Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A place of recreational boating

I thought I had seen recreational boating before. But I'd not seen anything like the inland waterway in northern Michigan. That's a place of recreational boating.

This past Sunday we rented a pontoon boat at Indian River Marina and boated through the inland waterway (http://www.irchamber.com/inlandwaterway.htm). It was wonderful. The waterway consists of a series of lakes connected by rivers. The Native Americans used it to get from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. In the late 1800s, commercial steamers carried passengers, mail and freight through the waterway from Crooked Lake to Lake Huron. Railroads proved to be the less expensive alternative and the commercial traffic on the waterway ceased. But then the tourists arrived. Now hundreds of boats traverse the waterway each summer weekend (and I'm sure plenty on the weekdays, too), bringing a wealth of tourist dollars to the communities along the waterway.

The waterway makes for a very enjoyable day of boating. Where the river goes through towns (such as Indian River and Alanson), one can view the cottage lifestyle. And what a lifestyle it appears to be from one who doesn’t have quite that leisurely of summers. The river is lined with many well-kept cottages/houses (along with the sheet piling on the shorelines), but the majority of the river system is natural habitat. It appears to be in pretty good shape, but I understand that zebra mussels have moved into the lakes. From the freeway overpass, I had seen a profusion of purple loosestrife in years past, but I did not see so much this year. Perhaps some beetles had been released there.

Based on my limited experience in the area, the inland waterway seems to be one of those natural features (ammended with some dredging)that’s turned into a prime tourist destination. The small swing-span bridge that let boats traverse the low clearance of a residential street represents an investment by the town of Alanson in the waterway. Perhaps in recognition of the importance of the waterway to the tourist economy, Tuscarora Township (Indian River area) has proposed a millage for the Veteran’s Pier project.

I don't know how much the area promotes the waterway. Maybe it doesn't need much promotion because everyone seems to know of it already. It's been a tourist destination for decades. One change over the years is the decrease in squirt gun activity between boats. One must now know that the other boat is willing to engage in consensual water play before firing. We wouldn't want the ever present cell phones to be at risk.

Not all communities have a built-in attraction of this kind. but the ones along the inland waterway have learned to take advantage of it. I think our community of Sault Sainte Marie could learn a little more about pleasure boating as an industrial cluster.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Recess For All

I’m always happy to see kids playing outside at recess when I go past a grade school, especially if they are in unstructured play. I’m a bit surprised school districts still do recess, since there is no Standardized Test for Recess Skills and no alarm going out that we’re in danger of losing out to other countries in Recess Innovations. I’m glad that school districts recognize that kids need to burn off their excess energy, they need to let their mind wander, they need a time for play, they need a time where they get to make some of the rules.

But it’s not just kids that need recess. So do you adults. Psychologists warn us that we cannot keep our focus for hour after hour at work. We need breaks. We need to stop taking lunch at our desks. We need to get up and move, get up and let our mind appropriately wander on a break (so it doesn’t at work).

When city planners are thinking of placemaking, they can think of recess for adults. What kind of places could there be near offices and other work locations so that workers could take a quick walk? Or a place to take their lunch? Ideally, such places would be tied to the unique and special features of the place – a view of the river, a park with a native plants garden, a historical or cultural feature – and would offer a chance for people to interact with each other and the place.

Recess is a spontaneous break in the day. No special planning is required. We need places for that. In grade school, we also took field trips (do they still do that?). Field trips require a bit more planning, they need to be scheduled and perhaps require some special gear. By analogy, places for ‘field trip for adults and families’ are where one could, say, go kayaking in the river or riding a bike along the river right in town after work or for a few hours on a weekend (i.e., without taking up the whole day). Adults need to remember how field trips made a nice break in the school routine (and a good way to learn something new) and plan some field trips for themselves for just a few hours. Otherwise, we put off our fun for a major vacation that may or may not happen and we don’t get to know our place as well as we should.

Yes, take the great vacation to some other place, learn about the world outside your place, but don’t forget to go on recess and field trips in your own place.

Buying Fun
When I see the commercials for resorts, cruises, theme parks and other components of the vacation industry, I can’t help but wonder whether we’ve gotten to the point that we pay others to do so much for us that we also must pay others to make us have fun. Can placemaking be about do-it-yourself, everyday fun? Can we make family memories inexpensively, right in our own place?

Monday, July 19, 2010

It’s the kind of place where people pick wild blueberries

This past weekend was our annual foray into the woods to pick wild blueberries. The season was earlier than usual but the crop was excellent. Plenty of berries in nice clusters that make for easier picking. It’s a family tradition for us as well as many other families in this area. Everyone has their favorite spot.

It made for a very enjoyable few hours. It’s always nice to be in the woods, but this past Saturday afternoon was especially nice. It was warm enough, but not too warm to be comfortable in long sleeves and pants. The cool, dry breeze kept the bugs off for the most part (but it wouldn’t be a visit the UP woods without a few bites).

It’s also one of those nice activities that lets your mind wander. I began to wonder why it is so nice to go pick blueberries. It’d be much easier, and cheaper to buy them from someone who collects and sells them, especially when you factor in travel costs (we drove about 40 miles round trip) and the time that could be ‘billable time’ to a project (2 hours by two professional types…). So according to the economists, there must be some utility we derive from picking them ourselves. I guess there’s just something about going out and getting them yourself. Part of the fun is finding just the right patches within our usual spot. Part of it is that it is an annual tradition.

And maybe it’s the fact that we live somewhere where berry picking is a thing people do. We’ve lived in places where one cannot do such things, so we appreciate the fact that it’s there and we’d do well to take advantage of that opportunity.

And maybe it’s the chance to do some daydreaming (I had mages of Native Americans picking berries to make into pemmican to sustain them through the winter). Or maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing a big bucket of berries that and anticipating the pies, muffins, pancakes, jelly and more to come throughout the following months until we’re out picking again next year.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's a place where people...

In thinking about sense of place, it occurs to me that one can sum up the sense of a place by filling in the statement “This is a place where people…”

For example, I spent the previous weekend in the Kansas City area, where I grew up. We crossed town to make the lunch pilgrimage to the original Arthur Bryant’s. We had an errand to run in Swope Park, we had dinner at a Mexican Restaurant on SW Blvd, we did the Boulevard Brewery Tour. We drove by the Plaza but did not stop. We took the obligatory drive down Ward Parkway. But most of the time we were in the Shawnee Mission area.

Shawnee Mission is a sprawl-o-topia. Some of the major street intersections would be indistinguishable from an intersection in a suburb of Dallas, Denver, or Detroit, especially south of 87th. But the merged towns of Shawnee, Overland Park, Lenexa, and others, have retained some of their original character in their ‘old’ downtown areas. And it is a place where people , well, for one example, encounter history every day.

The name originates from the Methodist Mission to the Shawnee Indians. The Mission is a historical site with the building and surrounding grounds open as a park. Sante Fe Blvd tracks the route of the Sante Fe trail and a number of signs designate sites of several trails that originated in what is now the metro area. Other historical sites in the metro area include Loose Park in Kansas City, Missouri, the site of the Civil War Battle of Westport and interpretive signs tell the story (we visited there, too). I’d be curious, though, to ask how many people know the history. A place where people _can_ encounter history is not the same as a place where people do encounter history. As people zoom about on the freeways each day (and residents of a sprawling city, they surely do), they should be thinking of the traffic and not the history the freeway paved over. In our small town of Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, it’s easier to notice the history.

Like many suburbs, in the Shawnee Mission neighborhoods, people can go out for a walk or jog in the morning and greet any number of neighbors. And it’s a place where people do greet each other in such encounters. I had the pleasure of running with my brother around the 1,000m pathway at a local park. Some clever park designer provided this nice, convenient way of running an exact distance around a nice park with just enough topography and views to keep it from seeming like a running track. It made for a nice run.

A Suburban/Rural Contrast
I also had a nice run yesterday, but in a contrasting site. As I ran the country roads adjacent to our home, I saw a kestrel trying to make headway in a breeze, I flushed a mamma grouse and her 6 chicks from their roadside hiding spot, and I saw a coyote amble across a field (luckily for the chicks, about ½ mile away heading in the opposite direction, for now anyway). But I didn’t see any neighbors. Not better, just different.

I’d like to hear about your places. Fill in the blank. “It’s a place where people…”

Suburban History?
Recently in the town of Overland Park, Kansas, a local fixture of a motel closed shop. It’s large sign, which predated sign code but was grandfathered in, was just moved from the site of the motel to the local history museum.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bye or cell?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hike along about a mile of northern Lake Huron shoreline. I thoroughly enjoyed scrambling over the limestone cobble and boulders, noticing the plants I knew, but mainly looking for plants I didn’t know so I could learn them. I was just west of Cedarville, where the shoreline offers views of open Lake Huron but with the added visual interest of inlets and peninsulas and small islands.

I had my cell phone with me and did conduct a few brief business calls as I hiked. Cell phone? On a hike on Lake Huron shores? If I were to observe someone else doing that, I’d think ‘leave the cell phone at home, enjoy your hike!’ But it occurred to me that having my cell phone and being able to conduct those few, brief business calls is what made it possible for me to take the hour or so to do the hike (the hike was worked in between some other business I had in the area.)

So here’s my rationale (rationalization?). Let me know if it makes sense. If the cell phone makes it possible for you to be out there, take it along, but make sure it’s for brief, necessary calls (or to share your sense of wonder with someone you otherwise would have liked to have with you). If you can take the day off of business, by all means do so and clear your mind. Be sure to have some days like that. But if the choice is cell phone vs. not going, take the cell phone with you for a few, brief calls but keep the focus of your hike on where you are, not on the phone call. How’s that for a compromise between being connected and being in nature?

(I know of some lodge that use the fact that they are out of cell phone reach as a selling point for people to vacation there.)