The Micro City Beautiful: Programming Drives Investment (Part 2)

Yesterday, today and tomorrow will feature the work of Barett Steenrod, recent graduate from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and College of Landscape Architecture. This year I have had the opportunity to get to know Barett and have been quite impressed with his work, particularly his research into my hometown of Brainerd, MN. For anyone looking to hire a bright young planner who has some wordly experience to go with a quality education, you can check out Barett on his website or meet him on LinkedIn.

-Chuck Marohn

People are found where a place is interesting and relevant.  Just as a speech, article, or blogpost must be interesting as well as relevant in order to find and retain a captive audience, so too must the spaces and places we create.  If a place lacks relevance or interest, it will be a place that lacks the power to draw people to it.  Places are most successful when they are planned, designed, and built with a program in mind that will be as interesting to people as it is relevant.  The importance of a program with wide appeal cannot be understated in revitalization, which is why today I am going to explain how the application of programs within targeted areas of downtown Brainerd can begin to initiate revitalization.

In 1989, Brainerd was the recipient of an American Institute of Architect’s Rural/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT).  At that time, the team identified a 25% oversupply of parking within the entire downtown.  Of the 520 stalls needed to supply demand to existing businesses and government offices, there were found to be 650 stalls available.  In my analysis of the northwest portion of downtown where my project was sited, I counted a supply of about 1,300 parking stalls, of which around 1,200 spaces are off-street.  In 1989 the perception among residents was that there was insufficient parking space downtown; today that perception remains according to City Planner Mark Ostgarden.

There are two likely ways many of you might treat the amount of land in Brainerd dedicated to parking- as either as asset or as a liability.  I believe the answer depends on ones’ mindset, and instead take the position that the six acres of land (not including driving lanes) these parking stalls represent is not an either/or proposition but an opportunity.  They are an asset from the standpoint of being areas with good drainage, controlled access, and supportive of just about any load you can bring to bear.  They represent an investment that should provide a return.  They are a liability from the standpoint that they only serve one kind of active use of the land, are not destinations in and of themselves, they are not something of beauty, and the help contribute to a harsh downtown climate in summer and a harsh climate in the Mississippi River after snow melts or rain falls.  These parking stalls constitute an opportunity in that they literally represent a place where government, a business, or a citizen to try something risky, innovative, or entrepreneurial with how civic space is defined and used in a community. 

In a theatre, the stage exists to put on a show.  A stage is where the action happens, it is where the sets get built, and it is notorious for being able to host a variety of very different scenes with ease.  In fact, the infrastructure under, over and around a stage exists to support the programs that happen upon it.  In the same way, the parking lots and underutilized streets of micro cities can be thought of as stages.  They are built to host one type of programming, the safe and efficient movement and storage of 5,000 pound objects, but they can also just as easily be repurposed to host other programs.

(Note- these pictures were found from around the web and are not my creation.) 

In the collage of photos above, you’ll notice that despite the many types of activities that are happening, they all share some similarities.  Each activity takes place in a street or a parking lot; the amount of planning needed to make each of the above programs happen will vary, but ultimately involves volunteerism and collaboration to happen.  In some instances, one person working solo can bring an event to fruition.  In other instances, many people working together will bring an event to reality.  Some events will require coordination with the city and adjacent businesses, some will not.  Most likely in all of these events, people with very different ideas of philosophy, politics, or economics can find ways to work together to make an event a success.  Even if a group of people have sincerely held legitimate differences based on ideology, they should still be able to work together for the purpose of creating something that is fun and independent of ideology.  Someone who is left-of-left politically may find it hard to agree with someone who is right-of-right, but if these two people are paired together as volunteers to insure the success of the registration table at their community’s First Annual Gus Macker Tournament, as mature adults, they should be able to work together successfully.  I believe this because each person will understand that the outcome of the event depends on their willingness to put the success of the event ahead of personal grievances over ideology.  The power of creating programs and events in one’s community is that the collaboration that is required of individuals by the event serves as the basis for helping a community grow its social network.  The stronger the social network of a community, the easier it becomes for a community to cast a vision for itself and then go and make the vision a reality.

Today, we have identified assets and potential assets.  We have seen the importance of using program to both create relevant and interesting purpose within the assets we have identified as well as shown how the creation of programming through events can grow the social network of a community.  I have not specifically talked about quality of life, but hopefully you see how the process of bringing programming to assets as well as potential assets, begins to address quality of life issues.  Tomorrow, I will walk you through the phasing proposals I have developed for Brainerd that are based on what we have covered today.  It is within the phasing strategy that I will also cover how and when infrastructure improvements are justified.