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Archive for the ‘Genius loci’ Category

Here’s a nice way to measure your neighborhood: Do you have ten interesting places?

I’ve just begun The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking by Jay Walljasper — a concise and uplifting guide to making a neighborhood not only worth living in, but worth envying.  (I have added it to my “Further reading” page.)  Like me, Walljasper envisions a neighborhood as more than a geographic region: it is a place for society, commerce, and beauty.  It is a place where people have regular business and see each other often.  It is “owned” by the locals.

In the introduction, he suggests an exercise in “zooming in” (my words).  First, consider your region: write down the ten most important places you go, places you recommend to visitors.  Then, zooming in, consider your city, and write down the ten most important places there — like a park or a neighborhood.  Then,

“Zoom in and think about one of these places and try to write down the smaller places that make up the place.  For example, if you named the main street as an important place, whate are the little places on that street where you enjoy spending time?  You can shop there, of course, but if your main street is truly a good place, you can also sit outside on a bench and talk to your neighbors, get a cup of coffee nearby, and enjoy the passing scene.” (p. 4)

Over lunch, I decided to try this with my own neighborhood.  What were the ten most interesting places within walking distance of my house?

First, a note about the above question.  I stand firmly by the assertion that a neighborhood’s boundaries are limited by walking distance: you may be able to walk farther than the edge of your neighborhood, but if a place is too far to walk it’s not in your neighborhood.  Also, “walking distance” is a fuzzy idea.  Researchers on pedestrian behavior have found that most people are happy to walk places within five minutes; farther than that and they start choosing to drive, postpone their trip, or not go at all.  Obviously, it reflects average, aggregate behavior, not the behavior of every individual.  If we adhere strictly to this, a neighborhood (as a place you walk) will be no larger than a circle one half-mile in diameter: five minutes from center to edge.  However, I’m willing to stretch this — if for no reason other than that Fairbanks is mostly not built that way, and I should cut us a little slack.

So, what were the most interesting places within walking distance of my house?  I could think of only five:

neighborhood_shot

Interesting places (green, yellow) near my house (in the yellow oval). Original image courtesy of Google Maps.

  • Noel Wien Library
  • Seoul Gate (Korean restaurant)
  • Arctic Bowl (Bowling alley)
  • Chena River, especially the waterfront by Lathrop Street
  • Denali Elementary School (where my kids enjoy the playground)

Maybe I could go a little farther and include Gambardella’s or McCafferty’s, maybe the fountain downtown.  My wife suggests Chartreuse, a new clothing store at First and Wickersham.  But those all feel a little out of “my turf” — I don’t feel the same sense of ownership of them and of the streets around them.

In the image at right, note that where I live — near this peculiar triangle bounded by 6th, 8th, and Bonnifield — is about as far as it’s possible to get from all those destinations yet still be roughly “between” them.  And the nearest is an eight-minute walk away (unless you count the Chena River, whose nearest point is only five minutes’ walk).

Eight minutes!  I once looked at a Census map and discovered that my neighborhood was one of the most densely populated in the Fairbanks area.  Why should anybody living in a densely populated neighborhood have to walk eight minutes to reach the nearest point of interest — especially when most people won’t leave their houses on foot for anything over five minutes away?  People need reasons to walk: the pleasure of fresh air is not enough.  If we have so few reasons to walk around our neighborhood, how are we going to meet our neighbors? and how are we to become neighborly?

So, Fairbanksans: tell me about your neighborhoods.  Can you walk to ten interesting places?  And what are they?

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I may be heading to some kind of Pedestrian Hell: I have enrolled my daughter, a first-grader-to-be, in a charter school.

Actually, The Watershed School, which opens this fall, has a component that should make pedestrian-types long to send their kids there: it focuses on “place-based” education, in which students focus on their local communities to start with, then move outward.  That is, history, literature, civics, and the sciences will be taught with a Fairbanks focus, and after that grounding they will include studies of other places.  With the school only four or five blocks from the Chena River, the students will get to study a lot of river ecology.  They’ll get to participate in their school’s own landscaping and the upkeep of the land, including the maintenance of a school garden.  While the school will be open on the School District’s calendar, the day-to-day schedule will be structured around local events like the Yukon Quest or the Festival of Native Arts.  Students will spend a great deal of time outdoors, and they’ll meet more than twice the School District’s physical education requirement.

As someone who considers local community participation to be one of the highest goods, I’m really excited about the possibilities of The Watershed School.  (And, as a parent of a girl who often doesn’t like changes in routine, I’m a little surprised that my daughter is excited about it, too.)  However…

Some readers may remember my concern, about a year ago, over another charter school, Chinook: that the location was ugly and distant, and that (in part because of the distance) the student body was selected for privilege and homogeneity.

The Watershed School suffers some of the same problems.  It will be located off Dale Road, near the airport.  While not hideous the way Chinook’s bleak, industrial surroundings are, it seems neither surrounded by the idyllic wilderness nor in the thick of civilization.  Since it’s not a neighborhood school, there is no school bus to take kids there — but, worse than that, there is effectively no public bus, either.  While the Yellow Line goes within a few blocks, the schedules of the bus and the school are incompatible.  Thus it’s a school for children whose parents have the money and the time to drive them to and from school.

They will not provide the School District’s hot lunches, so parents will have to pack lunches for their children.  For our family, providing nutritious lunches is no problem.  However, this puts a serious hardship on the nearly 30 percent of students in the school district who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.  (Estimate based on 2006-07 data from the Common Core of Data at the National Center for Educational Statistics.)  So our daughter will not be rubbing elbows on a daily basis with Fairbanks’s less fortunate, as she does at her neighborhood kindergarten.

My wife asked — maybe as a devil’s advocate — “Why is it important that our daughter go to school with poor people?”  Of course, it isn’t, in itself.  I’m not striving for some environment that represents all facets of our population equally; that’s nothing more than tokenism.  However, I feel a little guilty about taking advantage of a supposedly public service that in fact (though not by intent) discriminates against an already disadvantaged group.

Perhaps I should be happy because it’s more likely my daughter will make good friends from among the students of Watershed.  Since the families whose children go there all share an ideological bent — we think place-based education is a good thing — our children will probably have more in common.  Of course, there’s the sinister twist to that, as well: in time, she may find herself less able to make friends with (or simply interact with) people who are different from her.  I myself went to an alternative high school, founded by hippies and attended by freaks and nerds of various stripes.  While I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, I may have suffered in my ability to get along and make friends with most people.

Of course, the perfect solution for our family would be a place-based school in our neighborhood (within walking distance) and serving the neighborhood families equally.  But that’s not what we’re offered.  It’s fine to be an idealist, but you’re sometimes given competing ideals to choose from.  This is the best path we can walk — or drive — for now.

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A thorny question has arisen at Discontinuous Permafrost: what does it mean for a place to have local character, or for people to have local character?

I want to live in a place with a distinctive character, not someplace that looks like everywhere else. (On this theme, I heartily recommend James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.) But one thing I can’t stand, in the public discussions that have gone on of the Vision Fairbanks plan for revitalizing downtown, is the comment (with variations) “We don’t want to be just like Portland!”

Of course, I don’t want to be just like Portland, either. But underlying the comment seems to be a refusal to entertain ideas that have worked well elsewhere. To some, the very idea that we could learn from others’ successes is anathema.

I want local character and preservation of our history — but keep in mind that Fairbanks was founded only 105 years ago, and that there’s not that much history here yet. We are still pioneers, and we have the chance to decide what that history will be.

It gets a little limiting to talk about who looks like a Fairbanksan and who doesn’t. I appreciate people who dress practically. But we are a city of 90,000 people, and any urban area both attracts and breeds variety. To say that impractically dressed women are out of place in Fairbanks is like saying that homosexuals are out of place in Salt Lake City: perhaps they’re in the minority, but the city is large enough to make a place for them.

I really like going to stores, performances, and public meetings, and seeing my fellow Fairbanksans not dressed to the nines (as conceived elsewhere), but dressed in bunny boots, parkas, and Carhartts makes me happy. It could be for show, but it says to me that my fellows are more concerned with practicality than with appearance — and I like that attitude. It says to me that Fairbanksans have the real business of living to get on with. But how can we acknowledge that a place and its people have a distinct character, without letting the character become too exclusive or oppressive?

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