What’s the opposite of Chicago?

Posted: May 2, 2010 in Uncategorized
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My work takes me all over West Virginia.  Last week, as I was driving to Mingo County for a project at Laurel Lake Wildlife Management Area, I was thinking of my previous post about Millennium Park in Chicago, and the contrast between Chicago and Mingo County.  As different as night and day in so many ways.  But what Mingo County (and all of southern West Virginia) has that Chicago doesn’t is an incredible, rugged beauty with lush forests and an ever-changing landscape.  Even the highway cuts through the mountains are fascinating glimpses of the underlying geology.  And deep in the heart of the mountains, is a beautiful, tranquil lake.  No interactive, giant fountains spewing water from someone’s mouth.  No giant, shining stainless-steel beans.  Just a lake.  You don’t even need a bench – there are plenty of rocks that will do just fine.

You won't find this in Chicago.

My motivation in writing this blog is to encourage the design and development of good public spaces, primarily in urban settings.  The first urban parks were intended to offer city dwellers an escape from urban life, a place where they could relax in a natural setting. 

In Millennium Park there are indeed areas of the park that allow the visitor to connect with nature, but there are also elements that seem to be from another world.  Clearly the concept of the urban public space is ever evolving.

In West Virginia, urban living is on a completely different scale compared to Chicago.  A resident of downtown Charleston can travel five minutes in almost any direction and get back to nature.  Because it is so easy for us to escape the city, our urban parks can be more about embracing the vibrant downtown environment and social life.

Views like this are easy to come by in West Virginia.

That’s not to say that a naturalistic design in a West Virginia urban park is inappropriate.  In fact, depending on the geographical and socio-economic context, it may be very desirable to provide an oasis of green in a concrete jungle.  But we need to recognize that with such easy access to the mountains of West Virginia, there are opportunities for our urban spaces to meet other needs. 

Fancy benches aren't always necessary.

Are there Frank Gehry structures in the future of our public spaces?  Probably not, but there is room for thought-provoking architecture.  There is room for unusual art.  There is room for the urban experience that can’t be found in our beautiful mountains.

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