Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This Land Is Your Land...

...this land is my land...You know how the rest of the song goes. It's a patriotic number about America and all her beauty. We sang it as a little children in school. Back in those days, there was a lot of singing in schools, and more public singing in general. Not so much any more.

When we moved to St. Louis, one of the most striking things for us was the amount of public singing here, often at sporting events. Being among thousands of people singing either the national anthem at a Cardinals game or the name of a Blackhawk goaltender in mock affection, is a pretty cool thing.

What is happening with the Arch is going to take a similar level of community spirit. For the Arch effort to succeed, St. Louisans need to rally around it. We're not there yet. Most people don't have the Arch planning project on their radar screens. And if they're aware of it, many want to see things left alone. That's not a surprise. St. Louisans are famously resistent to change. Change the Arch? Well, that brings people off the sidelines.

We can build on this interest. When it comes to the Arch, people across the region have a sense of ownership. It's the symbol of St. Louis. From Wentzville to Belleville, there's a connection. And beyond personal connnections, there are legal ties as well.

The Arch is a national park. It's a National Historic Landmark. It's owned by the National Park Service - that's you and me. It's located in the City of St. Louis, in the State of Missouri. It has a federal highway running through it, though the NPS owns the land under the highway. The Corps of Engineers manages the Mississippi. And it's been the subject of numerous plans and design studies. There are as many ideas about what to do with the Arch as their are planning firms, universities, and special interest groups.

With so many different perspectives, it's easy to do nothing. Yet most people acknowledge some things could change. Improving access generates little controversy. How to do it? Then you'll get differing views.

What we need is regional buy-in. The National Park Service and the Danforth Foundation have started the process. There have been a number of meetings and design concepts presented. However, given the way people feel about the Arch, will current efforts lead to a regional mandate for the plan?

The planning process needs to build toward a regional consensus. With consensus, the project has the greatest opportunity for success. This process can be a powerful exercise in building civic energy and community pride, connecting the region. (Hmmm, ideas for logos are starting to come to mind. The Arch, connecting the region, in a community development process...)

We are headed toward a design competition. How the designs will be judged remains to be seen. The design competition needs to result in a decision which is embraced by the greater St. Louis community. How should that happen? From a top down or grass roots approach? Some of both?

From the administrative file on the original development of the Arch:

"The memorial was not simply to be a huge shaft of stone, a statue of Thomas Jefferson, or a monumental structure that people would visit only once or twice and then revisit only when showing a stranger the city's sights, the paper said.

Instead, the area must be made an integral part of the community's life, and revive the adjacent downtown area in terms of beauty and vigor."


Anonymous said...

Unless the casinos and highways can be eliminated, this land is not our land. Looks like the train has left the station. Welcome to Pottersville.

GMichaud said...

I can't see how a decision totally from the top down will be viable. One of the future challenges will be to learn how to truly engage the community. Public hearings today are mostly for show, with decisions made in the back rooms with little concern for the input.
Obviously there is the issue of expertise. But it is easy to see, not only with the Arch grounds but in much of the current urban planning in and around St. Louis that expertise and professional input has not resulted in the best results.
Thus somehow the process will need to be revamped to include public input. Not only will that introduce accountability that has been lacking, but those with knowledge of architecture and urban planning should be able convince the public the wisdom of their ideas. If in fact they are good concepts.
Take the new sculpture park in the Gateway Mall. It was a done deal from the top down. And while the park as a stand alone park will be attractive enough, its ability to become more than another dead zone is going to be a real struggle given the existing urban planning surrounding the mall.
It is project that could have benefited from a good deal more vetting.
In the same way, one can only hope for a new, constructive process that is inclusive and will help arrive at the most attractive solutions for the Arch grounds.