Archive for February, 2011

Congratulations!  Your project has been funded!  After careful consideration, you will receive a 100%, non-matching grant in the amount of $5 million.  You may now build the project of your dreams.

Not really.  It would be nice, but for most projects, it is just a dream, not reality.

Yes, a generous budget might allow for more possibilities and more flexibility in meeting the program requirements of your project, but you don’t necessarily have to wait for the big grant to do some good things.  A recent project at the First Baptist Church in St. Albans (WV) is a good example.

Years ago, an education wing addition created a breezeway space between the new wing and the existing sanctuary.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a cold, lifeless space that was hardly ever used.  But church member Caroline Cloer had an idea.  Why not turn the breezeway into a courtyard?

While many people liked the concept, there just wasn’t much money to make it happen.  Her vision would have to happen on little more than faith.

It was to be a gathering place for small groups, or a place where one-on-one counseling might take place.  It was to be a place where small receptions could happen, or where someone could go for private meditation and prayer.

There was no budget for elaborate seating schemes; no money for fancy water features.  Time to get creative.

The solution to the seating was inexpensive benches and cafe tables and chairs arranged to break down the large space into separate “rooms”.  It’s possible for two or three people to share a table and a conversation and have some sense of privacy, yet there is enough flexibility with the moveable furniture to accommodate small groups or even a reception.  Low-maintenance plants in pots provide green relief from the large expanses of brick and help to further define the rooms.

Cafe tables and chairs are arranged to create "rooms" within the space.

A water feature would provide a focal point and the sounds of splashing water would help create a relaxing, soothing ambiance.  The solution was an off-the-shelf fountain that could easily be winterized.

The off-the-shelf fountain is both inexpensive and easy to maintain.

The one splurge on the project was to install new brick pavers, but because they were laid on a bed of sand on the existing concrete pavement, installation costs were minimal.  Church volunteers did much of the work including running electrical service for the fountain and a few new lights.  The total cost was less than $40,000.

So keep dreaming.  You can make good things happen.  You don’t necessarily have to wait for the big grant.

About a year ago in a post about Lake Lewisburg, I mentioned the book by Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City.

It’s the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which became known as the “White City” due at least in part to the predominance of white buildings built for the fair.  It’s a fascinating story about how the Columbian Exposition, as it was also known, came together under the direction of Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect, with assistance from Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for the design of New York’s Central Park.

It was a unique time in our nation’s history – and the world’s history, for that matter.  Electricity as a power source was just being developed and it was at the Chicago World’s fair that alternating current, as advocated by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, won out over direct current, as advocated by Thomas Edison and General Electric.

The world’s first Ferris Wheel, with a total capacity of 2,160 passengers (yes, that number is correct), was one of the main attractions of the fair.  It was huge.

It was a time when the cities of the world tried to outdo the others in creating the biggest, most impressive World’s Fair.  It was in this spirit, that Daniel Burnham is credited as saying,

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

[Trying to determine the origin of quotes can be a little sketchy.  There is some evidence that this quote originated with Niccolo Machiavelli.]

I’ve always liked the Burnham quote because too often we settle for less than reaching our full potential.  This is especially true in West Virginia, where years of finishing near the bottom of the lists of good things and near the top of the lists of bad things, have programmed us to believe that great ideas and big plans are meant for someone else.  Generally, I think it serves us well to think big.

On the other hand, my Cincinnati LinkedIn correspondent, urban planner Della Rucker, has convinced me that bigger is not always better.  In fact, if not properly planned and carefully executed, the big idea could end up being a big mistake.  Rucker advocates small, incremental improvements.

It’s possible that the little things we do with public spaces can have a big impact.

Knowing that good visibility into a public space is essential for creating a feeling of safety and security, maybe all that is needed is some judicious pruning of trees and shrubs.

Knowing that the concept of triangulation encourages social interaction, maybe a plan to incorporate works of art into the space will make it more convivial.

Knowing that food and drink can seed a park with activity and social interaction, maybe vendors can be encouraged to fill the need.

So, yes, think big, but understand that we don’t always have to wait for the million dollar grant to improve our public spaces.  Small actions can yield big results.

In that same spirit, next week we’re going to take a look at how to create a good public space on a shoestring budget.

Oh.  I almost forgot.  The “devil” refers to a serial killer on the loose in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair.  Great book.