This week I’m in Lafayette, a town merely twenty-three minutes further from my San Franciscan office than my usual San Franciscan home, thanks to light rail. There are deer in the street and woods on the walk from the train to town.

On this occasion at least, Lafayette doesn’t feel properly like a small town to me. I think it’s the main road. A lot of the town is spread along this single road, but the road itself doesn’t feel like its main deal is being Lafayette’s main road. It feels more focused on being an energetic transitway between somewhere and somewhere else, neither in Lafayette. Which probably isn’t even that true, since there is a perfectly giant highway also spanning Lafayette just North of it. Maybe the problem is that it’s too wide, so that the town feels like it’s tenuously accumulated on the sides of a road like plaque, rather than the road being an organic vessel of the town. Or, you know, I’m imagining things.

I seem to imagine things a lot regarding some kind of road Feng Shui (note: I know nothing about actual Feng Shui). My mind natively reads roads as conduits of some kind of ‘energy’, and tries to apply appropriate intuitive physics. For instance, if you have big flows in and out of a place, relative to the place itself, it won’t feel like its own place. It will feel like a section of a larger place. For instance, the typical random intersection in a big American city can’t be a place with its own local vibe, where you might feel like staying, because it can’t be very separate from the surrounding city that its energy (traffic?) is constantly being exchanged with. It’s just going to feel like a section of various energetic routes.

This intuitive physics is sort of like the physics of streams with leaves and debris in them. For a place to be placelike, and appealing to settle down in, it needs to have enough nooks or ponds or complications for the fast flowing streams in and out to eddy around in and slow down and let the debris be still. And this main street is a big stream running through a small place.

This is all contradicted by the frequency with which people stand in narrow thoroughfares at parties even in the face of literal physical streams of partygoers pressing against them. (My intuition on this case is that the pressure of the partygoer liquid is so high that it somehow makes sense to be stuck in the doorway, but I don’t explicitly see how this model even makes sense.) I don’t know of any pro evidence for this model, but my brain just keeps on having it.

26

1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:23 PM
New Comment

I grok this feeling.

I have found similar veins of thought in discussions about walkable cities, and occasionally in arguments over architecture. Stuff like the difference between our homes being cocoons or places of visitation; how ruthlessly utilitarian structures make humans feel vulnerable; even details like laying out a party such that people have to move around to do different things, forcing them to interact.

I don't recall whether it was at Bell Labs or at Princeton, but I recall someone thought the single long hallway to the cafeteria was an important feature of the work space because it was the only time you bumped into everyone reliably.

Looking at these examples we have micro (homes and hallways at the office) and macro (cities), but I do feel like small town are a neglected middle.