Refining the Approach: Rules of Engagement at Coppens Square and Howes Park
By definition, public art benefits communities: it instills sense of place, creates local identity and places of celebration, cultural significance and memory. Placemaking is understood as an interdisciplinary dialog on a successful public realm that engages communities and enriches lives. In this context, public art is understood as an important element in the creation of comfortable and memorable places that are beloved centers of community. The new paradigm embeds public art in the broader context of placemaking and establishes a more comprehensive vision that acknowledges and addresses the need to overcome previously defined fiefdoms. The urban planner Ronald Fleming (The Art of Placemaking, 2007) was the first author to favor the term “placemaking” over “public art,” heralding the beginning of a largescale movement that continues to grow.
Rooted in the community arts movement, urban planning research and theory developed by Jan Gehl (Life Between Buildings, 1971/1987 and Cities for People, 2010), Suzanne Lacy (Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, 1994), and William “Holly” Whyte (The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1980), successful public places are shaped by the ideal convergence of infrastructure, architecture, public space and their meaningful activation, leading to and encouraging interaction through interaction and participation. Recognizing public art contextually as a placemaking tool can reinforce placement, typology and programming, going hand in hand with increased support and opportunities for a profound discourse on multiple levels.
Placemaking first and foremost is concerned with improving quality of life, outlined as the first of six principles in the Placemaking Manifesto (Lanzl, Schultz, Tullis 2017). The focus is on public places as a common good that is actively shaped and used by all. This objective also inspired the initiating Roxbury Path Forward Neighborhood Association to introduce the idea of installing a civil rights tribute in Gertrude Howes Park, anticipated as new impulse, catalyst and celebration of positive and lasting change related to racial equality and harmony (see Ill.). Civil rights have a strong history in the neighborhood, the Moreland Street Historic District of Boston.
A few miles southeast of the Howes Park, on Meetinghouse Hill in Dorchester, residents united in the Friends of Coppens Square initiative to demand that water flow again, in a fountain at the center of the park, that has been dormant for more than 40 years due to lack of maintenance and disinvestment (III.2). Coppens Square is also in the center of a neighborhood that has Boston’s lowest ratio of public parks per capita (see Connecting Bowdoin Geneva: A Plan for Community and Commerce, MIT 2017).
What do these two initiatives have in common? They are grassroots efforts by engaged local citizens seeking to make their public parks desirable places beyond ornamental greenspace. Their goal is to create gathering places that bring people together, where quiet reflection and neighborly conversation will be framed by a larger context and meaning.
Ensuring Fairness, Diversity and Inclusivity: Powerful Incentives for Active Participation
Coppens Square Park, site of a historic fountain, serves as a case study. The Dorchester Arts Collaborative initiated the project, which evolved from a concept for several artistic identifiers along Dorchester Avenue to a focus on local parks. Therefore, it made sense to pass on the reigns to the Meeting House Hill neighborhood and local organizer Ed Cook, where Coppens Square with its long inactive fountain is located. The fountain itself is sited on a triangular, 4,500-square-foot greenspace. The original Lyman fountain, a grand 25-foot bronze extravagance designed and fabricated by M.D. Jones of Boston in 1885, was dismantled in the late 1950s and replaced with a much smaller model. The original fountain was a monument and tribute to Boston Mayor Theodore Lyman who brought a public water system to the City in 1835. The large granite basin remained in place with the diminutive replacement fountain at its center, resulting in an awkward imbalance of scale. The water line that fed the smaller fountain was severed when repairs to the adjacent street were conducted by the City in the 1960s. The fountain has not functioned since nor has the city monument been restored.
Secondly, the innovative civil rights-themed art initiative in Gertrude Howes Park offers a new paradigm towards a humanist world view because it is conceived as a place of celebration that both engages and recognizes the broadest possible spectrum of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, ages and abilities. The community wanted to acknowledge the movement rather than a representation dedicated to individual persons or events.
Numerous memorials have been dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King (1929–1968) and his great leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, with major monuments and museums in the cities of Atlanta, Memphis, San Francisco and Washington D.C., to name a few. Unlike previous monuments, the many individuals who have contributed to improving living conditions and social equity during the civil rights era and beyond are to be recognized in Howes Park, intended as an affirmation of the struggle and as a celebration of citizen activism and leadership. The joint efforts of over a dozen community organizations, along with the project team comprised of the relevant city departments, artists and the public at large, were coordinated by the Urban Culture Institute.
Both Coppens Square Park and Gertrude Howes Park are located in highly diverse neighborhoods, where residents are working towards ways to get to know each other and appreciate cultural distinctions. The local leaders focused on one premise: How can we make our neighborhood more inclusive for all, a more just, fair and a better place for all living beings? To implement these plans, we wanted to “walk our talk”, to ourselves live the content of our aspirations as part of the planning process. Inclusivity and participatory planning ensured full participation of the highly diverse neighborhood, an approach also advised by the funding partner, the Edward Ingersoll Browne Trust Fund of the City of Boston.
A twenty-member community art selection committee chaired by Lorraine Wheeler stewarded the Civil Rights Tribute process. Initially conceptualized as an iconic individual sculpture, this vision evolved to the concept of a newly created gathering place that would be the location for activities related to the commemoration of the countrywide efforts to overcome racism in America.
As we worked together, we jointly developed the process to ensure fairness, diversity and inclusion of the community in a participatory, interactive process. Our goal was the outcome of a thoughtful design that would offer inclusive storytelling for all. The objective also guided our planning process during all phases of assessment, design development and review
Interactive Community Meetings
Depending on the size of a community project, different tools are suitable for accommodating varying group sizes, ranging from a handful of people to several hundred or more. Depending on the context, a general predication of an estimated, expected number of people can usually be made. Determining a central, well-known and neutral location for a meeting is key to good attendance, as well. Requesting an RSVP is helpful but not always conclusive if those who signed up end up not attending. Free online resources, among them Doodle, Evite and Eventbrite, can be helpful to channel and monitor attendance. Certainly, the closer the local ties of committee members to their neighbors and friends, the more successful and reliable are the projections.
An innovative strategy to reach people who usually do not attend meetings has been developed by social activist artist Matthew Mazzotta who developed the Outdoor Living Room concept. As part of all project planning processes he sets up a living room furniture and accessories borrowed from the locals in a spot highly trafficked by pedestrians, such as central plazas, parking lots at popular shopping malls or similar destinations. He then invites all residents to join him in conversation without preconceived goals at previously announced hours, offering refreshments to passers-by. This organic approach gently uncovers challenges and dreams which is then channeled into a design that fulfills a specific need uncovered during the assessment period. See also my essay "Social Art Practice Delivers: Matthew Mazzotta’s Outdoor Living Rooms" (Place.Labour.Capital, 2018).
A question often asked is how to ensure a fair and consensual decision-making process at open meetings. In order to ensure continuity and flow, voting on major items should be reserved for committee members. In this case, the roles of participants need to be explained and clarified at the beginning of the gathering, simultaneously ensuring that participants are genuinely heard and considered when it comes to making final decisions. For initiatives sited on public land, respective municipal, state or federal agencies, departments or commissions will review any proposal and give final approval, while property owners give the final nod on what happens at private sites. Everyone involved needs to be aware who is making final decisions.
A commitment to participatory design in the community starts with laying down the ground rules of participation and with answering a number of questions when the project is kicked off: How are meetings being conducted? Generally, an agenda and objectives are set prior to a meeting, so that progress and success are palpable and obvious for all those present. Under the guidance of a capable facilitator a meeting should ideally last not more than two hours. Refreshments signal to volunteers a good, welcoming host. Acknowledging attendees’ time and saying thank you belong to the basic repertoire of mutually respectful, considerate interaction. Linowes (2010) wrote an easy, concise guide to conducting good meetings. Robert’s Rules offers basic meeting protocol, a free online resource that can bring any novice up to speed. Just as important is to clarify decision-making processes. At times, public meetings may include voting and non-voting members, particularly if an established, deeply informed committee works to actively, continuously recruit new circles who then join an effort already underway.
Active participation of all present can be ensured by employing a number of methods. Public site visits where the locals meet with (finalist) artists, architects, landscape architects, planners and designers of many backgrounds casually bring about cross-fertilizing connections and offer first-hand insights to all involved. Outreach efforts need to be complemented by a continually updated, project-specific webpage to share background information––a must in today’s digital age.
Complementing a site reconnaissance should be a transparent, open community-wide ideation event. Important is that all participants can see each other during the exchange. Organizers should make a point to arrange the available furniture to accommodate those assembled accordingly. To ensure continuity and an ongoing exchange, even if someone was unable to attend, all gatherings should be documented in form of summary notes that are then made available publicly and distributed to the committee, relevant city departments, councilors and state representatives. Meetings should be recorded in form of sign-in sheets and meeting minutes. A best practice for public process is to conduct gatherings with an open invitation to participate, while simultaneously making documents available online.
Ideations and similar participatory workshops are important consensus builders and connectors, and they really should be fun. With a bit of planning and preparation they can really galvanize public opinion and convergence. Basic helpers of participatory planning are often used during the planning phase, such as post-its and stickers, easel pads, tracing paper, etc.
Basic helpers of participatory planning were used during the public planning meeting for Coppens Square Park whose purpose was to bring together a diverse neighborhood to choose between design options for the Park as a new gathering plaza with a splendid fountain for the community. At that public meeting, the landscape architecture firm selected by the Friends of Coppens Square (CBA Landscape Architects) offered two main ideas for the type of fountain the residents of that neighborhood in Dorchester wanted to see. The proposal to install an abstract contemporary design had to be weighed against the concept to maintain the historic character of the park.
CBA Landscape Architects assembled precedents of two fountain types on a series of three posters and invited participants of a community meeting to indicate their preferences by placing a red or a green sticker below favored designs with an either historic or present-day look (see Ill.). The stickers placed below historic precedents clearly outweighed contemporary models, thus the collective decision was made to replace the lost, majestic historic fountain.
The Friends of Coppens Square continues to solicit ideas for the uses of the redesigned park for the abutters (including the residents of a senior housing building across Bowdoin Street), nearby merchants, teachers and congregation members, along with neighborhood organizations that have been supportive of the project. Concepts and issues that arise from these inputs will be incorporated into the final redesign of the park.
Following the completion of thorough, community-driven planning and design processes for both the civil rights tribute in Howes Park and the fountain in Coppens Square Park, both projects entered fundraising campaigns for fabrication and construction. Throughout the process, the Urban Culture Institute and its project partners followed the new paradigm of placemaking by (a) designing an integrative work of art, (b) eliminating professional boundaries, and (c) by making joint decisions carried by design teams and engaged local citizens of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. While decision-making is more challenging and takes longer, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Buy-in of the community leads to better, more active and safer places that tend to be less prone to degradation and vandalism. This approach is proven as a successful, inclusive process where everyone can contribute to the satisfaction of being a maker while simultaneously building community.
A significant insight resulting from the Coppens Square Park redesign and the civil rights initiatives is the increasing recognition of previously excluded histories in the culture of the United States. Evidence of such efforts, ranges from the removal of confederate monuments (in Memphis, for example) to a major MLK Memorial in Boston, which built momentum and matured while the Howes Park initiative was underway. Thus, new concepts in public art and placemaking reflect changing cultural positions.
In conclusion, I would like to reassert that diversity and civil rights concern all of us. Although great strides were made during modernity and the twentieth century towards inclusivity, civil rights and a more equitable society, the beginning of the new millennium has commenced with immense challenges. Economic disparity and the income gap are ever widening. Contemporary society––in the United States and worldwide––continues to struggle with being inclusive and welcoming towards “the other.” When done right, placemaking offers an open door to practice and realize fairness, diversity and inclusivity, bringing people together across ethnic, economic, social and racial divides.
Acknowledgements: A big thank-you to consulting editors, Edward M. Cook, President of the Friends of Coppens Square Park, and Lorraine Paine Wheeler, President of the Roxbury Path Forward Neighborhood Association, for their review.