Thursday, April 10, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 10

Returning to Maine from London where I had studied at the Architectural Association, we settled in Camden where my first son was born in 1995. Camden is an idyllic small town with a thriving Main street and cozy harbor. In Camden the kids walked to school for the most part and then downtown and to the Y and bagel shop. Parents could let them get there by themselves. Children could walk out the door in the morning and go to school, hang out after, go to swimming lessons, etc. all downtown and walk home for supper. Then I saw they were going to build the new high school 3 miles out of town. Now everyone was going to bussed to everything.

Here is the first half of the article 'A Sense of Place' as published in spring of 1997:

It's three o'clock in the afternoon and Camden's village center is full of kids. The library, the parks, the churches, the YMCA - institutions all clustered in the village center - begin to fulfill their roles as stages for the next generation's concept of who they are - where they're from.
Each morning, children clamber onto bicycles or walk the short distance to school, which is centrally located. Buses reach out to gather those living on the periphery. This ritual, repeated over and over, becomes one of the strongest identity factors in each child's life: ``I am from here; this is my street; this is my path to school; this is my town; this is my place to play hackysack.'' Although we live in the information age, some things, like our senses, never change.
When it came time to expand Camden's library, the town didn't think, ``Hmmm, let's sell this old landmark and build a new library on a greenfield site a couple of miles from downtown, where square footage costs will be low and vehicle circulation will be optimal and there will be plenty of parking.''
No, the thinking went more like, ``How can we add the space and preserve the character and enjoyable space outside as it relates to the town as a whole?'' Priority was given to strengthening the quality of the village concept. This respect and commitment to the idea of village was so strong that the new library wing is actually underground.
Now Camden and its surrounding towns are going to build a new regional high school on a greenfield site three miles from downtown. It will be a wonderful school and everyone is very excited about it. Many of our new schools around the state are being built at similar locations. This is logical, given the need for a large building, for large amounts of land for athletic fields and for easy access for buses, which will be necessary for transporting so many kids who used to walk to school.
But it occurred to me that something precious will be lost. And will continue to be lost unless we put our heads together and come up with some solutions.
On the one hand, each new facility built on an open site on the outskirts of town will function very efficiently, with one building, ball fields and bus traffic all taken care of.
On the other hand, the car appears to have won. Traffic engineering would appear to be the most important factor, along with square-foot costs, in deciding where to build a school. Almost all the kids attending the school will be bused in, or will arrive by private automobile. The same criteria that govern the building of suburban malls by private developers appear to have been applied here. No more stepping out of the classroom and into the town square; the kids will line up at the curb waiting for rides home.
BASED PURELY on the numbers, the greatest need in planning a new school is classroom space, followed by athletic fields and traffic. The classroom space can be easily accommodated in any town, if the state would support efforts to keep our kids in the town center and therefore strengthen our town identities. As for the athletic fields, they can be located at various places and used by everyone. Imagine everyone in town playing on the town green surrounded by some of the institutional buildings we all use.
As long as we allow decisions to be made on the basis of pure numbers, the way life should be is in trouble. Slowly, we are disassembling our towns piece by piece. Soon, no discernable town will exist, only traces: ``That building used to be the post office. That police station used to have a town hall next to it.''
Our tendency to see a building as an object alone and unique keeps us from seeing the relationships between buildings, and between us and the street space. We then continue to build our buildings standing alone, heroically fulfilling their only purpose, be it school, library or town hall, without also forming a part of a greater whole called the town.
Several spaces come together to form the experience we call a town. And several spaces come together for each child and us as we move from front door to school or library or town offices or five-and-dime. In today's world disorienting gaps appear in our spatial experiences when we suddenly change from walking down the sidewalk to hurtling through space at 50 mph to sitting in a room some distance from home. We need to create wonderful town spaces to reconnect ourselves to our surroundings.
In Maine, high school is not merely a step on the road to a bright future. Each town's high school is a container for the town's living history. The basketball games are dynamic events to be cherished and discussed for eternity. The identity of each town is formed in large part by the stories from events occurring in the schools. Our high schools are in many ways our most significant buildings, and perhaps in our should be placed in the center of our towns.

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