Every time a new business comes to town or a renovation project is in the works, I hear conversations about what could have been, what should have been, or what could be. Every idea comes from a certain perspective, although I’ve learned over the years that many of them are shared throughout this small town. Recently, I had one of these conversations with a real professional, Nicolette Barber, an urban planner armed with some actual data and experience behind her ideas and suggestions; interestingly, she had a similar conversation with some very inexperienced planners. Here’s her story:
For someone who doesn’t call herself a kid person, I had a seriously fun time at Carder Elementary Career Day last Friday.
My son Finn is a first-grader in Maryrose Digiulio’s class and he asked me to talk to his class about my career as an urban planner, with the caveat that I “really couldn’t compete” with his friend’s father who was bringing the backhoe from DPW. I have a difficult time articulating what I do to my friends, parents and even civil engineer co-workers let alone six year olds. Thankfully the Career Development folks at BOCES – who organized the event – sent along some helpful hints, including an idea for a visual presentation to engage the kids.
This was my a-ha moment. I’ve been a planner in the Corning area since 2011, prior to which I lived in New York City working for several different consulting firms for another ten years. One of the most striking transformations that occurred in the design and planning fields while I was in NYC was post-9/11 when the public conversation about uses of space and design became much more commonplace; so much so, in fact, that when I moved here and realized that the conversation doesn’t really happen in public at all … well, it has taken me a while to get used to it. And by “get used to it,” I mean to stop obsessing about it and find something else to talk about.
I should mention that I think Corning is a fantastic place to live. We are fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful parks and buildings and are home to a company that cares about the public space and works with City Hall to bring lovely projects to fruition. I just wish (so badly) that those of us who live here were able to contribute our opinions about said lovely projects before they were faits accomplis.
All of this is background for the fact that I chose to hold a mini design charrette or “creative brainstorming session” about the old Corning Hospital site on Denison Parkway with the Carder first-graders. I know, I know – Guthrie owns the site. They have not asked for my opinion lately about what to build there. They probably have a developer with a fantastic site design already in process. I am assuming this because nobody really knows (at least, nobody outside of meeting rooms is talking about it with any real knowledge or certitude.) So I went to Career Day armed with aerial photos and markers and asked these kids to talk about what they love about Corning and what they’d like to see here, and then finally what they’d like to see built on the Corning Hospital site.
Listen up, people. These kids want to see some giant statues of George Washington! They would like a hotel and a bunch of waterslides. They’d also like a theme park full of backhoes where kids can dig. Another cool thing would be a petting zoo. Oh and also, a building shaped like a robot. (Surely Robert Venturi would approve.)
Click the images below to see some of the other ideas from Carder Elementary Students:
While my exercise with the students was slightly tongue-in-cheek it was also a personal experiment in engaging (small) residents and gauging their enthusiasm for what is here in Corning versus/plus what could be. And if it works on this micro-level, perhaps one day we could take down a few of the proverbial silos and try it on a larger scale. I would posit that although a public conversation about planning and design may add some weeks to the overall schedule of project X, and would require some education and patience on everyone’s part, the process would also add a not-insignificant amount of public interest and even ownership (in the mental sense as opposed to financial) that would greatly benefit our beautiful little city.
Urban Planner, HUNT Engineers
For the record, I would find great personal amusement in a theme park full of backhoes; I’m just saying there are no bad ideas at this stage. Or at any stage, really, until the final decision is made. I’m a huge advocate of these types of conversations and I think they create some real buy-in from the community, as well. For now, read some of our ideas for what’s needed in this city and share some of your own. A robot-shaped petting zoo is not off the table.