In villages with history, buildings have rounded corners because structures are rarely torn down. Instead, they are re-plastered and patched; fresh stucco over old brick, field stone next to timber, and stones worn to smooth curves from public assemblies. Hundreds of years later, we guess who lived or worked or gathered in these spaces. This is patina.

Chapel Hill’s downtown history dates only from the mid-1800s, but newer buildings make no attempt to reference our architectural and social history or try to create contemporary complements. So, sadly, we’re left with sharp, red brick, 90-degree angles that could be found anywhere in America–and a lack of patina.

What is happening to make Chapel Hill so architecturally homogeneous and seemingly suburban? Where is the spate of outstanding building materials used all over the world: painted steel, aluminum, glass, tinted and translucent concrete, copper, stone? Why do we continue to design communities that favor cars over pedestrian mobility, and shopping areas with more pavement than landscaped gardens? In the 1930s, two- and three-story mercantile buildings were integrated among modest wood frame residences along Franklin Street. By the 1970s, this history was erased by the buildings and streetscape we recognize today. No wonder a patina has not developed.

The ambition to define a “sense of place” and locate a community’s heartbeat is strong all across America. But closer to home, Durham’s downtown has yet to be resuscitated (in part because Duke University has built walls around its East Campus as did Yale University in New Haven); and although Chapel Hill has grown dramatically in the last 40 years, this growth has contracted the downtown rather than expand and mature Franklin Street in proportion to its population.

In many academic towns, the non-student resident population has sought and found their needs in shopping malls rather than at their historic geographic and commercial centers. We are at an interesting juncture to consider whether principles of new urbanism–self-contained communities in which residents live, work, shop, and find entertainment, recreation and education–have served us well, been misapplied, or whether we should rethink what it really means to have a vibrant downtown.

As it was conceived, “new urbanism” is an environmental methodology that creates a continuum of development zoning, from dense urban, to urban, to suburban, to rural, to natural. However, these zoning boundaries have been fractured to establish whole and discrete micro-communities. These self-contained and autonomous areas feel like independent towns, albeit within the legal geography of their governing district. It is extremely difficult to locate a singular, sustained pulse in our communities because we have, in fact, multiple heartbeats all over town. One challenge we face is how to reconnect with each other given this context.

Those who advocate for a more walkable community, for enhanced human interactions in designed public spaces, for cohesion among our neighborhoods, are trying to create bridges and connections among these isolated, alternative “downtowns,” which seem to discourage interlopers and resist intrusion.

Which brings us back to the central question: How can we begin to create an environment that will develop a patina? What is the role of our downtowns in locating our collective pulse so that we can age beautifully and with purpose? What other interventions can be created to bring us together and foster a shared community in which we can hear each other’s heartbeat?