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“Wow! There’s Thousands of People Here in this Small Town”

Spaces Feel Bigger and Better Without Cars

A few weeks ago, in mid-April, my wife and I went to Leesburg, Virginia for the town’s yearly Flower & Garden Festival. This is one of those real-deal, close-most-of-the-historic-town street festivals. When I say “close,” though, I mean close to automobile traffic. As we urbanists sometimes point out, “closing” streets to cars can really feel like opening them.

Judging by the immense crowds and the number of mostly local businesses with tents and displays—as well as lines out the door for coffee at the local coffee shops, and lots of foot traffic for the small shops and restaurants in town—this is great for business. We bought a couple of plants ourselves, plus some pizza sauce (there are non-garden-related vendors too). The only thing we did with our car was wait a few minutes to get into a garage and cheerfully leave it behind.

The received idea about cars is that they’re good for business. A lot of business owners in towns and cities believe that most of their customers arrive by car, when frequently this is not in fact the case. I’ve seen this discussed on social media before, and the most likely explanation is simply that the minority of customers arriving by car are more likely to complain about parking or traffic than anyone else is likely to complain about slow bus service or sidewalks in poor condition or what have you.

This is the crack through which urbanism sometimes gets cast as anti-business or anti-American: they don’t like cars, cars facilitate freedom and commerce, therefore… But anybody who feels that way ought to visit Leesburg, Virginia next April.

Take a look at this little town in festival mode:

I overheard a man on the phone, conveying the feel of the festival with a sense of wonder. “There’s thousands of people here in this small town,” he said, his voice suggesting that this was somehow unexpected or slightly contradictory. I suppose it feels that way today, but one thing that strikes me when I see old photos of urban streets—from 100 years ago, or more—is how many people are just out and about. Those pictures convey a sense of bustle, of crowdedness, of liveliness, which I rarely feel in towns and cities today, except New York City. Or a small town with a street festival going on.

Why don’t we do this more often? Why don’t we open up our lovely old streets to people and businesses instead of for through-traffic more often? We know that the pedestrian mall concept doesn’t necessarily work, but pedestrian malls often felt like museum exhibits. Winchester, Virginia has a successful pedestrian mall along its historic main drag, but there is something slightly uncanny about walking along a bollard-protected, bricked-over street. That’s not quite the same as temporary street closures in tandem with social and commercial events.

Of course, this sort of thing is done in smaller degrees. Lots of towns and cities close certain streets to traffic regularly, usually on certain weekend hours. Staunton, Virginia does this. Leesburg actually does it. Farmers markets and other pop-up markets in parking lots are pretty common. Some cities have kept their outdoor dining programs, typically using what were once parking lanes for outdoor seating areas.

But it’s all rather patchwork and ad-hoc. What if the regular use of streets for people and commerce wasn’t a special event, but just a regular part of town and city life? Why do Americans mob these events but simultaneously feel like there would be something indulgent or unserious or simply unworkable about making this normal? The demand is obviously sufficient for any town of at least a few thousand people to do something like this once or twice a year at minimum. Over time, widen the scope and variety and frequency. Pair street and traffic reforms with reforms on street vending and small business permitting. Make all this lovely space useful and productive for regular people more of the time. What’s stopping any small town in America from doing, for example, what Montreal does every summer?

People might fear parking frustration—but they don’t mind a little parking trouble when the thing they’re doing feels worth the hassle. They might object to the idea of walking around town to run errands and buy stuff versus the efficiency of a couple of stops at big suburban stores—though if you count your steps, you’re probably walking just as much! And some people might just have a gut feeling that street fairs, pop-up commerce, and walkable urbanism writ large is a kind of play or respite, a break from the serious work of everyday life, not a substitute for it.

I’ve written before that the United States doesn’t lack cities or good urbanism, contra what some folks say. What we lack is an urban mindset: a canny understanding of how to best use cities: how to tailor commerce and mobility to an urban environment. People don’t have to be coaxed or convinced to sit in traffic and wait for parking, or get a ride, to go to a flower festival or a Christmas market. They don’t feel wrong or weird dining outdoors in a former parking spot. They like urbanism. But we lack the language to even describe this. We lack the language for conveying that most of the noise and discomfort of cities is down to cars and traffic.

What wandering around a historic downtown during a street festival says to me is that this is a normal human activity. Much as walkable urbanism might be trendy these days, it’s something ancient. We haven’t entirely lost it, but we’ve done something harder to remedy: we’ve forgotten what it is, how to describe it, or how to even discern that we like it. What I saw in Leesburg wasn’t some novelty. It was old urban fabric used and inhabited as intended. Let’s make the fullest use of it everywhere.

Addison Del Mastro is a Partner Writer for the Resident Urbanist. He writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other assorted issues, with a focus on the ideas and psychology behind urbanism. Of particular interest to him are small towns, the ongoing urbanization and "growing up" of the suburbs, and what urbanism looks like outside of the big city. He runs The Deleted Scenes. You can follow him on Twitter and Threads.


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