Saturday, February 4, 2012

Creative Placemaking of a Different Kind

The New Ideal?
I'm not sure urban designers really can create what most planners think of as a "creative place," or whether we even should.  It is the people that gather that provide the creative energy, not the place.  The best urban designers can do is create physical enviornments that are supportive and pleasant for the invisible community of relationships that already exists.  When you go about trying to create a "creative place," I have a feeling that you're just as likely to get bums off the street as you are creative geniuses--and I'm not always sure you can tell the difference.  Is that not why La Boheme is so enraptured with lightly employed, starving young people?

Frankly, I'm somewhat skeptical about the whole Richard Florida "Creative Class" concept anyway.  Bohemians may bring a certain amount of heat, but are not likely to have the kind of wisdom and experience that brings light.  If you really want to see economic development and benefits that span across wide levels of society, it is the entrepreneurs, engineers, medical researchers and non-profits that you want to support, and they often like suburbs.  Teaching them to enjoy walkable enviornments will help them synergize and cooperate, but there's a limit to how many relationships they can support and remain productive.  That's why they tend to prefer lower densities. 

Winter Garden Farmer's Market
I have to say I feel uncomfortable in environments that are dense enough to require that I intentionally ignore huge swaths of the people around me.  The farmer's market in Winter Garden's walkable downtown is great because I recognize so many of the people there.  Around 11:00am when the crowds are at their thickest, I don't enjoy it nearly as much.  Our little farmers market is, to me, placemaking at its best.  It is a third place where the entire community gathers at the same time and place.  We have events in the downtown about every other month too.  The relationships that are built and supported there are  joined by loose cultural institutions, like church, school, club and community fitness classes.  We know each other.  We work together.  When life happens, we do fund raisers for each other.  Is the strength of the community based on the streetscaping we did 7 years ago or the farmer's market pavilion we built last year?  No, but they provide a supporting framework for us to grow and strengthen the relationships we already have.  They also provide a place for newcomers to begin to integrate into the existing cultural fabric.  We had a community before we had a streetscape.  The streetscape just allows a larger group of people within the city to join us. 

RR Depot, Circa 1915
Many of the elders in our community have been quoted to say, "The good old days never looked this good."  That's true.  A century ago, our downtown was a thriving industrial marketplace focused on the rail service that got the agricultural products of our community to the marketplace.  It was messy.  It was coal powered steam engines, migrant workers and citrus barons.  It was city-wide fires and rebuilding in brick.  It was big bass fishing, hotels and a trailer city for snow-bird fishermen.  The times inbetween have not always been comfortable.  Pollution from the industrial scale agriculture killed the fish in the lake.  It became more profitable to plant Yankees than oranges when the cost of kerosine became too high to protect the groves from the few freeze days that inevitably come each year. 

Scoops Ice Cream Shop
Industrial citrus production has changed to information industries, hydroponics and telecommunications.  Our community is no longer the center of activity but a tertiary piece of a larger region but we do not make relationships on a regional scale, and our community is good at knitting lives together locally.  We don't have a single driving industry--we support industries all over the region.  We do have significant talent brought to the area through Disney and several of these talented chefs have chosen our downtown to open their own private places, like the French Pastry chef from Paris whose kids go to school with my own or the former executive that runs the ice cream shop and knows my daughter by name.   The downtown revitalization provided a venue for these valuable members of our community to use their substantial talents for local benefit and we love to support them.  We have a higher than average number of advertising and graphic arts firms, so I guess we are "creative" after all. 

Winter Garden has become a "place" in a creative and encouraging way.  That to me is creative placemaking...