A Window Into White Flint

A Window Into White Flint

Say what you want about the demise of “old media,” but once in a while newspapers remind us of their former glory as treasure troves spilling forth wisdom and piquing interest. Today’s Washington Post has a column by architecture critic Philip Kennicott that prompts some reflection into a pillar of New Urbanism philosophy. New Urbanism has, at its core, the idea of compact growth — the concept that if you put work, fun, food and the other parts of life nearby, there will be no need for cars; the romantic view is of the old town, where you wallked everywhere because you wanted to. (For more on New Urbanism: http://www.friendsofwhiteflint.org/shop/page/6?shop_param=)

Part of that longing for the old form of human organization was the idea that people would saunter, “window-shopping” as they went. It’s part of the urban model, as in Macy’s windows in New York City in the holiday season, and as in the plan for activating the streets of the new White Flint. “Build to the street,” “make the streets lively,” and “give people a reason to walk,” are parts of the philosophy behind Montgomery County’s acceptance of the New Urbanism philosophy as a way to simultaneously increase sustainability, quality of life, and economic value, all by increasing walkability.

Now here comes Kennicott, challenging a fundamental, if unspoken, assumption behind the attractiveness of walkability: “It’s plain to see that storefront windows are a smudge of what they used to be.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/21/AR2010052101652.html. Kennicott, quite rightly, points out that economics, security fears, and retail design have all conspired to defeat the “window-shopping” premise of New Urbanism:

All over the city, where development is going forward, buildings are constructed with the old promise of Dickens’s poultry shop in the architect’s mind — empty space meant to be filled with the visible bustle of people and shopping. And yet, these windows have been summarily defeated, reduced to meaningless panels of glass with nothing behind them. Look at a CVS or a chain grocery store, and you’ll find these dead orifices, stopped up and neutered by panels of wall board or cloth that hide the view into the store. Even as architects struggle to give a feeling of depth and substantiality to our ephemeral commercial architecture, store owners board up these windows from the inside, and thus reveal how thin and generic the space really is.

 In addition to those concerns, however, Kennicott identifies another culprit, more familiar in the debates over New Urbanism, sustainability and modern urban design:

The other powerful force is inertia. With the rush to the suburbs, and with urban mobility happening at the car’s pace, not the flaneur’s, street window displays became essentially obsolete. They have survived mainly in the shopping mall, a highly controlled environment, where metal grates can be pulled down and the whole edifice emptied of people when day is done.

The urban streetscape is ideally a round-the-clock locus of desire, fantasy and curiosity where you can carry on a secret romance with the doggie in the window at 3 a.m., alone and a little alienated from the drunks, club kids and stray taxis still trolling for fares.

 I don’t recall hearing stories of “secret romances” with doggies, in windows or otherwise, during the hundreds of White Flint meetings, except in the context of dog parks. But Kennicott’s analysis proceeds from his own vision of what the “urban streetscape” is (or perhaps ought to be):

What a sad and strange reversal. In the 19th century, artists struggled to compete with and capture the vitality of the commercial streetscape, whether in novels by Balzac that dealt with the sorrows and grandeur of the new industrial economy, or a streetscape by Van Gogh showing a cafe in Arles drenched in artificial light, opposite storefronts that still beckon in the thickening twilight. Into the 20th century, storefront windows provided inspiration to museum designers, who sought to frame cultural objects with the same care as designers who worked for major department stores.

Today, the reflexive thinking says: Got a hole in your streetscape? Stuff in some watercolors. The art is usually lousy, and it almost always looks silly stuffed into little glass coffins.

CVS and Harris Teeter are all about moving vast quantities of goods, objects that for the most part are necessities, not luxuries, objects that have no fantasy attached to them. Today, we covet and, increasingly, purchase through the Internet. Stores that sell luxury goods still try to create a tangible connection between the passerby and the physical object. But this is a rear-guard action: “browsing” into cyberspace.

For Kennicott, this urban scene is part of the “voyeurism” which is “essential to city life.” And so it is. When we talk about “night life,” we often mean human interaction, with the form depending on individual proclivities. You might like dancing, I might like food (my scale tells me so), and my wife may care about just “being” with the kids.  And some people, perhaps most, might like people-watching.

When I was a kid, I never understood how or why my dad used to like just sitting on a bench at an amusement park while us kids raced from attraction to attraction. Then I had kids, grew older, and do the same thing. And enjoy it. People-watching is not an empty solitary or abstract sport; it involves the senses intimately as evolution programmed us to do for thousands of years. So it has intrinsic value in urban design.

But it is not the end-all of design, and therein lies my suggestion that Kennicott missed both the idea and the realization of the window-shopping question. He is absolutely right that if you let distant chain-store designers plan window displays they will fill the “empty” spaces with saleable goods. And that expanses of glass are security nightmares. And that drivers in otherwise empty cars won’t really care about gorgeous and intriguing window displays.

But that confuses the symptoms with the problem. Look at revitalized Bethesda: kids play in the fountain. Local stores are cheek-by-jowl with chain stores. Crowds pack the sidewalks. You don’t see Kennicott’s “empty” windows in that environment.

Why not? Because those are complete streets, part of communities, rather than just pipelines for fast cars. It is not enough to have work, homes and schools in close proximity. Those are the essentials of modern life, but they aren’t what make a community lively. Or safe. Or what the urban dream is all about. You must “activate” the streets, and to do that, you must add something more.

For four lonely years I have been crying about “fun, families and fitness” as the critical elements in any New Urbanism plan. My answer to Kennicott? Four years ago, I produced my first major work for the White Flint Advisory Group: a video asking the exact same questions, even talking about “window-shopping.” http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=9130436078951858281&hl=en#

I suggested a mix of big and small stores, easy parking, entertainment, places for families and kids, in a big enough environment to draw a critical mass of people. I’ve learned a lot since I made that video, particularly about street and traffic design, but my answer to Kennicott’s store window dilemma is still the same.

Something to draw people into an area. Then there will be a reason for windows to be filled. Windows, used as Kennicott (and I) would like, are just advertising. But why waste advertising if there’s no one to see it? Bad design kills windows, like it kills the environment and pedestrians.

If your streets are designed just for cars and travel, you won’t have lively window displays. Drivers don’t have the time to see windows; they’re looking down the street. And pedestrians won’t walk on busy, fast streets. Who wants to bring their toddler to play among the cars?

Even the security concerns, one of the biggest concerns Kennicott identified, are answered on lively, complete streets. One of the essential elements in urban security is “eyes on the street.” You can do that electronically, as in New York’s Times Square. But it’s much more important to have actual people on the streets, as the recent failed Times Square bombing showed; it was returned veterans, working as street vendors, who quickly identified something anomalous in the smoking SUV.

So Kennicott is on to something. He has identified a particular problem with urban design. But he stopped too soon. Rather than simply explaining the problem, he might have gone the next step to identify the solution: a complete revitalization does not stop with adding a CVS store. You have to draw people into an area if you want your vision of sustainability and vitality to follow walkability. That requires the 3-Fs: “fun, family and fitness.” Or just entertainment. And, just as importantly, you must deal with street design, not just the buildings on the sidewalks.

Windows, like so much of our urban design dreams, cannot co-exist with fast cars. You must have good design that permits mobility of cars, bikes and people. Like roundabouts and promenades. With all the amenities of fun, families and fitness.

f you have that, merchants, at least the local ones, will want to have lively window displays. And, as we are increasingly learning with traffic calming, getting people out of their cars, and encouraging the use of transit, the answers to many of our questions are in incentives, not proscriptions.

Create a reason for merchants to want lively windows. Something to make their advertising dollars seem worthwhile. Then the economics of windows will be different, and the streetscape will shift to be more like all of our dreams.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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