Good Public Places Important in Effort to Build Healthy Communities
One of the things many Americans like about traveling in Europe is the way people gather in central places throughout each day and night. A diverse group of people from all walks of life leisurely stroll around water fountains or enjoy the shade of a tree, buy food from street vendors and outdoor café’s, and sit on welcoming benches to visit with neighbors and traveling strangers that entertain them with news from near and far.
Common ground in a community fosters sociability — pleasurable interaction that increases each other’s sense of well being. It’s not about enhancing one’s status or position — it’s a time for storytelling, joking, and sometimes, serious concerns that need love and support from others. It’s a joyful and meaningful experience. People interact with each other as fellow human beings, not in terms of specific roles such as employer-employee or cashier-customer. The status of each, their social or economic position, knowledge or fame is not as important as personal qualities, graciousness, cordiality and charm. The central square, market, or park is a safe place where people come to enjoy and learn from one another in a cooperative manner and is a symbol of unity for the communities that embrace it.
Prior to World War II it was common for people in East Texas to gather with their neighbors in downtown plazas and parks on a regular basis. Communities were small and everybody knew each other — most of them for their whole lives — and wanted to visit, swap stories, play a game of dominoes perhaps, and lend a hand when needed. Families out on farms dotting the East Texas countryside looked forward each Saturday to ride into the closest “big” town to shop, get their mail, trade horses and mules, pick up a friend at the train station, and most of all, to visit with their neighbors.
Then the world got a little bigger. Many had to move to large cities like Dallas to find jobs and support their families. They found themselves in communities not defined by common acquaintance, knowledge, and culture, but by geography and economics, and often didn’t know their neighbors at all. And many of the towns they left behind all but dried up and blew away.
The world got even bigger the last decade or so when the Internet infiltrated everyone’s lives and took people even further away from face-to-face communication with their neighbors.
In recent years, however, and perhaps even because of the heavy swing of the pendulum towards isolation, developers in many cities — large and small — are seeing the importance of creating inviting centrally-located spaces for people to have real life experiences with others.
When one of Forbes’ list of the 400 most wealthiest Americans, Kelcy Warren, was growing up in White Oak between Gladewater and Longview, he probably made a few good memories during community gatherings in his small town that led him to get involved with the amazing 5.2-acre Woodall Rodgers deck park in Dallas completed in 2012. His undisclosed millions of dollars donation gave him the right to name the space, now known as Klyde Warren Park, named for his son.
Klyde Warren Park is a favorite day trip for many from East Texas as it offers daily unique opportunities for dining (there are food trucks and great upscale restaurants), a children’s area with interactive fountains, playgrounds, a storytelling tree and kid-size amphitheater, live music, fitness classes, French bocci ball, ping pong, and foosball all amongst the beautifully landscaped, green-friendly outdoors adjacent to Dallas’ arts district.
It’s open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and park staff wheels out magazine and newspaper stands each morning and games like chess and checkers for guests to enjoy.
But Dallas isn’t the only place making progress in creating great spaces for people to enjoy good company.
When Tyler resident Don Warren (no relation to Kelcy) was approached about a year ago to help spearhead improvements in the park that unites his diverse neighborhood, he didn’t hesitate. Living just two doors south of Bergfeld Park he said he often sees and hears the sounds of what goes on there — people enjoying picnics, the clings and clangs of the swords of practicing fencers, and children laughing as they run around the dolphin statue, Splasher, at the center of a water splash pad.
“The park is the melting pot of the community,” Warren said, now a Tyler city councilman. “People from all different cultures come and it’s a fun thing to see all the people that use it.”
Warren likes that people are interacting with each other from the neighborhood and with visitors.
“I see very few on their phones or pads or Facebook,” he said. “People are actually interacting — it’s exciting to see.”
Warren said he and his family enjoy the park often.
“I have five grandkids,” he said, and within 30 minutes they are making friends.
Bergfeld Park recently received the designation of “Lone Star Legacy Park” for its special prominence in the local community and the state of Texas and what the park means to it’s community. One of the highest honors bestowed on a park, Bergfeld has endured the test of time and become iconic to those who visit, play and rest on its grounds.
MHS Planning and Design of Tyler recently completed a master plan for improvements to the park, which was adopted by the city council in November 2013. This plan was then used to design a new playground facility for the park and other renovations to make the park more user friendly, Warren said.
The new playground equipment planned for the facelift taking place this year encourages more interaction, he said.
One is a series of nets where as many as 20-30 kids can play together at one time.
Other renovations include removing seats in the current amphitheater and replacing it with grass to encourage families to bring blankets instead of sitting in the hard chairs. The city shows movies and has other entertainment regularly in the park. There’s yoga on Sundays were anyone’s open to participate for free. Walkers and joggers are regulars at the park and many other activities make it a great place to congregate.
Clearly the largest gathering of a community in a central location on a regular basis in East Texas is in Canton with First Monday Trade Days. That first started out as neighbors visiting while they waited to take care of business at the downtown courthouse more than 150 years ago. They began to trade horses and dogs and now it’s grown to a place where more than 6,000 local and visiting vendors sell to and entertain more than hundreds of thousands for four days each month. During the rest of the month a handful of neighbors still visit a bit around the courthouse square and a enjoy a couple of outdoor eating areas.
Some towns that may have emptied out after the 1940s or so, have made a comeback in recent years and once again have crowds in their downtown areas on Saturdays in particular. Farmers markets draw everyone together -— buyers and sellers, rich and poor, old and young, artists, musicians and other entertainers. Its a powerful place for social life and economic activity in downtowns like Mineola, Winnsboro, and Longview.
Rockwall also has a farmers’ market with thousands of locals and visitors mingling every Saturday. It’s pet friendly, has live music, and lots of sitting and eating going on. The Harbors at Rockwall next to Lake Ray Hubbard is also a favorite gathering spot of locals and visitors alike on any given day with inviting space for blankets and picnics, enjoying the lake view, outdoor cafe’s, shopping, and special events. A pedestrian plaza is expected to be complete by October 1 this year in downtown Rockwall inviting people to sit and visit in the center of town.
The tiny village of Ben Wheeler epitomizes the concept of bringing the community together in a central location almost daily with thriving art and other quaint retail shops, two popular restaurants with outdoor seating, two park areas and an active outdoor pavilion with regular entertainment all enjoyable during a leisurely stroll about town.
An excellent example in East Texas right now of creating great common space to better their community is Sulphur Springs. City planners decided a few years ago that their lifeless, downtown area was at the root of many of their economic and social challenges.
City Manager Marc Maxwell said, “Downtown is the heart of the community. A few years ago what people saw in Sulphur Springs was a dying downtown, a place where nobody gathered, and certainly nothing going on after 5 o’clock.”
When the city decided to do something about that they started with Main Street, refurbishing a small section of old buildings into a spruced up area with shops, piped in music, benches, and inviting landscaping.
Maxwell said when they were just about finished with construction, since the street was already blocked off, they had a grand opening celebration on the downtown street where hundreds of people showed up. Having such a good time visiting with their neighbors, many were heard to say, “It’s a shame we can’t do this all the time,” Maxwell said.
That spurred city leaders to contact a leading expert in the country in public space design, Ian Lockwood, who lead the efforts to bring the downtown plaza to the heart of the city it is now.
They designed a comfortable and natural gathering space with their award-winning Hopkins County vintage courthouse as a backdrop and began to add bricks and statues and more.
Having lived with the decaying downtown area for so many years, the Sulphur Springs community was slow to come around to the fact that change was coming. One of Maxwell’s favorite moments of the process was when he finally saw people start to use the plaza.
“People were seeing the progress we were making on the streets around the square,” he said. “There was some excitement building but most couldn’t imagine the plaza. Until the day the grass went down. There was an immediate change. The day after people were out with blankets and picnic baskets.”
Several more downtown side streets were renovated along with the downtown plaza which besides the grassy area to enjoy picnics and more includes an interactive splash fountain in the shape of a Texas star illuminated with ultra violet light at night, a stunning veterans memorial with granite walls, waterfalls, statues, inviting benches and picnic tables all around the plaza (places to sit are one of the most important elements to a successful common gathering space), and oversized playable chess and checkers games. There’s often live music going on but when there’s not, piped music is heard throughout the downtown area.
Local resident Pat Chase is sometimes on hand giving carriage rides.
They also have an interesting attraction on the plaza: two see-through public restrooms — thought to be the only ones in America — built with one-way mirrors so people can see out, but those outside cannot see in.
Several restaurants downtown have outdoor seating making guests a part of the common plaza experience and numerous retail shops keep people strolling around town.
Event coordinators are constantly working to keep activities happening on and around the plaza. They have two markets each Saturday, one early morning, more farm-product related, and another Saturday night that opens up to more art, food vendors, and entertainment. Their regular offerings also include outdoor movies and a long list of other activities throughout the week.
Whether there’s an event or not, people are there using the space, Maxwell said, and it’s brought a sense of pride to the community and enticing others to want to move there.
“When people are downtown now the positive energy is palpable,” he said. “It’s soothing. We just might live in the happiest place on earth.”