My travels sometimes take me to Anchorage — often enough, by car. It was on one of those trips, in the past year or two, that I devised a simple measure of a place’s pedestrian-friendliness: the bench test.
I drove in on the George Parks Highway, entered the city at Muldoon Road, and turned west on Northern Lights Boulevard. To the north and the south of that part of Northern Lights, but concealed from the road, are a number of residential subdivisions. The street itself is bordered by a lot of tasteful wooden fences and tall trees — enough trees that the area looks lush, and in spots you might get the impression you were driving through an urban garden. I liked it.
Then I thought, “What is a garden with no place to sit?” and I put some nice iron-and-wood benches along the sidewalks for people to sit on. But that made me wonder: What brought these hypothetical people here? What business do they have along this street? And what kind of experience do they have as they sit on their benches? The answers I came up with changed my appraisal of this garden boulevard.
The view from the bench is pretty monotonous, including only planted trees, tasteful wooden fences, asphalt, and speeding cars. No one spot has much visual variety; even from block to block the view is similar. Since this stretch of Northern Lights is nearly bereft of pedestrians, there is almost no human activity to follow — and nothing interests people so much as other people. My recollection is that the sidewalk either is not separated at all from the road, or is separated by only a foot or two of grass and occasional trees, so anyone sitting (or walking) along the sidewalk feels no protection from the cars that go by at 35 to 50 miles per hour. Perhaps for somebody doing a traffic study, this would be an enjoyable place to be, but not for many others. The attractive trees and fences are made for the benefit of drivers, not walkers.
So what brought these hypothetical bench-sitters here, if they didn’t come for the view? They’re probably not waiting for somebody to pick them up, since there’s no meaningful shoulder for a car to pull into. Nor did they come to watch people or run into friends: as I said, there’s little human activity here. Could they be there shopping, getting their hair done, stopping for a cup of coffee, buying a book, or cashing a paycheck? Not likely: as I said, the street, with few exceptions, is lined with fences and trees, not businesses. There is really nothing for a person to do here.
In short, this stretch of road is designed to be boring, uncomfortable, and useless to the pedestrian. It offers no reasons to be there, only reasons to leave there. With nary a word, it screams, GET OUT! KEEP DRIVING UNTIL YOU’RE SOMEWHERE ELSE! It is not a real place, but an automotive sewer.
Of course, we have plenty such non-places in Fairbanks: Airport Way, Geist Road, Farmers Loop Road, and much of College Road have a lot in common with Anchorage’s East Northern Lights Boulevard. And those are just from the big-name roads. Try the bench test everywhere you go. Ask, “What would it be like to sit here? And what would bring me here, anyway, besides the desire to get somewhere else?”
We have a handful of real, bench-worthy places in Fairbanks. Downtown and Pioneer Park are places where a reasonable person might have business and enjoy sitting awhile to watch or meet people — although both are far more lively in the summer. Perhaps some areas of College Road, Minnie Street, or Graehl.
Help me out, friends. Where would you put a bench? How would it feel to sit there? What would bring you there in the first place? Where are the places that invite you stay?