Friday, March 10, 2006

More thoughts on a town square, public space, its use, and mental mapping

The tone on this one may run too much to the academic for most tastes (mine included), but grad school habits die slowly. I'll try to infuse more juice and life into it on succeeding revisions.

I can't resist the intersection (and thus its stylistic pitfalls). After all, it's not often (what about NEVER?) my dissertation research (space in literary representation of cityscapes – from Vergil’s Troy, Rome, and Carthage to Baudleaire’s, Balzac’s, and Flaubert’s Paris, Dicken’s London, and Fuentes’ Mexico City) applies to Mountainair. The town may be a "gateway to ancient cities" (why that & not "Geronimo's raiding path"?), but that slogan is the only thing even remotely urban about it. Even the transplants gravitating here lean to the provincial (despite self-images to the contrary).

Space is space. How used and by whom shapes its nature and our perceptions of it. Urban space gets the long look because of population density - more people using it, imagining it, defining it, contesting how it should be used. Yes, small town space is qualitatively different, perhaps a liminous space between symbolically loaded spaces of city and wilderness.

Yet a number of urban design principles apply here as well. Although research and findings by urbanist William H. Whyte, architect Kevin Lynch, and the Project for Public Spaces focus on urban space, their findings also apply to a Mountainair Town Square project. Whyte's studies and work by the Project for Public Spaces offer proven techniques for measuring how people use public space, which and what kind of spaces attract users, which repel them, and which invite the most interaction among users. Armed with cameras, William H. Whyte tracked the use of small urban parks and plazas. He then mapped the specific amenities and seating available at each park and charted the patterns of use. Whyte asked:

  • Where did people sit, and what places did they avoid?
  • How were their movements affected by sun, shade, water, flowers, trees, food, and types of available seating?
  • What kinds of seating did they prefer?
  • How did use patterns change over the course of the day?
  • Did people use the space as single individuals or in groups?
  • What elements of design invite them to move into the public space?
  • What moved them to interact with others using the public space?
  • Would they move out of the path of foot traffic to conduct conversations, and if so, would they move to quieter, more out of the way spaces?
  • How did these public spaces relate to the commercial and civic buildings around them?
  • Did they have a cross-fertilizing effect, generating foot traffic and more business, which might in turn generate users of the public spaces?
  • If they were relatively unused, or used for undesirable purposes, did they cause people to stay away from the entire neighboring area?
Based on this - not to mention plain old common sense - a Town Square not only needs to be attractive and inviting but should also have scattered but ample seating - maybe even areas with tables, quiet visiting or just sitting and reading/people watching spaces, shade areas, water (so they don't leave when they get thirsty), etc.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Not Mountainair and not even New Mexico - but relevant & highly recommended

Writer John Clayton, originally from Massachusetts, now lives in a small Montana town, and writes about small town life, Western history, environment, and literature.
More articles by Clayton

Monday, March 06, 2006

What would Habermas have to say about Mountainair?

According to sociologist Jurgen Habermas, the “public sphere” is a virtual or imaginary community, not necessarily existing in space. Ideally it is "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state" (176). What would Habermas make of Mountainair?

The public sphere in Mountainair is the grapevine – rumors and all. The street and the post office constitute public space. The public library is not truly public space because a) it is closed more often than open, and b) the librarian not only holds good books and intelligent reading in low regard, but, according to some library patrons, them as well.

The Chamber of Commerce, in one of its rare bright moments, proposes sponsoring the creation of a town square by closing the block in front of the Town Hall and the Dr Saul Community Center to traffic. The street is already extra wide in this block – wider than the blocks leading into it. The space is already a town square in the imagination, just waiting to be given life.

The resulting space would then be garnished with trees and shrubs, possibly paved with locally quarried stone slabs. Voilà – public space, a town square near the village “core,” complete with trees, benches, and pushcart vendors, hopefully some provisions for shelter from the elements, shade in the summer. A call for public art by local artists comes to mind. It would also provide a central location and focus point for events. This square would also front on the library – no telling what the librarian will think of having so much public just outside the door.

Public spaces have played a fundamental role throughout history. Ever since humans first defined private spaces, public spaces have served as places where people meet, by chance or on purpose, to exchange ideas. From the ancient Greek's Agora to the Middle Ages' Commons to early 20th century American streets and parks, public spaces have been centers for free speech and public discourse.

Most discussion and writing about public space focus on urban public space, not small town public space. Historically, the public spaces of cities have been centers of diversity. Even when housing was segregated, people from every background possible met and crossed paths with one another in public spaces. City streets, parks, and public transportation were melting pots of cultural differences, places where one would encounter people who dressed and spoke differently, hear people expressing opinions that one would never hear amongst their "peers," see people engaged in activities one had never seen before. The diversity that people were exposed to in these public spaces was eye-opening, and led them to new ideas and to see beyond their insular world.

In small towns, the perception is that diversity does not exist and insularity rules. Yet, diversity does exist, albeit in a more limited form – lacking the scope of a cosmopolitan urban center. However, the tendency to insularity lurks at every turn, taking center stage in many encounters. The outside world intrudes – new people from other places move in, the Mountainair-born move away and come back, economics force residents to seek work outside town, people travel more, experiencing diversity and then bringing those experiences back with them. Finally, there is the globalizing effect of media and the internet. The “other” and other ideas are there for the surfing.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are ideas to share in Mountainair. The problem is less in the ideas than in cultivating a zone for sharing them – then facing them instead of politely ignoring them as we would political or religious views that we do not share with our neighbors. Rather, the question might be: “Is it safe to share them in a town dominated by fundamentalist churches, a library stripped – with official blessing – of the ‘wrong kind of books,’ and a population of less than 1,200?” There is no question that Mountainair would benefit from a town square, but can that precious space live up to historical traditions of agora, public forum, commons, and the participatory New England town meeting held in public space?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Part II of Perils and Pitfalls of Small Town Event Planning

Jubilee updated: the Town of Mountainair is now the “big dog” putting on Jubilee. Informal accounts suggest that the effort is already falling into the usual event pits: interminable meetings that accomplish nothing; territoriality; and so on.

Is then the Town of Mountainair getting into the event game? This past winter, the town sponsored (took over) the Christmas Crafts Fair abandoned in the snows by the Arts Council as too much to keep doing, drawing locals rather than daytripper arts spenders, and besides too craftsy - not sufficiently artsy. The town added a last minute all but impromptu parade that was small but fun – with the proverbial good time to be had by all. The same could be said of the crafts fair. Neither was well promoted or had sufficient lead time for more than the ubiquitous town flyer – still the most effective local promotion strategy as long as the print is big and the vocabulary small. I learned of them only accident and was surely not the only one. Others learned of fair and parade only afterwards. Still, the event survived because local residents wanted it. There is an important message – and clue to event viability – in that simple detail.

Although comparing events and bones could strike a dissonant chord, the analogy is more apt that not. Events become bones of contention. There will be as many dogs as there are mangers or committees within an event. Already turf wars are springing in both Arts Tour and Jubilee committees over bone management rights. So far, Sunflower is safe from these doggy conflicts, but it is early yet.

Sunflower won’t even be up for discussion until next month, at which time it may come as a surprise to some arts council members. Burying bones (secret decision making and not sharing information) in so competing dogs (other committees) can’t find them is more canine behavior that interferes with event production.

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