I recently visited the city of La Paz, located on the beautiful Baja California peninsula of Mexico. The city is a popular destination for tourists, snowbirds and expatriates. And it’s popular for good reason: we enjoyed remarkable beaches and boating, ridiculous amounts of sunshine, heavenly marlin tacos and warm Mexican hospitality.
As always, I found myself studying the city itself: the streets, buildings, parks and plazas. There was much to love about the older, central part of the city. (Sadly, the outer areas resembled the worst of American suburbia, and were not worth much of our time.) Among my favorite places was their waterfront promenade (part of which was being reconstructed while I was there). This waterfront lined with shops and restaurants is a great public space. From there, you could filter back into the pleasant and walkable grid of streets.
But there was one aspect of their urbanism which left me uneasy, and it hung over the city like a cloud in an otherwise cloudless place: most of the residences were built, or sometimes retrofitted, in a defensive manner. At the very least, homes typically had metal bars or grates over the windows. Others were practically fortresses. Instead of porches and walls full of doors and windows, the fronts of these properties were dominated by tall blank walls, gates and garage doors. Once through those gates, you’ll often find lush courtyards and wonderful spaces. But, at the street, it’s too often bleak and defensive.
They say a house is a person’s castle. This was taken to an extreme. All that was missing was the moat.
This is odd, because nearly everything else about their streetscape is textbook good urbanism: sidewalks, street trees, minimal setbacks, attractive storefronts and so on. This prevalence of defensive design didn’t ruin the experience of the place for me. But it gave me pause.
Some of this is simply a natural reaction to the relatively high density. There were no front yards to buffer the house from the public realm of the street. And privacy becomes a much more important issue when the front wall of the house is right on the sidewalk. But there are obviously some significant security concerns. And the bars on the windows are symptomatic of some broken elements of Mexican society.
Mexico is far from alone in this. In my travels outside the U.S., this kind of design has not been unusual. I’d say it’s the rule rather than the exception outside of Western Europe, Canada, the U.S. and a few other places. I recall beautiful Cartagena, Colombia, with its remarkable colonial architecture that was also quite defensive. Of course, they were legitimately concerned about pirates and other invaders during the colonial days. So a little defensive design is perfectly understandable. Today, they are defending themselves against the people in their own community, and that’s a problem.
We all want to feel safe, and more importantly, actually be safe in our own homes and communities. This is not something that will ever change, but we can take steps toward making our communities safe and welcoming at the same time.
That’s one thing about American urban design that is so remarkable: people have generally felt safe enough in their communities (with some important exceptions), to build residences with a much more welcoming public face. Some people install a security system, others purchase a gun for self-protection. But they still usually have a front porch rather than a big blank wall.
In the U.S., the porch represents a house’s friendly public face, and by extension the owner’s as well. But it’s always been more than that. It also functions as a semi-private “defensible space” in which outsiders must pass through. So it serves a defensive purpose, too, but in a much more subtle and human way than a wall.
Seaside is well known for its porches. They are actually required in most cases through the town’s code. Essentially, you are not allowed to design in a severely defensive way like they do in so many other places. This says something very positive about Seaside.
Like several other communities in our area, the physical form of Seaside reflects the best ideals of American society: openness, inclusiveness, community, shared values and even the rule of law. Porches are a key part of making this happen. But it goes well beyond that. People walk and bike everywhere, which gives them a chance to interact and maybe even get to know one another. (And the friendly small town wave sure beats the hand gestures that you might receive while in your car.) There are not even individual mailboxes at each house. Instead, they are all located in the town’s post office, which encourages interaction. And even though the land, including all streets except 30A, is technically private, town founders Robert and Daryl Davis welcome the public to the common areas still under their control.
And, most notably, the community is not gated. I remember when Robert Davis once pointed to a secondary street connection into Seagrove via Grove Avenue and described it as the most radical thing they did at Seaside. That’s a statement that has lingered in my head for many years. It’s indeed radical to connect in this day and age. But we need to connect — no, we desperately need to connect — both as individuals and as a society.
All of this said, I wonder if Americans are headed in a different and darker direction. When you head down the road of defensive security-first design, it can easily become a very destructive cycle. When one property takes that stance, there’s a good chance the neighbors will, too.
There is a sense right now that the foundations of American society are in trouble. At the very least, it’s a time of uncertainty and division. It’s hard to feel good about the future when mass shootings and the opioid crisis dominate the news. It’s said that Americans are more divided than ever, and I can’t disagree. For all of its positive and life-changing qualities, the internet has helped to drive us from a shared community to many smaller, more specialized communities. There are times when we have more in common with someone across the globe than we do with our neighbors. Oftentimes people don’t even psychologically inhabit the same physical space. Two people can be in a room, but their smart phone allows their attention to be somewhere else.
In this reality, we cease to know our neighbors. People drive right into their garage and close the door behind them. Forget the small town wave — we’re too busy texting someone in another place. And when that becomes the norm, then everyone else becomes “them” rather than “us.” That world can’t and won’t feel safe. And that’s when we start building walls.
But, despite this reality, I’m confident that we can find a way turn off the smart phones, tune out the “noise” of the 24-hour news cycle, make progress on some difficult problems, and actually reengage with the people in our communities. All of that is within our control. But we need places with porches rather than walls. We need places that are designed to encourage interaction and community. Without them, this could indeed become a very dark time.
Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. Among his most prominent projects are three New Urban beach communities on the Texas coast: Cinnamon Shore, Palmilla Beach, and Sunflower Beach. Learn more about his firm Schnell Urban Design at SchnellUrbanDesign.com.