This is part 1 of 5 posts documenting the Community Engagement Process for a new public space at 289 Derby. The City of Salem, Salem Public Space Project and Creative Salem welcome the community to participate in an exciting and innovative approach to placemaking. After a public process, CBA Landscape Architects of Cambridge became the primary designers with Salem Public Space Project and Creative Salem working as local leaders tasked with managing the community engagement / schematic design for the parcel.
I was surprised that, from over 50 suggestions written on the chalkboard wall, the most popular by far was: “Botanical Garden with open space for education, music, dance.” As I talked to dozens of people over the course of the first Community Design Event, and later as I sifted through all the community input, the winning idea began to make sense: people generally want some variation of “gathering” in some sort of “green space.” What type of gathering and in what kind of green space is different for different people. The desire for multiple potential activities (reflecting plural communities) is exactly what is offered by a “Botanical Garden with open space for education, music, dance.” This suggestion implies that this would be an open space for a variety of activities, surrounded by greenery that is of greater interest, and perhaps meaning, than the standard grass-and-tree landscape.
For the first event, we requested feedback to understand the values, scope, and general feel of the public space people wanted most at 289 Derby. We used a variety of engagement tactics from on-site to on-line. Over 50 people provided trackable written feedback, and over 100 attended the event, while some wrote suggestions on the chalkboard in the days leading up to the event. The information gleaned below will serve as as we move forward with the design. You can access all the data by here.
A Brief History of 289 Derby
Late last year, the City of Salem bought what has been known as “The Carnival Lot.” The City Council was persuaded to vote in favor of purchasing the lot for a new public space by countless testimonies from nearby residents, restaurant owners, and even the Chief of Police who cited improved safety: more “eyes on the park” would result from a well-used public space. Creating a new, centrally located, and iconic public space is incredibly exciting. Even more exciting is the prospect of involving the multiple communities that make the actual design.
Our Design Process for 289 Derby
In typical park design, the larger community gets involved only after a couple plan options have already been developed with primary stakeholders. At 289 Derby, the process is turned on its head: we are outside and open to the boundless – sometimes silly, often thoughtful – suggestions of the myriad people walking on Derby Street.
Our first event – Dance & Design at 289 Derby – featured four local dance groups that danced and made music in different locations. First, kids danced with Thrance as adults watched; then everyone drummed in a circle right on the edge of the water and watched African dancing; we then watched Sarah Slifer Swift engage the entire space through bold movements; we finally ended with a fun and frenzied Scottish jig.
We were so happy to showcase talented local artists engaging people in dance across ages and genres: Thrance, Greg Coles Dance and Drum, Sarah Slifer Swift, and the Scottish Dancers around Salem since 1974! Their participation strongly suggests their desire to help produce spaces for community and creativity – they all agreed to participate with short notice and a bare-bones infrastructure. Each performance transformed the space. They helped us imagine. At the end of the evening, we unanimously voted for a dance and performance space right on the water.
While some people danced, many more watched. The seemingly small infill plot of land seemed much larger when people walked around its extents. On two occasions we counted over 65 people, but we aren’t entirely sure how many came. We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to come for five minutes or stay for a couple hours; we wanted them to engage on their own terms, in their own way. We collected postcards, votes on favorite images and chalkboard suggestions, and provided input on the “Doors of Engagement.”
During the event, Clara Batchelor and DJ Chagnon of CBA Landscape Architects noticed that “The most common adjectives that came across from talking to people looking at precedent pictures for the space at 289 Derby were shade, soft, and green. People often pointed to pictures and said, “I like the trees.” or “I like the shade (from the tree).” Many people also liked pictures of lawn or pictures that had areas that were densely planted.” People’s actions seemed to align with these comments: before the dancing began, most people gathered on the north-west corner under the shade cast by a sidewalk tree. The space is surrounded by mainly concrete. Generally, people rested or walked along the edges, staying away from the broad, shadeless middle. Kids fully took over the stumps arranged in circles and semicircles showing that for the young, a playground is much more expansive than the typical plastic stock.
If you came to the event, or even happened to see 289 Derby, you will notice that it has already been a little transformed. We transformed the lot through temporary means with the help of numerous people over the course of 10 frenzied days. Read on for a short description of what it took!
Public Art Planner Deborah Greel helped us get the Mural Slam 2016 artworks from Artists’ Row to the lot: it was a synchronistic moment since they needed to come down and make way for Mural Slam 2017 happening June 3-4 for this year’s Salem Arts Festival. Tim Clarke, who owns the masonry building adjacent to the lot organized for his crew to put up the mural panels. Waters and Brown donated paint and helped in myriad ways. The City of Salem leveled the lot, brought in almost 40 stumps harvested from dying trees, brought in tables and chairs, and so much more. The kids from Plummer Youth Promise helped paint the stumps, doors, and chalkboard stencils. Tim Haigh of Bambolina helped erect our two engagement walls. A community member dropped off more paint. The Electrical Department hooked up the electricity for music, and helped upcycle the pinwheels from last year’s Move With Me community art project. Just an hour before the event, Jason Rice of Zybodrone wandered onto the lot as we were setting up and asked if he could film the event with his drone, which he did! A family with their kids came to paint the remaining stumps. We have met so many people during the site preparations. This sort of spontaneous interactions are critical to including people in the planning of 289 Derby, and generally opening up the planning process.
With almost 50 responses to our space survey online and on-site, and over a hundred people coming out for the first event, we are so grateful to everyone who participated! Meet&Share at 289 Derby, from 5-7pm on Wedensday May 31 will feature a round-table discussion of all the input from the first event and the priorities of local residents, restaurants, and organizations. Please join!