Philosopher's Grove and the Blank Walls

Philosopher's Grove

Philosopher's Grove

The problems plaguing Philosopher’s Grove at the top of State Street for years stem from an ignored design issue that far transcends a few stone blocks or poor lighting.

Drug dealing, drinking and prostitution, among other crimes, came to a head in the area two years ago when a lot of people, like me, wondered if it was still safe to walk through there. Police took action and have since triaged the worst of the problems. But intense policing is not a sustainable solution.

So the city added an information kiosk, more lighting and pianos. And now a proposal to remove 11 of the 44 granite stones dotting the space while encouraging more placemaking opportunities. But none of these solutions solve the real problem of the area.

Blank walls.

Nothing kills and urban space like blank walls. There’s no reason to interact with blank walls. There’s no reason to look at blank walls. There’s no opportunity to walk through a blank wall. People don’t even like walking past blank walls, and research has shown pedestrians will go out of their way to avoid them. We don’t typically notice it, but blank walls make us feel uncomfortable and alone.

The State Historical Museum’s northwest wall and the southwest wall of 30 West Mifflin are almost entirely blank. Nearly windowless. No public entrances. No reason for interaction other than to walk past. Other than, I guess, deal drugs and purchase sex.

“The people of the city have an equity in this,” urban planning researcher William H. Whyte wrote in this landmark book, City. “An owner who lines his frontage with a blank wall not only deadens his part of the street; he breaks the continuity that is so vital for the rest of the street. Stores thrive on the propinquity of other stores and the traffic they generate. Seal off a blockfront, interrupt a sequence of stores, and part of the line of the street is lost.”

It’s a dead space. And dead spaces attract crime. Certainly not everyone using this space is dangerous or criminal, but real problems clearly exist. And the easiest way to rid an urban space of undesirable activity is to focus less on evicting the people you don’t want and to focus more on bringing in the people you do want. On this front, the city is making some good decisions.

The city’s new dedication to add food carts and events to the space will certainly help. A good food cart and a few moveable chairs can help just about any urban space. But this will always be a dead space in the heart of downtown until the blank walls that surround it give way to transparent, translucent and pedestrian-oriented façades.