An Ode to Old Towns

PlaceShakers takes a very literal step off our comfortably beaten paths of urban design, zoning reform and community resiliency today to focus on, as the software industry calls it, the “end-user experience.” Despite, or perhaps because of, having no vocational connection to placemaking at all, explorer / spelunker / observer John Watts offers up some poignant reminders of why our work towards endearing — and enduring — human-scaled places is so important. For today, certainly, but ultimately for tomorrow.


My drive from Sterling, Virginia, heading due west, started out as a yawner and then turned to a downer. The bumper sticker battle slogan seen often a few years ago stating “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun!” (meant to admonish Loudoun County to not repeat the same mistakes Fairfax County had made in over-developing) appeared to be becoming moot. Rapidly. The tangle of traffic congestion at 1:30 in the afternoon was as formidable as anything Fairfax can conjure up.

It was largely due to the highway construction, with traffic being funneled down to just one lane on mighty Route 7′s westbound leg. Glancing at the scenery was the real clincher though. For a several mile stretch, as I gazed out from my car, all I found was upturned clay mountains and huge claw marks from bulldozers gouging the top layer of ground. “I have been away too long,” I thought to myself. The tug of inevitability was very evident on this stretch, as progress was moving on without me.

Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery, Leesburg, Virginia.
©, via Flickr.

But then, reaching the Leesburg town limits, I found myself increasingly comforted as familiar landmarks, minus the construction, returned before me. I crossed past the first few shopping centers on the outskirts of town, following the main road towards the heart of the city and then, suddenly, the standardized predictability of VDOT signs and precise highway lanes abruptly halted and the main street was split by a pie-shaped wedge of land fittingly belonging to Mom’s Apple Pie bakery. This little peninsula with the tiny parking lot beckons drivers to have a hot coffee and pastry, that is, if they can manage to make a split second decision and park the car before it is passed by.

Read the full story here.

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