans have that same propensity. Darwin called evolution a “conservative process” in that it conserves winning strategies and builds on them. At some point in the very distant past, thigmotaxis was a winning strategy. The alignment of the buildings along the street in Pompeii comforted that primal urge.

In the book Cognitive Architecture, Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander explore how humans respond to the habitats they have built for themselves. They explore thigmotaxis, but they also dig into a phenomenon called pareidolia, the propensity for humans to find faces in objects. When people see Elvis or the Virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast, they are experiencing pareidolia.

Faces trigger a strong emotional response in humans. Sussman and Hollander quote the Danish architect Jan Gehl in suggesting, “Man is man’s greatest joy,” that people delight in seeing other people. As written in Cognitive Architecture:

Our face-sensing capability is so strong and present that faces also appear to be put into building elevations or facades unintentionally. It reflects the fact some researchers believe pareidolia, the subconscious tendency to assemble faces in random objects, plays a much more significant role in design, aesthetics, and our appreciation of buildings and cityscapes than is generally realized.

Figure 1.1 (a) Traditional home with proportions of a face. Neither the (b) ranch home nor the (c) split-level home has face-like proportions.

Figure 1.1 (a) Traditional home with proportions of a face. Neither the (b) ranch home nor the (c) split-level home has face-like proportions.

The Pompeii restaurant has the rough proportions of a face; it is narrower than it is tall (Figure 1.1). Contrast this with the rough proportions of a 1950s ranch home or a 1990s split-level home. In trying to build something functional that would simultaneously add to human delight, the builders in Pompeii made the most out of meager resources.

They almost certainly also employed symmetry in the building’s exterior design and symmetrical shapes in the ornamentation. This is because, as Sussman and Hollander point out, humans have a natural disposition toward symmetry. We not only process symmetrical designs more quickly than nonsymmetrical ones, but:

Researchers have also learned that looking at symmetrical objects subconsciously activates our smiling muscles more than looking at random patterns. And when we smile, we are more likely to feel calm or reassured.

Why do humans see beauty in symmetry? Sussman and Hollander suggest it is for the same reason we have our other subconscious traits: “It is bound up and cannot be teased apart from survival.”

A Pompeii street lined with shops and homes, each designed to convey humans through town in the most comforting and pleasant way that could be attained while still harmonizing many other urgent needs, provides the perfect framing for a monumental building or even a simple public gathering space.

Think of the way that a great picture frame draws out the magnificence of the picture. When buildings line up to form a wall, they serve as a frame. The picture is whatever sits at the termination point of the street; it’s naturally drawn out, whatever magnificence it has magnified by the framing.

The termination point could be a place of worship, a fountain, a park, a civic building, or even the house of a wealthy family. In the case of Pompeii, the street terminated at the Forum, the center of Roman life. This arrangement served to draw out Roman values and culture into the broader community, connecting the day-to-day lives of Pompeii’s citizens with the broader society in which they lived.

This design is not by accident. In his book The Original Green, architect Steve Mouzon describes the elements of making a place lovable, which he suggests is a key component of building cities that endure. Lovable places reflect us; we see ourselves and our common culture within them. They delight us with beauty and comfort. And they harmonize us with nature and the rhythms of life. This design worked to accomplish all three.

I could go on this way for a long time. Suffice it to say, the little building in Pompeii was more than a mere restaurant and home. It was one component of an evolving human ecosystem. That habitat helped the people of Pompeii meet their daily needs, but it also helped them raise their young, care for their elderly, save for the future, pass along their stories and culture, comfort their primal urges, and reach for higher truths by communing with the existential. In short, the city helped make them human.

We are compelled today to acknowledge that the wisdom contained in the cities our ancestors built, in the patterns and approaches they developed over thousands of years, exceeds our capacity to fully understand. There are deeper truths there than we will ever know, spooky wisdom that has co-evolved along with humanity itself, to serve our needs—known and unknown—in ways we have been far too eager to casually dismiss.

Top photo of Pompeii via Pixabay.

Mentioned in This Excerpt

Further Reading from Strong Towns on the Spooky Wisdom of Traditional Urban Design