“Kennett Square has some really great fabric—on State Street and also in its neighborhoods,” Detroit-based architect and urban designer Marques King told the audience with a smile during his KSQ Speaker Series presentation in November. The kind of “fabric” he refers to includes historic buildings that have been adapted to different uses over time, a densely built core that makes the town walkable, and a strong street grid with alleys.

These are some of the characteristics that both longtime and newer residents most often mention when they describe what they love about Kennett Square, says Kennett Collaborative Executive Director Bo Wright. “Almost everyone we’ve talked to—in discussions sparked by the KSQ Speaker Series and in meetings about economic development in Kennett—agrees that the human scale and the beautiful aesthetic of the historic town are what they want to preserve. They also see that these elements are all but lost in many newer developments. In discussions about proposed new buildings I often hear the question, “But what will it looklike?” That’s a very important question.”

Form before Function—A Strong Idea to Guide Kennett in Building New Buildings People Love that Will Also Stand the Test of Time

In his presentation entitled “Getting Out of the Comfort Zone’: Why Sustainable Places Need Flexible and Adaptable Zoning Ordinances,” King explained the concept of ‘form before function,’ or ‘form over use’—the idea that form should dictate the design of a building instead of use. “The concept of form before use is a strong idea, because it puts the horse before the cart in the sense that it asks us to consider what kind of design aesthetic we want first, before addressing the specific uses of buildings, which are going to change over time,” says Wright. “When a municipality adopts strong architectural standards, the concerns about look and feel and scale are addressed. Marques showed us examples from other places that should encourage and inspire us to reconsider how we’re zoning, building, and approaching development in general.”

King showed a series of images that clearly illustrate this concept of form over use show two examples each of a Waffle House, a Target, and a pizza place—the first in their typical habitats of mostly empty parking lots, and the second integrated into existing facades in attractive, walkable streetscapes. “The first way is easier, but everyone would rather be in the second, and these are buildings that have been adapted and can be adapted again.” Beyond aesthetic, there’s an environmental component to form over use, too. The greenest building, King reminded the audience, is the one that already exists. “We can build this way,” he says. [include pizza place slide as illustration?]

King also highlighted Rome as an example of an ancient place and a modern city that’s a testament to form over function. “In Roman design, the experience of space is paramount. The uses of Rome’s buildings have changed many times over the centuries, but you wouldn’t know it. And State Street in Kennett Square exemplifies that too, providing places for people that have changed and adapted over time while maintaining the form of the historic streetscape.” It’s not the historic character per se that makes a city like Rome—or a town like Kennett Square—timeless. Rather, it’s the aesthetic of space and form and the fact that the buildings have been allowed to adapt to new uses behind their beautiful and human-scale facades. This perspective of history also offers a helpful corrective to the hubris of large building complexes built all at once for a single purpose. The pandemic is a classic example of how uses change all the time, King says.

On the other hand, zoning for use over form has resulted in places that are segregated, disjointed, and sprawling; economically inefficient; built for machines rather than humans; and placeless and time-sensitive. “We only have to look to the shopping centers and medical complexes on the outskirts of most American towns and cities to see this,” Wright says. “Most Americans need a car to access essential services.” Many longtime Kennett Square residents fondly remember being able to walk to a department or grocery store or a doctor’s appointment. The connection to land preservation is important, too. When towns thoughtfully determine a responsible level of density for their context, King says, the resulting built environment is better for people and allows more open space to be preserved.

It’s also important to acknowledge, King says, that much of what we take for granted in our current approach to zoning—regulating what land can be used for, who can occupy it, and who has access to it, for example—is deeply rooted in racial segregation. Understanding and learning from these historic foundations enables the contextualization and re-examination of these past decisions.

During his visit to Kennett Square, King was particularly taken with the use and the potential of neighborhoods like East Linden Street. “Not only did I enjoy speaking with the townsmen and townswomen, but I enjoyed simply being in the Borough itself,” King says. “Kennett Square is a very likeable place with a lot of history and character to hold on to. I would encourage people here to lean into the opportunities for affordable housing, quality places to live, and the stabilizing economic dynamic that Kennett Square’s alleys offer, and to allow for flexibility in use.”

Who can be a developer?

This kind of diversity of building projects would also create opportunities for a diversity of developers. “Making clear what can and can’t be developed allows for others—not just those with a lot of wealth or access to wealth—to become developers,” says Wright.

Developers are not just people who build high-rise towers or large-scale projects, says King. He prefers a loose definition of the word ‘developer’ to include, for example, any property owner who wants to build an ADU (accessory dwelling unit, or a secondary housing unit on a single-family residential lot). A farming metaphor illustrates the value that small-scale resident developers bring to a place. “When you care about a place, you want to cultivate and invest in it,” he says. “People think differently about a place and how they develop it when they live there or spend a lot of time there.” It’s often the absent landowners who build major apartment complexes that give smaller developers a bad name, he says.

 

While King doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of development at any scale, he does emphasize the importance of the goal of this kind of small- to medium-scale development—to fortify and improve communities and neighborhoods.

Civic Participation Is Key

Longtime Kennett Square resident Linda McKinstry, who is part of the How We Build Matters discussion group, appreciates that King presented “a new way of looking at community development.” As a member of the How We Build Matters discussion group, McKinstry understands the value of learning about how these processes work and being part of the conversations that promote change. “The absence of civic participation means others decide for you what will be,” she says.

Several Kennett residents who are part of the How We Build Matters discussion group also find the ideas of King, as well as those of Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn, who will be the speaker at the next KSQ Speaker Series event in January, compelling. They have been asking  questions like: What are the barriers that keep communities from moving towards the models that King and Marohn propose and from adopting their approach to building to consider form over use? Is it possible to have community-driven initiatives (like Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont)? Or, is endorsement and support from local, county, and state officials required? And given that there are individual initiatives by local community groups to address the affordable/attainable housing imbalance (e.g., Kennett Friends Meeting, Phoenixville Affordable Housing Task Force, Church Farm Corporation, Westminster Presbyterian Church), what should be considered as far as developing a coalition of public-private partnerships to leverage these initiatives into something a bit more formal, with ongoing funding support, to bring about desired changes in zoning, codes, ordinances, etc. in order to build these types of communities?

These are exactly the kinds of discussions that Kennett Collaborative’s KSQ Speaker Series: How We Build Matters is designed to spark, says Wright. “A great next step in addressing these excellent but complicated questions is to watch the first two presentations in the series and to plan to attend the next event on January 18th,” says Wright. “The more community engagement we have, the better equipped we’ll be as a community to build a more beautiful and welcoming community where all can belong and prosper.”

You can find the video of Marques King’s presentation here and Bo Wright’s introduction to the KSQ Speaker Series here.

Click here to RSVP for the KSQ Speaker Series: How We Build Matters event on January 18th with Charles Marohn, Jr., Founder and President of Strong Towns, a nationally recognized movement to build strong and resilient communities. Marohn will talk about how, with a different approach, any community can spend less and provide transportation systems that make their residents safer, healthier, and more prosperous. The in-person event will be interpreted in Spanish and will also be livestreamed.