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.

The project desperatley needs more and broader feedback from residents and ALL potential square users - answers to questions posed above and others. A pox on public space that is an artifical construct mirrroring the desires of developers and transplants. Listen to the hard lessons of 16th century city designers who designed "ideal cities" that no one could stand living in. Public space that is more designed than organic will suffer the same fate. Planners should ask everybody - seniors, teens, children, parents, church groups, and so on as well as posting the ubiquitous flyer about town. <>Kevin Lynch on images, perceptions, and patterns of developed space is another source worth looking at. Think about how we read Mountainair, how many different readings there are, and where the readings intersect.

One of Lynch's innovations was the concept of place legibility, which is essentially the ease with which people understand the layout of a place. By introducing this idea, Lynch was able to isolate distinct features of a city, and see what specifically is making it so vibrant, and attractive to people. To understand the layout of a city, people first and foremost create a mental map. Mental maps of a city are mental representations of what the city contains, and its layout according to the individual. These mental representations, along with the actual city, contain many unique elements, which are defined by Lynch as a network of paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

  • First, paths are channels by which people move along in their travels. Examples of paths are roads, trails, and sidewalks.
  • The second element, edges, are all other lines not included in the path group. Examples of edges include walls, and seashores.
  • Next, districts are sections of the city, usually relatively substantial in size, which have an identifying character about them. A wealthy neighborhood such as Beverly Hills is one such example.
  • The fourth element, nodes, are points or strategic spots where there is an extra focus, or added concentration of city features. Prime examples of nodes include a busy intersection or a popular city center.
  • Finally, landmarks are external physical objects that act as reference points. Landmarks can be a store, mountain, school, or any other object that aids in orientation when way-finding.
Lynch, informed by an architect’s eye and sense of spatial design, gathered information about place legibility by using questionnaire surveys, interviewing, and asking residents to draw maps showing how individual respondents mentally mapped town, city, or public space. Even the most disparate collection of respondents overwhelmingly identified the same spaces as paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

A Town Square should have place legibility and be a node.
Since the square would be at periphery (even if most active corner, between town hall and post office) and not center of town core, traffic patterns, namely a relative absence of through or cross traffic, is a possible problem area. People do not go THROUGH the area on their way somewhere else. A town square is likely (we hope) to intensify use of the space: it is highly unlikely to change its pre-existing basic nature. Likewise, two block lengths on Broadway aside, Mountainair is not a foot traffic place. Public space projects, especially ones closing blocks and streets to traffic, are usually designed with purpose of increasing foot traffic.

The square should not be intimidating - too much change or the wrong kind will repel than attract visitors and traffic. The square must appeal to ALL members of the community. It should not be created as a disconnected island. Design should include features that draw visitors in from adjacent areas as well as encouraging them into other adjacent areas. While recognizing that long term planning is not within scope of present project, we do need to bear long term use in mind and not develop something that will not block long term use patterns that need to be encouraged.

Spiffing up the alley connecting area with Bank of Belen could encourage visitors to stroll over there (especially now that it will soon be the only bank in town) from the square rather than driving. However, if residents identify changes with outsider values being imposed on them, they may not use the area, no matter how aethically appealing.

Is this something the Bank might collaborate with / contribute to? The bank is close to the elementary school. Adding signage, tidying up, and implementing such beautification as is feasible (and accepted) along the alley (a natural footpath) both directions could improve flow.

"Who pays for it?" - along with what "rights" accrue as a result and psychological investment vs ownership / rights - is another subject, for anothe time.

My own mental map of Mountainair
The actual map (rather than potential, as yet unrealized one) takes me from the square to the post office, the alleyway along the side of the library also leads into the back of Jess Davidson's green space next to the Post Office (whatever it is called now) the former art alley. Anything that entices foot traffic that direction should also be encouraged. From there, it's hang a left to the main shopping area. The lot the library is on belongs to the city and includes a limited amount of open space behind the library. Planning should take that space into consideration - if only for future potential.
Now, going north, the other less cross-trafficked direction from the square - scope caveat revisited - without something traffic drawing situated at the other corners of Roosevelt and Beal, flow would tend to sputter out here, making the square more cul de sac than node. However, this street is a straight shot to the community park so street improvements, judicious development, and signage could eventually contribute to making the park less out of the way and more used.
Going south takes us past the Post Office, across Broadway, past the National Park Service center (an underused local attraction) and a popular local restaurant, the Firehouse, and, finally, to the far (garden) corner of the Shaffer. The lot between the restaurant and the Shaffer far corner is something of an eyesore, as is the Shaffer far corner with its potentially attractive but run-down and un-restored stone cabins.

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