Monday, May 2, 2011

It's Official - You can now have fun at this site

Building a sense of place can include adding features that help people interact with that place and each other. This place-making is typically the stuff of city planners working to create public spaces or designers of park sites. The places typically show off some natural or cultural feature but also further interactions.

As someone mostly involved with natural sites, I sometimes wonder how much ‘improvement’ needs to be done to an area. But I know we sometimes need to entice people to a spot by adding human-made features. Signs, benches, boardwalks, kiosks, roofs over picnic tables, foot bridges, paths, and more make an area more enticing to more people. My previous thought was ‘it’s water front, make your own fun,’ but now I realize that most ‘normal’ people are attracted to areas with some additional human-made features. I’m sure I knew that all along , I only just recently stopped to think it through.

Similarly, when I hear people complain about ‘there’s nothing to do around here,’ I’m usually tempted to tell them to lace up their hiking boots, learn some bird songs, learn some of our native plants, put on their snowshoes or XC skis, swim in the lake or river (might want to buy at least a shorty wetsuit first!), get on the bike and so on. But I realize not everyone wants to strike off on their own that way. We do need to provide easy, convenient ways for people to interact with each other and our environment (natural and human-dominated). Even in more natural settings, we need marked trails not only for safety but also to let people know it’s OK to walk through here. It’s official – you can do it. Maybe it used to be that you needed a 'No Trespassing' sign to keep you from going into an area; now we might need an 'OK to Enter' sign so that we know we can go into an area.

When I was a kid, we rode our bikes along unofficial pathways in vacant lots, finding challenging hills and turns on our own. We would not be able to do that now because of liability issues and all kinds of other things that have changed over the decades. Now we need officially designated bike parks. I'm not saying that it was better back then. Officially designated bike parks probably are better than dispersed unsafe trails. Aside from safety, there is a need for officially designated places for adults and kids to play. One cannot just tell people ‘go have fun,’ we need to help them have fun to some degree.

I’ve started working with a group that wants to establish an official walkway along a local water feature. There’s nothing to stop people from walking along that feature now, and some people do, but we can work to improve it so it isn’t muddy in parts, and, again, just to make it official so that more people will realize they can use the route. Having that officially designated, improved route will help foster appreciation for that water feature and the environment in general and will help others see that we do have a special place here.

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