Lessons from Magnolia’s “Village”

ENTRANCE FROM 8TH STREET

Humans gravitate to history like moths to light. Historic places are not only interesting, but they ground us. Even if the history around us is unpleasant or uncomfortable to confront, it’s comforting to be in places that connect us to those who came before us. It gives us the sense that we’re participating in something bigger than ourselves. Suburbs built to a finished state from the beginning lack these elements of depth and connectivity. 

Second, the Gaines integrated traditional design principles that have a proven track record of transforming spaces into loveable places: density, mixed-use, walkability, and aesthetic coherence. Even though the village is tiny, it contains all of these features and is designed at human scale.  

Neither of these decisions point to any kind of noteworthy innovation. The Gaines didn’t introduce these principles, they simply leveraged proven principles with a historical track record of working. 

Like Disneyland, the Silos village will never be a real place. Unlike real towns of times past, it wasn’t built incrementally over time in response to real needs and in consideration of serious constraints. It doesn’t solve a public problem, wasn’t built with investment from the local community and (unlike a real town square) facilitates tourism, not authentic public life. It will always be a tourist destination, a commercial project.  

But the “village” can also serve as a reminder of how American cities used to be designed and the responses these places evoked. By copying an older version of place-building and urban development that American cities were doing before the introduction of the automobile, the village reminds us of how we used to build cities and what used to emerge when cities were governed by an incremental development philosophy rather than a philosophy of debt-financed sprawl.  

Last weekend, I helped run a friend’s booth at Silobration, Magnolia’s annual craft market. It was amazing to watch a small street transformed into a car-free shopping plaza. The majority of the people who visited our booth were from out of town. I couldn’t help but be fascinated at the idea that people had traveled all the way to Waco (from as far as Canada) to stroll, browse, and shop at a one-block artisanal market.  

To me, the popularity of places like the village at the Silos and events like Silobration seems to indicate there’s a bottled-up demand in the U.S. for dense, walkable, public places. The Gaines are smartly tapping into that demand. The question is if city leaders can learn from the success of places like Magnolia and realize that Americans want walkable, interesting cities that can be passed down and treasured for generations. 

These places should not be reserved for vacationing tourists only. 

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