Applying What You Know: Reading the Built Environment

Learning to read your built environment – your city – helps you to form tangible connections to where you live. In turn, your sense of place and community increases. You feel ownership and responsibility for your town or city, which allows for better planning and smart development. The longer you live somewhere and study, the better you get to know a place; the more you love it.

But what happens you go someplace new? How do you read the built environment if you know nothing about its history? Good question. The best part of learning to read the layers of the built environment is that you can gain a sense of place and understanding without needing to know its cultural history. How do you do that?  By observing and translating the elements of the built environment you see the development and changes.

Elements of the built environment include street patterns (gridded or not?), buildings (height, architectural style, materials), parking lots (where? garages?), sidewalks (width, material?), landscaping (trees?), bridges (type?), utilities (underground wires or telephone poles?), and more.

I want to share an example that I used in my recent Built Environment lecture. It’s simple, but a good place to start. Ready to play along? And, go!

Recently, I traveled through Prescott, Ontario, a town on Canada Route 2 along the St. Lawrence River. I stopped in what appeared to be the center of town. As a preservationist, I always enjoy getting out of the car and wandering for a few blocks to snap photos and observe the area, stare at buildings – that sort of thing.

Here is the view standing on the corner of Centre Street and Route 2. Note the historic building block on the right. On the left, however, is a large parking lot. Parking lots always raise an eyebrow for me – why is there a large parking lot in the center of town? Historically, towns were not built with parking lots in the middle. Let’s have a look around.


Parking lot (left) & historic building block (right) in the center of Prescott.



Top left: the same historic building block mentioned above. Right: tower and parking lot at the SW corner of Route 2 and Centre Street. Bottom left: The same parking lot as seen from the other end of it (note clock tower behind the tree).


You can see the photos above. Now let’s step across the street. These Google street views (below) show that SW corner (in the first photo I stood next to the clock tower).

Once I did a 360 observation of the block I had a few guesses. In the United States, if there is a hole (read: parking lot) in a town or city, I automatically think 1960s Urban Renewal era. However, this was Canada, so I wasn’t sure on Urban Renewal.

But, the drug store adjacent to the parking lot had a mid 20th century vibe (see image below). The general automobile culture (1950s/60s) often falls in line with demolition and parking lots for auto-centric businesses.


Google Street views of the corner and drug store.

My guess? A historic building was demolished for the drug store and parking lot, and the clock tower built on the edge of the parking lot to “honor” the historic building. Classic, right? Always the preservation nerd, I did some Googling to see if I could find information about Prescott development. It took a while, but eventually I did find my answer!

Yes, there was a historic building there. This one:


Prescott, Ontario 1876 Town Hall. The clock tower was a later addition.

According to this source, the town hall was demolished in the early 1960s due to neglect and lack of available funds in the town for repair. While I couldn’t find when the drug store was built, I have a pretty good guess that it followed shortly after demolition of the town hall.

While this was not the most uplifting example of reading the landscape, it is important to understand how our cities and towns are shaped by individual projects and decisions. And the lesson? When you see a large hole in the center, spin around and look around. It’s probably not supposed to be there.


Vintage Fun: Balla-Rolla

Happy Labor Day! Barbecues, backyard parties, friends, family and some games are probably on the agenda for many. Today’s games are often ladder golf, corn hole (or some beanbag toss), bocce, badminton; but what about some of the more classic games like croquet? And as a kid who else loved hula hoops (or still loves hula hoops)? Pogo sticks? Skip-it? How about this one: a Balla-Rolla.

A Balla-Rolla. Stand on this board, atop a cylinder and balance.

The Balla-Rolla was made by Carrom Industries, Inc. in the 1950s and 1960s.  (See this blog post by Rue 21 for additional photos and information.) The Carrom Company began in 1889 and continued to make board games and other amusements throughout the 20th century. Here’s a decade by decade history.

Close up of the logo. The drawing depicts how to use this toy.

The instructions say: “Roller is set at center in frame under platform. Place one foot on low end of board, other foot on high end and then start balancing.” Simple enough, right? Well the concept is simple, but the balancing takes a lot of practice. Just ask my sisters and my cousins.

The board has a textured surface to help you with your balancing act.

For those interested in the underside: the cylinder rolled back and forth in the frame.

We had a lot of fun using this toy over the years. For as long as I can remember, my sisters and I would play with it in my aunt & uncle’s basement, standing next to the bar or a wall to give ourselves additional training balance, while trying not to fall into anything. Unfortunately, we no longer have the cylinder (it was swiped from my sister’s dorm room) so if you know of a replacement option, let me know.

What vintage toys do you have or remember? Can you find them today? Would you re-introduce these toys to your family and friends?

Live! from a drive-in movie theater

It’s a warm summer night in southern North Carolina, the stars are out, the sky is clear, I’m happily perched in a camp chair sitting next to friends, and I’m watching one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  (If you need to know, the movie is Tropic Thunder.)   However, I can overlook the factor of an awful movie because we are at a drive-in movie theater. 

For anyone who is not aware (or couldn’t have guessed): I just love drive-in movie theaters.   I have an independent study research paper from college to prove that statement.  Drive-ins have had their ups and downs throughout American history, but they remain a unique summer excursion for the few Americans who are lucky enough to live close to one.  The drive-in movie theater first began in Camden, New Jersey and then spread throughout the country.  We know their heydays to be in the 1950s and 1960s before their popularity faded in the 1970s. 

There are many contributing factors to the decline of the drive-in movie theater ranging from the value of real estate in suburbia, the rise of indoor movie theaters and television sets, the quality of movies released in the drive-in, and general interests of the population, among many other factors.  Once numbering in the thousands, only a few hundred remain in operation in the United States.  Fortunately, they have once again become family friendly.  It is still an affordable outing for a family.  For four adults to see two movies, it costs a total of $20, whereas in the movie theater it would have cost us $80.  Drive-ins allow you to bring any food you’d like, kids can run around before the shows (or play on the playground), opening a bag of pretzels won’t disturb the neighbors, you can still talk to the people you’re with, and you can control the volume through your radio.

Maybe you’re wondering why I have my laptop at a drive-in?  Well, on the website they advertised Wi-Fi.  I thought it would be fun to write a post while at the drive-in.  Offering Wi-Fi reminds me of the services that the best and biggest drive-ins offered in their heydays.  Services ranged from baby bottle warmers next to the car (since children usually fell asleep in the back seat), grocery shopping while people watched the movie, laundry services, bellhops to bring your snacks, and carnival rides or beauty pageants for children before the show.  The drive-in movie theater simply tried to keep up with the times and fulfill their claim that it was an easy evening out for the family.  Mothers and wives didn’t have to get dressed up to go out or cook dinner for the family, they didn’t have to find a babysitter, and it was a group activity for the family. 

Now, the drive-in still caters to families, but seems to be marketing to the generation of young adults living on their own: people like me who find Wi-Fi always thrilling.  Unfortunately, I cannot get the Wi-Fi to work, which takes away from my excitement; but, maybe I’m just sitting in the wrong spot. 

While drive-ins will probably never reach their heyday of the 1960s, hopefully they will continue to attract people who like movies on the big screen and can appreciate the history of the drive-in while accepting it as a piece of modern times.  For the record, I have seen some of my favorite movies at a drive-in theater, including Cars, which is probably the best movie to see at a drive-in (except for maybe Grease.)  To find a drive-in theater near you, check out or or   Enjoy the show!