Archive for July, 2010

Bird on a wire.

Posted: July 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

From the back window of my office I can often see birds sitting on the power lines. Sometimes by themselves; sometimes with birds of a feather. Sometimes they preen; sometimes they just sit and stare. I wonder what they’re thinking. I wonder what’s going through their little bird brains.

Are they transients, just thankful for a place to stop and rest before continuing on to their next destination? Or are they locals, waiting for some of their friends to show up and chirp a while? No doubt there’s some avian romance going on, too. I’ve seen the way some of them sit there, all proud like, showing off their crooning tunes. Then there are the bully birds, like the blue jays. I pity the cat that wanders too close to the blue jay’s turf.

They could stay under the cover of trees (and maybe some of them do) but all of this takes place right out in front of everybody. The power lines, it seems, are the public spaces of birds.

People are not that different from birds. We have many of the same needs. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s correlate birds sitting on a wire to people sitting on a bench (or some other suitable object) in a public space.

Sometimes, we’re transient, walking from one place to another. Maybe it’s a lunchtime errand; maybe the walk home after work. Or maybe just a stroll to enjoy the day. What do we need in the way of a place to sit and rest?

Not much really. Any bench will do. Doesn’t have to be fancy. Doesn’t even have to be a bench. A wall will do. Or a rock. Or maybe a nice spot under a tree. We’re not doing much and therefore don’t expect much out of sitting opportunities. There is one basic requirement, however – safety. We’ll skip the bench that subjects us to a perceived danger and wait for a place in which we feel safer. More on that in a moment.

If we're just wanting to cool our heels, we're less demanding about a place to sit.

Sometimes the bench is the destination. Maybe we want to meet a friend. Or maybe we want the opportunity to socialize with someone new. Obviously an isolated bench will work if a definite rendezvous is planned, but if we’re hoping for a chance encounter, more than one bench would be better. And in this case, benches are seating option of choice. There’s something civilized and comforting about sitting on a real bench. Spacing is important, too. Too far away and the opportunity for the chance conversation is reduced. Too close and the stranger is likely to avoid a forced encounter. What’s the right distance for encouraging random social interaction? Eight to twelve feet.

Benches close together are good for meeting friends, but if they are too close they discourage interaction with strangers. The hedge provides a protective wall and adds to the feeling of safety.

What kind of seating is good if you just want to watch the world go by? Look to the bird, my friend. High on a perch is ideal. A vantage point that gives you the most visual access. It’s usually along the perimeter. If there’s an opportunity for a higher elevation, that’s even better. World watchers will look for the best perch, even if it’s not a bench. Ever see someone hoist themselves up onto a four or five foot wall?

Which brings us back to the birds. There’s a reason birds sit up high, besides having a great view of everything. It’s the cats. Well, other predators, too, but we can all relate to cats and birds. If the robin hops around on the ground too long, it’ll end up as a feathery feast. Up high and away is safe.

People have the same hard-wired instincts. If we want to relax, we want to do so in a place where we can let our guard down. If we can sit along the perimeter of a space, we’re much more comfortable. And if we have a wall to our backs, even better. Best yet is an elevated place where we can see everything and everybody.

Sometimes our public spaces don’t work as well as they could because we fail to recognize some basic human needs. If we can understand those needs and plan accordingly, our public spaces will be much more appreciated.

Ok, so maybe this is an extreme example, but wouldn't you love to be sitting there?

As I was watching the news coverage of the passing of West Virginia’s Senior Senator, one network showed an old photo of schoolchildren which included a very young Robert C. Byrd. I’m not good at judging the age of little kids, but I’d guess they were somewhere around seven or eight. They looked like what you would expect kids from the olden days to look like. Disheveled clothes, disinterested looks, casual postures. All except Robert C. Byrd.

He was wearing what looked like a suit and he stood at military-like attention, his eyes boring in on the camera. You couldn’t help but notice him. He was different. Just how different would take a few more years to become apparent.

I won’t presume to know how Robert C. Byrd thought but I think it’s safe to say he didn’t think in terms of limitations. Like many West Virginians, Byrd wasn’t born into a life of privilege, yet somehow he was able to reach a level of national prominence that is unmatched in West Virginian politics. Regardless of whether you agree with his political views, give the man his due for his personal accomplishments.

Neither was he limited in what he thought was good for West Virginia. Who would have thought that West Virginia could be the home of the FBI fingerprint center? Robert C. Byrd. Who would have thought that Green Bank should be an important scientific outpost for exploring the universe? Robert C. Byrd. The list is long and the projects are big. In the mind of Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia took a back seat to no one.

So what does all of this have to do with public spaces?

While a good public space doesn’t necessarily have to be big or elaborate, many times the potential for becoming a great public space is thwarted by a vision that is too limited. We tend to use cost as an excuse but I wonder if there isn’t a more systemic reason at work. For generations we’ve heard that West Virginia ranks last in the good categories and near the top in the bad ones. It’s ingrained in us to believe that special projects and special places are for other people, not West Virginians.

If you’re reading this, you are in a position of leadership. You may not be an elected official but your interest in the topic of public spaces sets you apart as someone who cares. And you are a thinker. Thinking people can see through the negative attitudes that hold us back and work for better results.

Ok, so besides having a more positive mindset, what can we do?

First, don’t be afraid to think big. Yeah, that’s kind of my mantra. But that’s where great things start.

Second, don’t let the lack of dollars limit you. We’re all familiar with the concept of master plans and project phasing. Master plans are the blueprints of big dreams. In our world of instant gratification, we can sometimes lose sight of the dream after the completion of Phase I, but if we can keep the master plan in front of us and not collecting dust on the shelf, the dream can come to life. Byrd served in the Senate for more than 50 years. Surely we can muster a little patience and perseverance to achieve a five or ten year master plan.

Robert C. Byrd achieved a lot for West Virginia and if he can serve as an example for us on how to get things done, the future for West Virginia is unlimited. We all have our roles. I will likely never be in a position to bring a federal agency to the state, but for every project with which I’m involved, I’ll do all that I can to make it the best that it can be.

What’s your role? How will you lead?