Framing Lafayette Park
On a Saturday morning in late October, a couple friends and I hung five picture frames from trees in Lafayette Park. The bright, orange frames seemed to signal the high tourist season for Salem, with Halloween just days away.
Lafayette Park is not on the tourist circuit, however. The park and its dominating feature, a granite, obelisk-like monument, do not feature on Salem postcards. The frames prompt passer-byers to take a closer look at the park and perhaps even take a photo – of friends or the framed view – of a place with few “photo opps.”
Booklets, hung just below the frames, say “Cheese!” and offer a space to comment on what this green space might be with the prompt: “I imagine this park could be…” Could the frames engage people in such a way that they might re-imagine the park?
The frames and booklets were up for just over 24 hours; I removed them due to the high winds produced by Hurricane Sandy. In the short time they were installed, many comments were made and people imagined the park could be a variety of things from the practical – “cleaner and drug-free” – to the seemingly improbable – “a museum.” Some of the frames were placed “inside” the greenery of the park to entice people to cross the apparent edge posed by the sidewalk. The number of comments by each frame shows that most comments were in fact made along the sidewalk where most people already walk, especially to the bus stop.
Casual discussions with Salem residents imply that few people imagine a great future for the park. Lafayette Park, a ten minute walk north from my house in Salem MA is an example of a space with a bad reputation. William Legault, a long-time resident of Salem and contributor to the Salem Patch, has the park at number two on his list of the “five things that [he finds] to be dragging Salem down,” mainly due to the people, who are
spoiling this park on a daily basis have no real interest in being helped. I know most of them by name. They don’t want work, and they don’t want services. They want money to drink.
While some of these characterizations have some basis in real occurrences, their proliferation create an overall negative image that inhibits other views of the park and makes it difficult to imagine improvements. From 40 comments gathered during the project, five stated not what the park “could be,” but what the park is currently perceived to be with such remarks as: “a place that I don’t walk around” and “a good drug spot.” What could make people see beyond a space’s established image towards new possibilities?
A couple summers ago, I did some simple photo surveys at the weekly farmers’ market: I asked people if they could recognize photos of public spaces in their small city. Many participants mistook the image of Lafayette Park, known to denizens as bum-park and hobo-ville, for the Salem Common, an open green space that fronts some of the best real estate in town. While Lafayette Park looks “beautiful,” it’s negative image inhibits future prospects, despite big changes in its immediate surroundings. This shows that seeing something with fresh eyes can bring a new perspective untethered to old conceptions.
Getting to know a space requires time, an open mind, and the suspension of previously held beliefs regarding the character of the space. While some spaces are literally unknown to many due to geographic seclusion, many more are branded by commonly held images that prevent other interpretations in the present, or the imagining of possible transformations in the future.
Framing Lafayette Park began a dialogue with the people who use the park or simply cross it on their way to other destinations. The project introduced a new element into the space that prompted people to look at the space with fresh eyes. The next step in the budding dialogue would include the incorporation of some of the comments into new questions for the park users to answer.
Lessons Learned: Dynamic Participation and Actions in Public Space
In exploring the initial question, ( How does a design professional engage people to participate in the development of neighborhood public spaces in such a way that they see those spaces as an integral and ongoing part of their daily lives?), I find that the first step requires people to look at a particular space with fresh eyes. The second step requires thedynamic participation of the resident with the space through certain actions.
Dynamic Participation is facilitated by Actions in Public Space.
Actions in Public Space are objects and/or events offered in a public space to facilitate unexpected and unaccustomed interactions and “fresh eye” observations from users; actions stimulate a response.
Dynamic Participation is the on-site engagement with the users of a space in an effort to research, sustain, or improve that space. Good dynamic participation includes the following three procedures:
A. Participation should be for all public spaces in a neighborhood and not just for “exciting landmark projects.”
B. Participation should be a sustained effort over time and not just for a specific time frame.
C. Participation should happen on site as a complement to official community center rooms.
As I have reflected over the two projects described above, I can pose the following hypothesis which I will continue to test with projects on site. The preliminary engagement between the users and the space has several advantages over the typical community meetings used to discuss particular space problems at a removed location:
Open Engagement: The engagement begins an open-ended dialogue between the users and the facilitators. At the beginning, there is no agenda other than to get to know the space in question. This is an advantage to the current practice of targeting a particular space for a particular problem or pre-determined project, which can overlook some of the good currently on site, as well as other more subtle and complex problems.
Local Participation: Since the engagement is to happen on the specific site in question, this ensures local people in the immediate surroundings have the best opportunity for engagement, even if they are unaccustomed to or don’t have time to attend community meetings.
Personal Observations: People are prompted to reflect on the space with the opportunity for personal observation in their own time. Personal Observation is more difficult in the community room setting where, even if models and plans are employed, the engagement between the space and the individual are abstract; if the individual has been to the space, the engagement is still removed as it is not immediate and based on remembrances. If the person does know the space well, then memory probably serves him well, but he/she does not have the advantage of perhaps looking at the space with fresh eyes, which would be prompted by a foreign object or situation, if on site. This is not to imply that the current method of practice for the transformation of a space through information gathering and remote participation does not have it merits, it certainly does, as it is often organized and focused. More spontaneous, individual participatory process would complement the current process.
Sustained Exploration: People might be prompted to walk over to other close public spaces and begin to see them as part of the system of public spaces that make up the neighborhood.