Planning isn’t like riding a bike; apparently.
I recently read about a joke about two fish having a conversation. The first fish say the other fish: “Hey, how’s the water?” To which the second fish replies: “What the hell is water?” This joke will hopefully resonate with you after this article, but the basic point here is that most of our environment — the design, construction, rules, and physical objects that define our lives — is, from our perspective, so encompassing, as to be rendered invisible.
For most residents, or Americans for the sake of this argument, the town’s urban fabric is our water. The styles, types, densities, and scales of the buildings and infrastructure that surround us every day go by unnoticed and uncontemplated. It is obvious to us all that where you live matters, however the ways in which specific communities or areas of a town can create opportunity differ significantly. What becomes even more disparate is our ability to recreate successful communities, even right next to each other.
Indulge me for the next 15 minutes, and I will show you just how the water is. There is so much more to say on each of these topics, but let’s go on the 5-cent tour. Let’s talk about Easton.
History in Brief
Since the earliest conception of Easton, the downtown, more specifically the courthouse, had always been the center of commerce, life, and libation. It should be no surprise that shortly after the courthouse was constructed, so too was a Tavern for employees. For many years, up until WWII, things continued in much the same fashion, the town grew incrementally to afford its greater population the necessary services and housing it needed. However, sometime in the 1950s, development began to become rampant along the highways going through town. This move was unprecedented from the rest of Easton’s near 250-year history. What was happening?
The automobile, FHA lending, and babies. The combination of troops coming home, a housing shortage, and kids compounded and pushed development to heights not seen in many small communities ever before. Even famed developer Jim Rouse, an Easton native, was trying to deter such behavior when in 1954 he opened the Talbottown Shopping Center. In the book “Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders, and Change in a Chesapeake Community,” Rouse is quoted as saying “There is no place where a shopping center is worse, than on the outskirts of a town. Walking down the streets, meeting people — that’s what a small town is all about. When you lose that, you lose everything.” Throughout the rest of Rouse’s career, he seemed unable to decipher the difference of downtown shopping and outlying neighborhood shopping, though his first effort in Easton was a noble one.
Ultimately what continued was a development pattern not unlike Talbottown, but larger, and farther away from downtown at each turn, sacrificing density and proximity for parking and convince. Rather than consolidating, these strip centers (See: Wal-Mart Shoppes at Easton, Easton Plaza Shopping Center, Waterside Village, The Lowes — Khols Strip, and even the Acme — Movie Theatre Strip) went decidedly against everything the last 250 years of Easton had been working towards. These strip centers are devoid what is called “placemaking.” Placemaking is the secret sauce, or the 11th KFC spice, or the origin of “genius-loci” of towns. Placemaking was subtracted for the benefit of parking, convenience, and speed. This after all was the era of the car.
Much was lost during this building boom for communities, but most importantly we lost places worth caring about. No longer were, as Rouse put it, residents “Walking down the streets, meeting people,” the new Easton was about driving and chasing the American dream. Suburban development was king. Communities like Beechwood, Corbin, Easton Village, Easton Club, Cookes Hope, and others spread into the countryside eating farms for single-use, single-family development. As these developments grew, so too did their strip mall counterparts. What we were left with was a development pattern nothing like Easton had ever seen. Single-Use residential is residential and single-use commercial is commercial, never the twain shall meet.
The top photo here is sexy, there is atmosphere, mood, character. It is dynamic, it’s active, exciting, and full of life. This did not happen by chance. This place was made. It was made through the act of placemaking which, now that you can see what it is, you can begin to understand how to look for it. Placemaking is a process, it’s never complete, never finished, continually evolving to stay relevant. It listens deeply to its community and morphs to accommodate the needs and will of the people.
If it’s not evident in these photos alone, the Project for Public Spaces list four major criteria for placemaking: sociability, uses and activity, access and linkages, and comfort and image. There are literally hundreds of things that fill out these categories from sanitation to volunteerism, the fact is we don’t design spaces like this anymore, as evidenced by this asphalt wasteland of the Supercenter, in the name of economic development. But is this economical?
The following two images depict the same amount of space, roughly 110 acres. Image 5 shows downtown Easton, with its mix of residential, office, commercial, civic space, medical offices, infrastructure, and open space. Image 6 shows what appears to be largely parking with stores sprinkled almost evenly apart from each other. Which of the two would you think generates a greater tax revenue for the town?
At first glance it might seem as though Target, Lowe’s, and Acme Shopping Centers would be tax revenue powerhouses — but when looked at as Value per Acre (Tax Revenue divided by Lot Acres) the story becomes rather abysmal for these large shopping centers. The graphic below indicates the Value per Acre (VpA) of much of Downtown Easton. When measuring VpA, places downtown like the Washington Street Pub outperform Target 100 to 1. If downtown were designed today — and were to produce the same tax revenue it would encompass over a thousand acres of development — most of which would be parking lots and road infrastructure.
It turns out those huge empty parking lots would be better utilized as retail. What is evidenced here is what is commonly called the “park-once strategy” of development. The downtown boasts over 1,000 parking spaces, each capable of reaching tens if not hundreds of businesses and services. Target however is a largely a single-use parking strategy focused. By dividing up the parcels as such, each business requires a parking space and trip, nobody is walking back from BJ’s to the Target parking lot with the metric ton of dog food available for purchase there, not to mention the near half mile walk (seriously, I measured it). This is designed to discourage visiting multiple stores, rather purchasing everything at one store. So much for competition.
The chart below shows just how large this gap is. Target or Wal-Mart generate $7.00/acre versus somewhere like the Washington Street Pub that can generate near $105/acre. And before you ask, yes, the Pub and much of Washington Street is 3–4 stories. What does this mean? Mixed use and density equals revenue.
Again, this is just an overview, but some other topics that you should be curious about here are employment density, salaries, and public infrastructure costs. It should be evident however, that the sheer lack of density does not bode well for these places.
What if we course corrected? This idea is one that has occupied much of my time. How do we turn strip centers into places worth caring about? Though Waterside Village does a great job of trying to mimic the attributes of community with fake brick sidewalks, a clock tower, and buildings that abut the street, they fall short of creating place. Heck they even have a mix of uses (somewhat) with some office functions above the two buildings along Route 33. But they are decidedly lacking in the vibrancy of downtown Easton. There is no confusing the two.
This is because our definition of space is being manipulated. Much like our front lawns, these vestiges of “public space” are so far removed from their function that they are mere ornament. We have taken the physical attributes that we associate with great places and have created a facsimile, losing all understanding of the delicate recipe that make them. Placemaking is like baking, and Waterside Village is an ingredients list without measurements. Instead of 12 oz. of flower and a tablespoon of salt, we got 12 oz. of parking and a tablespoon of public space.
For some imagination assistance, let’s look at a rough conceptual reimagining of how we could start to reclaim some of these spaces throughout town. This is in no way a recommendation of specific locations for structures, but paints a picture of how we can infuse placemaking into underutilized strip centers. There’s a plethora of further information on this topic of Retrofitting Suburbia that should be referenced for further study.
A retrofitted Marlboro Avenue instantly becomes a street worth walking down, ergo, a street worth putting a business on. Introduction of parking, street trees, wide sidewalks and reduced traffic speeds convert Marlboro from a road (defined as an improved pathway between two places) to a street (defined as a paved public path in a community — not just for cars). A median could help reduce traffic speeds while creating better accessibility and crossing for pedestrians. Fully developed, this corridor would act as a substantially better representative street for first time visitors of Easton. Parks interspersed throughout this area create places to eat lunch, meet friends, or just enjoy something besides parking. Housing introduced provides activity in a longer span than just 9–5.
A greater connected grid of streets disperses traffic over a greater footprint rather than compressing it to wide roads that are impassable and dangerous. Parking structures are not needed, and should only be included if there is a parking need. With over 2,600 spaces in the combined developments, there should be little fear that a loss of a little bit of parking would even be noticed. Have you ever seen them full? If your answer is Four of July — do you keep air mattresses inflated with linens 24/7 for when your friends visit? I know in my near 20 years of being in Easton, I have never once worried about parking. More to the point — I’d trade 5 minutes of searching for parking for more places like downtown any day.
Advice from a Friend
As a good friend once told me, “Value and opportunity are things you inherit by accident from the distant past. They are not things we are empowered to create in the living present. To suggest otherwise is pure madness.” Obviously, this is not without its obvious hyperbole. We are masters of our own universe, and this shouldn’t end at our personal lives. For the past 60 years, Easton has relied on its distant past for its value and opportunity. Its high time we create some of our own; in our own image.
 Boyd Gibbons and Professor Boyd Gibbons, Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders, and Change in a Chesapeake Community (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future Press (RFF Press), 2007). 15.
 Paul Marx, Jim Rouse: Capitalist/idealist (United States: University Press of America, 2007). 79.