I designed this experience in response to the particular circumstances of this site in Providence. However, the larger idea of an immersive experience with images and sounds, and possibly other sensory stimuli, are a design move past collections of photos, renderings mounted on boards, and meetings with expert speakers. The idea that everyone involved can experience a quiet moment to reflect on and imagine the rich possibilities inherent in a space and then come together to discuss the realities of that situation is what I am promoting.
It is in this spirit that I find a sort of fractal-like analogy between public space, and the public debate over how public spaces should be created in our cities. As Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the The New York Times says, “Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable. The public square has always been synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state.” (1) He goes on to discuss the importance of the agora, or main civic gathering place, where business, politics, religion, art, and discourse about all of the above mingled at the height of Athens. Public space is a place for people to engage with each other, as individuals, and with the state, as citizens. It is a place for the exchange of ideas and visions for the future of the state.
Just as good public spaces can support civic (and civil) discourse, ideological debate, and collective imaginings of the future, the public meetings held to design these places should do the same. Unfortunately, these meetings are known for being boring, contentious, and rife with special interest advocates who use the time to grandstand about their own causes, rather than the collective issues on the table.
I propose that a visioning tool like the one I have designed is something that can be a catalyst for better relationships throughout these processes, especially with community-led projects. The tool can be a touchstone that brings people back to the collective vision when the complexities of the process become overwhelming.
An excellent model of a citizen-initiated public project, powered by imagination and collective vision, is that of the Highline. Joshua David and Robert Hammond met at a community board meeting where the proposed demolition of the Highline was on the agenda. When they realized they had a mutual interest in preserving the structure, they teamed up and formed the non-profit Friends of the Highline. They speak eloquently about the importance of vision in a video interview in Interview Magazine (2). David says:
“One of the really special things about The Highline is that it really is a project that came out of the community. Robert and I are both community residents; we came to the project because it was a piece of our neighborhood that we thought was an important piece of our neighborhood and we wanted to see it both preserved and used in an exciting new way in the future. And then other neighbors, other friends, other business owners, the art gallery community of this neighborhood, the business community, architects, preservationists - all from around here - began to rally around the project....The thing that really carried the Highline forward was the vision of it, and it was a vision that Robert and I had at the beginning, but we were also able to present it to people so it became their vision.”
Hammond goes on to sum up:
“I think the most important thing we did was raise the flag and allow other people to come along and help us get it done. That’s what I hope the enduring legacy of the Highline is: to inspire other people that they can start these kind of projects that might seem completely crazy, they might not know how they’re gonna get them done, they don’t have the money to do them. But there’s that power in starting something.”
Why does this matter? Providence is rebranding itself as the Creative Capital. A project that reimagines existing infrastructure would be a very creative undertaking using the city itself as material. It would make the city more attractive to employers and employees by demonstrating that quality of life and modernization matter to the political leadership. Using a method like the one I am advocating, which involves community visioning and creative engagement would make the project that much richer and unique. The involvement of the community creates pride in new projects, and in the city itself.
A project and process like this announces that Providence is new, relevant, and open for business. It is a continuation of the work that was done opening up the river to create Waterfire Park, and making Memorial Boulevard accessible to pedestrians. Many cities around the country are reevaluating the future of their deteriorating infrastruction. Repair? Rebuild? Reimagine? Remove? Providence could be at the forefront of that debate, generating a great case study.
Providence is already undertaking projects that relate directly to this. The debate around the 6/10 connector is geographically and conceptually related to the idea of reimagining the space under the interchange. Massive renovations are already underway on I-95, with the Southbound viaduct complete, and the Northbound viaduct about to be rebuilt. New concepts for finishing the space below could be incorporated for a fraction of the cost of the overall reconstruction.
Cities tend to be reactive and move incrementally. Crises demand immediate attention, and problems are patched. This results in a patchwork of solutions, an unreliable way at best to maintain a city. Advanced planning and imaginative solutions would have exponential benefits that project far into the future, rather than just addressing immediate issues. I’m suggesting something that is not a fix for a city; there’s nothing technically wrong. But there is an opportunity to make things better and promote growth.
Using an immersive visioning tool like the one I have designed could bridge gaps and start conversations among disparate policy makers, government workers, community members, developers, designers, and other stakeholders who might not otherwise communicate. It could help build new relationships that support future projects. The time, attention, and space that this revisioning booth provides is a good step towards more connected and invested stakeholders.
- Kimmelman, Michael. “The Craving for Public Squares.” The New York Review. April 7, 2016 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/04/07/craving-for-public-squares/
“Joshua David and Robert Hammond: Friends of the Highline.” Interview Magazine. Published January 15, 2011.