Updated Discussion March 23rd, 2022
Building a Placemaking Campaign
Kathy and I have always had a curiosity about Great Barrington. It has a reputation of being a very progressive culture that gives it a cachet that appeals to us. So when we were asked to start a conversation with some of the leadership, we jumped at the opportunity. After a day and a half, we believe that this lively, progressive community could transform itself as they figure out how to, "Build Back Better - Together"
Ultimately Great Barrington needs to become what people there want it to become. Our view is that there is a lot of potential...thus this discussion piece. Nothing we are sharing below is more than a discussion. It started with our visit with Bobby Houston, Eric Shamie and Ed Abraham. We toured the downtown in a couple of trips, digging a little deeper every time.
Your Participation - Next Steps
Start with the below post on small towns in New England. The post below sets up the rationale for how small towns can recover their social life and thrive in the future. Unquestionably, Great Barrington has the potential to make it happen. Then look at these various posts and add your thoughts to start a discussion. For any community we believe there are at least 11 categories of potential transformations that can take place, most for what we call LQC (Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper). Then there are some catalytic opportunities. They need further discussion, but can also be guided by what other communities have undertaken.
Our Initial Takeaways
Main Street is your most important asset. It is not performing very well. It is more a highway than a real "Main Street". So much of what's best about Great Barrington is hidden from those driving through. The above post shows that you are not alone. Most New England towns have been badly served by the State Transportation Agencies.
The streets are wider than they need to be leaving the impression that getting through town in the shortest time possible with the least "friction" is the highest priority.
For people experience driving through is of a generally prosperous downtown that starts well north on Route 7 with many intersting stand alone independant retail uses. But as one gets into the downtown core from both directions the emphasis shifts to a focus on driving through rather than allowing visitors from taking in the nuances that going slower could add to their experience of the visitor.
There are few uses on Main Street that jump out to attract one as you drive through. Parked vehicles is what everyone sees at "eye level" with handsome, historic builds above them. Storefronts are well designed acording to "uniform design standards", but they are more about "Architecture" than what is being offered to potential customers. Trees, though small are spaced evenly rather than accentuating unique places along the street. The City Hall is set back with an automobile drop-off with limited appeal.
The town lacks any significant public spaces. The one exception is the library with their book carts. There are no squares, small parks or museums that add to the draw in the downtown. The main attraction is hidden behind the Main Street buildings mostly on the west side between Main Street and the railroad tracks.
The Mason Library is easily the best destination on Main Street. Just by the simple act of pulling out book carts, people are flocking to brouse, thus creating the simple evidence tthat it doesn't take much to create a place to gather. The site has potential to become three spaces...a side plaza, a potential central gathering plaza and a seating area under the tree. It could grow from there. So, with just a little more work, it could easily become a square or hub that the Main Street needs. We understand that a special sculpture of W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist is planned for in front of the library. (see below for examples) This could be very important? The library also is next to a church and across from the Post Office. Putting the three together could be an easy win...
Main Street is not child friendly. There are no evident playgrounds, child friendly sculpture, water fountains, etc. The one exception is the Prairie Whale that is truely a special destination and the only child friendly place we saw downtown...but there is no sense of its presence from Main Street. It is half a block across from the library...a narrowing of the street, an enhanced crosswalk, colored with some art could draw attention to this really important pair of places.
Another possible idea we are exploring globally is a Placemaking Resource Center. The Mason Library could be a pilot
This center would be organic and generative places for people to come together, reflect on the social life of Great Barrington, spark new ideas through conversations, and be inspired to take the social life of these places into your own hands. They would be hands-on, experiential, image-driven, and results-oriented--that is, the resources provided could be the foundational start point for achieving tangible improvements to place-based social life across throughout Great Barrington, led of course by local residents and community leaders. The whole idea of a Placemaking Centers is that, if people can see what has successfully happened in other communities across the world, they can see how easy it is to make change. They just don’t know it’s possible yet. Local people with vested interests in Great Barrington could lead this transformation.
So, the question is where can other gathering places along Main Street happen?
The best gathering place in Great Barrington is actually a parking lot next to the movie theatre completely isolated from the Main Street.
Railroad Street might be great when it is closed to parking and for those who know it is there, but to the passerby, it doesn't exhibit the importance that the local community places on it. The curbs are fixed giving the impression that it is first and foremost a street, and not the destination locals know it to be.
There is plenty of parking in the downtown, but not in the few places where people want them, even within a walkable block. If the perception of the downtown were to be expanded and people would see going downtown as multiple stops that started at different ends of Main Street, there would be a lot more foot traffic, more economic activity and a vastly improved perception of the main street as the center of the community.
There is a river running through the downtown with nothing more than a small trail going along it. Great asset, but minimal in its usage. It has enormous potential to connect different parts of the community from the Fair Grounds up north creating a great experience with nodes of activity to experience the water which currently dosen't exist.
There are no "Gateways to the Downtown". Where Route 23 enters at the southern end of the downtown and the Red Bridge at the northern end are traffic intersections that do not give any indication of entering downtown. On both ends further North and further South, there could also be entrances to indicate that people have arrived in Great Barrington.
The Berkshire South Community Center north of downtown is totally hidden and not evident except to those with the knowledge that it is there.
Saratoga Springs north of Albany, New York, shows how to make a main street work with roughly the same dimensions between buildings that Great Barrington has. Your center of town was designed for highway levels of traffic to reduce any friction. One aspect of their idea of the perfect road was provide turning lanes to not interrupt traffic flow. Also, the stores along Main Street do not have the presence that Saratoga Springs has.
Saratoga Springs, New York
We recently returned to Saratoga Springs for the first time in many years. We were incredibly impressed with the vibrant Main Street, which also happens to serve as a state road and has a lot of traffic. Wide sidewalks make this juxtaposition possible.
Because of their width, people can stick to walking closer by to the buildings that line the street, meaning that one's walking path is well-removed from the road. This is also helped by the fact that pedestrians are also separated from the street by grass, a planter, a large shade tree, or (in some cases) an actual plaza in front of each property. In many parts of town, café seating is both directly next to the buildings and in the areas between the sidewalk and the streets, creating a double- loaded sidewalk setting.
Corners in Saratoga Springs are active, too. Meanwhile, extended block faces with small storefronts create an inviting experience for pedestrians passing through.
As mentioned, this all adds up to the perfect example of a double-loaded sidewalk. The car activity on the street is kept out of the way of pedestrians, who can focus on other things rather than the rush and noise of traffic. It is safe for people of all ages, and children can roam freely.
Potential - Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Activations
We are leading a global effort to connect climate change and local community placemaking transformations. This link and others below and our site, Placemakingfund.org and the two programs, Placemakingx.org and Sociallifeproject.org, describe our work. Placemaking has become a global initiative led locally by over 19 regions covering every continent and culture.
These 11 agendas, in the link below, are applicable to all sizes of communities. The ones in this post are large scale transformations, many of which we have been involved in. All of them can be adapted to Great Barrington.
Your potential is enormous. A few hundred small changes and a few catalytic projects, most of which could be done quickly, could change that perception.
Main Street is key. If it becomes a series of places, it could easily tip the balance where the traffic would want to slow down to see and participate in a special experience that you offer. David Engwicht an Australian zealous nut talks about how to calm traffic by creating uses that people are interested in. Here in this image he is sitting on the Champs-Elysees in Paris...He slowed the traffic down.
Comfortable seating, extending intersections where people can gather, opening storefronts to exhibit, displaying goods or provide double loaded seating for restaurants would have an immediate impact. The main interrsection in New Haven where Clair's Cornucopia was saved by having an extended sidewalk and corner.
The Mason Library is currently the main attraction on Main Street. It could quickly become a "town square" and the main anchor at that end of town. There are other potential sites that could follow immediately, creating a series of nodes that would draw attention. Ultimately, Main Street could become a place to promenade, walking from one end to the other.
Vail Water feature
This is probably too much for Great barrington, but it works well as a center point in Vail
Both ends of town could become distinct places. The corner/intersection to the north by extending and adding some destinations/uses adjacent to the Red Bridge, could be a significant destination.
Perhaps the entire intersection at the Red Bridge could become the "gateway place" as people enter the downtown. The South intersection where Route 23 goes off to the West could have an exhibit on the massive wall hiding the castle. Perhaps historical photographs of the original Castle when it was being used.
These are just a few of the many opportunities that you could create for Great Barrington. We suggest that you look at these posts and write down your thoughts
Collect ideas into categories around specific places and the 11 agendas. We can add examples that might help them gestate a bit to better relate to your setting.
Good Luck! We are here if you need help!