On August 22, 2001, at the invitation of numerous Salem city boards and business organizations, an expert in a unique field, “The Benefits of Place,” visited our town. The man was Fred Kent, founder of New York’s Project for Public Spaces, Inc. and a world-renowned expert on design of public spaces.
Memory of his visit still lingers; his name is invoked to this day and his thoughts are still quoted, some eleven years later, by those who still imagine a better city for us to live in.
Kent’s mission is to advise communities in ways to create public areas that enhance the life of a place in dynamic, measurable ways. He maintains that the way we design our parks, public squares, main streets and transportation can absolutely impact our having a stronger economy, a more defined community identity and more meaningful interaction for residents and visitors alike.
These goals may seem like a tall order, but Kent says they can be achieved, and mostly just by honest thought and a little common sense. And, he adds, most importantly – by the ideas of members of a community itself, rather than dictates handed down by a “smart outsider.” Or the ideas of those who design buildings to look at, rather than experience.
“Mr. Kent,” says Tony Nielsen, who served on Salem’s Planning Commission at the time and who was one of the event sponsors, “believes ‘the local community is the expert’ and ‘the sooner the community becomes involved in the planning process the better.’”
So the visit by Kent was widely advertised, and all area residents were invited. Other sponsors (Salem Chamber of Commerce, Salem Parks and Recreation board, Salem Planning commission, CAN-DO Neighborhood Association, Oregon Downtown Development Association, Salem Area Mass Transit District, Willamette University, 1000 Friends of Oregon, among others) put out the word in their own circles.
Kent began that long-ago day with a community workshop held at Willamette University. He spoke about “places to meet and mingle” as essential to what makes places great.
A few of the concepts he mentioned:
- Benches, art, things to do
- Amenities and beauty
- Walkablity and safety
- Retail and service consumer niches
- Local business ownership
- Self management of the area
He highlighted how different this is from modern buildings where you can’t find the door, modern plazas where you can’t sit down, where traffic roars past, where no coffee cart is seen, where grass cannot be sat on. “Looks” are impressive in artist’s sketches, but people use places they find inviting.
Nielsen weighs in again; “Fred and… the Project for Public Spaces seemed to get it all right: streets designed for pedestrians and retail shops, interesting and inviting sidewalks and streetscapes that compel visitors and locals alike to walk a little further and explore that next block in search of that special shop or cafe’.”
After consulting with thousands of communities, it is only natural that Kent has heard objections. One of the most common is “value.” The argument is; if you make a public space “usable” aren’t you just making it attractive to loiterers and damaging to the local economy?
His reply is that economic investment in good public places returns many times more in value and local income than bad ones. When spaces are livable and inviting, people are comfortable and they return. They linger. They eat and relax. They bring friends so they can point out things that are unique to their city that they are proud of. They buy things.
One of the strongest investments a community can make is in itself, in other words, its the wise design of public spaces.
After his presentation, Kent gave participants a form and urged them to tour an area of Salem. They were challenged to discover for themselves the ways the streets they saw could be more inviting and usable. One form turned in that day mentioned thoughts that ranged from “continuous awnings” (so pedestrians wouldn’t step in and out of rain) to “get historical agency to consult on old buildings” to “fix broken tiles.”
The evening brought all the thoughts together in a meeting at the Reed Opera house. Long-term recommendations were collected, including providing handicapped access in front of the courthouse to short term ones like placing benches and tables on the east side of Liberty between Chemeketa and Court.
Fred Kent left town, but his heritage can be seen, according to Nielsen, in the suggestions he made to the Salem Transit Board and County Commissioners that the “Underutilized space on the north side of their block be used for some kind of open-air market” had some bearing on the development of a downtown open-air market. Kent would be pleased with our Wednesday Farmer’s Market.
Salem has far to go to be a livable and enticing location where neighbors and visitors return to repeatedly, brag about, and spend considerable time.
“The big one that got away,” says Nielsen, “is the community’s strong desire for a public plaza in the heart of downtown. This came out in the downtown surveys… done a few years ago. But a decade before, Kent encouraged the citizens of Salem to create a plaza that would be uniquely Salem… a place for our speeches and celebrations, a place that is fun and comfortable for people to meet and loiter.”
Neighborhood groups, city staff and local businesspeople still invoke Kent’s ideas when they work towards a better city. They bear in mind his motto:
“When we take the idea of a place, we’re actually defining the soul of a community.”