Philosophy Community Endeavors

We believe that philosophy is grounded in the here & now and its questions (the things with which it is concerned) are extremely practical & relevant.  Our community endeavors include a range of philosophy in the community activities designed specifically around the interests of community members. Some of these are ongoing; others are structured to be stand-alone.

From local shin-digs and collaborative efforts to our ongoing Thinking About Place project, our community endeavors are all about you (and philosophy, of course!).

 When we get that “sense of place”, what’s going on? What are we “sensing”, and to what extent might it be a shared sense?  This project invites to consider these questions and more.  Here are the five most recent installments exploring place by Dennis McCahon.  To contact Dennis directly with a question or a comment,  please e-mail him at [email protected].

DOWN ON THE CORNER

Bring lots of cars together on intersecting streets and you’ll get some variation on the
“malfunction junction” theme. Cars don’t intermix well. Bring lots of pedestrians together on
intersecting streets though, and you’ll get the sort of intermixing which, historically, is the
soul of urban life — the sort celebrated by street-corner architecture.

Important doorways are set on the bevel facing the middle of the intersection. Then overhead
the building keeps showing off as it turns the corner — special window treatment, maybe an
oriel or a balcony, maybe a lookout or a cupola on top. Maybe it all reads as a projecting
tower-like form.

At the Power Block it’s just tower enough to balance the facade’s two wings like the rounded
spine of an open book. Then there’s the Montana Club, the US Bank, the Securities Building up
the street, and the Harvard Block beckoning from the top of the hill (it once had a tall cupola
shaped like a cow-bell).

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What these showy bits of street-corner architecture have in common is that each is a focus for
walkable sightlines. Each marks (celebrates) a fixed point of connection — and thereby
continuity — of walkable space. They’re punctuation marks (not so much exclamation points
as commas) serving the overall legibility of our walkway network.

As such, they work from a distance; but they also work up close. It’s not just the shape of the
spaces we walk through, and the visual play of their connections (all that obliquity) that invite
navigation on foot; it’s also what immediately defines those spaces — the stuff close enough to
touch as we walk past.

The character of this immediate stuff is a big part of what can be called “pedestrian scale”.
I’ll say a bit more about scale in my next notes.

HERE’S TO OBLIQUITY

Main Street from the north end of the 400 Block to the Library and Pioneer Park gets more
everyday foot traffic than any other half-mile in town. As an old urban planner I try to figure out
why. As a hiker I think it has a bit to do with the street’s crookedness.

Navigation on foot, in town or out on the hills, is about sightlines; walkable ones. A straight street
(or trail) hurries my eye off into some vague distance, but a crooked route keeps it close — exploring
oblique angles of connection to spaces suggested immediately ahead, sightlines immediately
engaging, thus immediately walkable.

My engagement with the lively crowd of destinations lining that stretch of Main Street is renewed
through one dogleg bend after another. There’s visual magic in those 10-to-15 degree angles. It’s a
model of connective walkability — a half-mile of sustained, flowing, “place”.

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I compare it with another half-mile, from the north end of the 400 Block to Carroll College and
Centennial Park — same distance, easy to walk, but much less sense of sustained connectivity. I
think it has a bit to do with the walk being mostly straight lines and 90-degree turns. I miss the
doglegs.

Those two half-miles, compared, seem to show that urban walkability — and, by extension, urban
“place” — has at least as much to do with the shapes of the outdoor spaces we walk through as with
what’s underfoot. Those Main Street doglegs are ours by luck, a gift of topography, but can we do
as well by deliberate design? It’s fun to think about.

For my next notes I’ll return to that second half-mile, to look at a bit of deliberate design which
addresses a modern urban problem quite well.

CELEBRATORY SPACES

At a time when the urban outdoors is designed to be read from behind a windshield at car speed,
reintegration of the walking option requires integration of walking legibility. It’s not enough that
it be (incidentally or grudgingly) walkable out there, it’s got to look walkable.

So, when a piece of urban design happens to be particularly well placed for walking — if it provides
continuity and connectivity precisely where most needed — it should celebrate. It should show off.

The Lyndale underpass, at the north end of that second half-mile mentioned in my previous notes,
not only offers Helena’s one chance to cross the US-12 corridor without dodging four or more lanes
of highway traffic, it’s also placed just right to connect two bunches of pedestrian hubs — Carroll
College and Centennial Park on one side, the Great Northern Center and Downtown on the other.

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It celebrates the connection in much the same ancient way that some early-day Helena architects
celebrated their important front doors. Instead of a plain rectangular opening, we walk through an
archway, but instead of one heavy arch overhead it’s a nested set of lighter ones telescoping down
to the entrance — increasing the apparent height and width of the opening — and sense of welcome.

It’s cast concrete, so it lacks the masonry articulation and carving of those old archways, but the
shape is right (it’s got “good bones”), and it seems set up for a bit more work — public art?

It’s not just the shape of the spaces we walk through, and the ways they connect; it’s also how
we visually mark the connections — how we punctuate the flow — which makes the urban
outdoors legible for walking. I’ll say a bit more about that punctuation in my next notes.

A CALL FOR HABITAT RESTORATION

Put yourself at the mercy of the urban outdoors, get out there on foot, and you can’t help but
notice that some parts of town are more merciful than others. Some parts of the urban outdoors
actually invite you out of your car. What’s the appeal?

That’s a question worth pondering in this time of climate change and landscape deterioration.
Can we address those woes by playing upon the appeal of something as simple and old and
low-tech as walking around outdoors? I think we can. That’s what these brief notes — posted
here every ten days or so — will be about. I’ll tell you what I think, and I want to know what
you think. I want a conversation.

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Walking is good because it’s carbon-neutral and doesn’t demand the vast landscape-gobbling
infrastructure that cars do. Cars aren’t going away though. Our challenge is to understand the
appeal of a walk in terms enabling us to reintegrate walking as an option — the preferred option
where possible — despite the cars. I think of it as habitat restoration.

That makes sense because of a deep connection between the appeal of walking around outdoors
and the appeal of something else old and low-tech (though hardly simple) — the idea of “place”,
as in “sense of place”. From a practical point of view (I’m an old urban planner) thinking about
urban place and thinking about urban walkability are much the same thing. Place is pulled
together by walkable sightlines.

There are some instructive examples out there — ours less by planning than by luck. Luck’s
trying to help us in Helena. My next notes will point out a few cases. In the meantime, put
yourself at the mercy of the urban outdoors. Try thinking of it as our habitat — as “place.”

THE LUCK OF TOPOGRAPHY

We’re lucky that topography was so stubbornly assertive in old Helena. It’s fun. It’s good for
walking. Topography jostles with the man-made stuff in all sorts of place-making ways.

For one, there’s where bits of our old straight-line street grid dead-end abruptly against the
South Hills — each open-ended street or alley a walkable sightline, rooted well within the urban
fabric but running straight out to a de facto trailhead.

For another, there’s our narrow, crooked, gulch-bottom Main Street, all those dogleg bends of
10 to 15 degrees showing off the place — the immediate street-defining stuff and the slightly
farther district-defining stuff — at shifting oblique angles, a dance of sightlines.

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In that first case, sightlines confirm the immediate proximity of our open lands. We get two
kinds of landscape at once, in-town and out, with a standing invitation to walk between them.
In the second case, we get a zigzag half-mile of downtown vitality, another invitation to walk.

So, for walkable sightlines, it’s as good to have crooked streets doglegging through downtown
as to have straight streets dead-ending unceremoniously at the edge of town. We’d have
neither without the luck of topography. We wouldn’t have Reeder’s Alley either.

Louis Reeder struck a rare deal with topography. Knowing that it doesn’t take much
cut-and-fill to suit natural pedestrian agility, and in exchange for building stone, he let his
gully keep its identity. Though now urban, it’s still rocky and raw and steep-sided, still
legible as a natural young landform in very old rock.

Can Reeder’s Alley and those doglegs and dead-ends — quirks of old Helena — show us how to
treat the modern problem of urban connectivity? Think about it. I will, for my next notes.

THE FUN BIT

What’s best about those quirky old Helena streets mentioned in my earlier notes — those doglegs,
dead-ends and Reeder’s Alley — is that walking is still fun there. Things still connect there, in
walkable ways. The streets work better as walkable sightlines than as conduits for cars.

Cars are bulky. Moving or just sitting, they take up enormous amounts of space. We make space
by pushing things apart. The effect on urban form is fragmentation and dispersal. As things are
pushed beyond what’s assumed to be useful walking range, walking connectivity ceases to be
treated as a design element, regardless of actual distance. It’s all cars. We get Cruse Avenue.

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To again make walking an option (habitat restoration) is to acknowledge how it differs from
driving. One big difference is that walking is intimate; just you and place; no intervening bulk
with its own demands. It’s engagement with what’s just ahead or just to the side, not the
momentum of something you’re riding in, that keeps you going.

That’s only natural. Walking is your natural way of moving around. Nature equips you — senses,
agility, curiosity, imagination, etc. — to engage with whatever you meet afoot. Free use of this
nature-given equipment, at your own pace on a path that rewards its use, is fun. It draws you on.

The greater the distance walked, the more important this fun bit. It makes a long walk feel like a
short one, and turns a connector into a linear destination. On Main Street it’s a half-mile from the
north end of the 400 Block to the Library, but that’s the most pedestrian-packed half-mile in town.

It’s a half-mile also from the 400 Block to Centennial Park and Carroll College. Another
pedestrian connector? — a question for my next notes.

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