A short piece on public space in Metropolitics

I wrote this piece about a conflict over park fees in the Mission district in San Francisco. Metropolitics is a new(ish) online magazine of urban issues, written by (mostly) academics in plain language:




Portland, famous for rain, is my new home.

I work in the Urban Center which is a series of buildings surrounding a plaza. These include my office, a number of campus eateries, the student rec center, and a number of other university offices, too.

One feature (!) as one walks up the east side of these blocks are a series of buildings with awnings that appear to have had the awning part removed (image here.) This, of course, is a bit of post-modern building detail, in which the formerly functional parts of buildings (domes, arches, etc.) are now ‘referents.’ That is to say, they don’t do the work they formerly used to do.

(My teacher at UC-Davis, Mark Francis, once said that you can know which are the postmodern buildings because they are wearing little hats! These are referents of domes.)

So it rains, and I cling to the side of the buildings where I expect awnings to be and: nothing. It’s a frame with a hole. I get wet.

So I started thinking about what awnings actually are, and what purpose they serve. Awnings, indeed, are a kind of threshold: they are a gesture from the private—a building owner or business—at the public passers-by on the street. They draw one in, perhaps enticing us to retail, but they also shelter us.

In photos of European and American cities well through the 20th century, we see photos of striped and solid fabric awnings, colorful with images and names of businesses in stylized font. Shopkeepers would roll them out with a crank in the morning, and roll them back up at night.

This image from Portland in the early 20th century shows a storefront that sells fabric for tents, awnings, and waterproof horse and wagon covers.

So where did the awnings all go? Why don’t we see this ritual anymore, and what does it say about the pedestrian’s relationship to the private edge of the sidewalk?

Some speculation, none verified:

  1. Based on the variety of uses advertised in the above photo, waterproof canvas ‘duck’ was simply more ubiquitous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and now there is simply less of it. Awnings that do exist are mostly permanent, and made of more weatherproof materials, like vinyl.
  1. Awnings have become hard (metal, plastic, slate) elements of buildings – included or not. If they are not included in the original design, no one bolts in an awning.
  1. With the rise of streets-for-cars—as opposed to streets for pedestrians—there became less concern for the comfort of pedestrians.
  1. This is part of a larger anti-homeless design trend, in which doorways and other sheltering places have been largely eliminated to prevent loitering.
  1. Building codes changed: awnings either became de-emphasized or outlawed.

Today, awnings have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence; they are part of a network of passive technologies for controlling the light and heat of the sun as ‘green’ buildings have come into vogue. Yet this version of the awning speaks to the occupants of the building, not to the street.