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Hometown U: What makes public space safe?

Kathleen McCoy

Like any urban community, Anchorage has issues.

One that surfaced recently is criminal activity in Town Square, the small park landscaped with hills and trees in downtown Anchorage. Police say the park's design makes drug use and sexual activity too easy. The community policing team proposes leveling the hills and removing trees as well as eliminating seats to discourage loitering.

I wonder what Candy Chang would say about that. Chang, an artist fascinated with the way we shape public space and public space shapes us, was at UAA this week.

She's just published a book documenting the global spread of a public-space project she started in New Orleans, where passers-by finished this sentence on a washable chalkboard wall: "Before I die I want to . . ."

Chang launched the project after losing someone close to her and contemplating the end of life. What people wrote made her laugh and cry, and helped her heal.

Chang was here to judge the "No Big Heads" self-portrait competition, which the UAA Student Union Gallery has hosted for almost 30 years, with hundreds of submissions from across the nation. The free show opened Thursday and continues weekdays through Nov. 15.

While Chang was on campus, the community engagement center and professor Bree Kessler tapped her to share insights with two classes that are about to burst onto the Anchorage scene with their own public-space events.

One is a "pop-up museum" on Nov. 9 outside the Fairview Recreation Center. The pop-up is an event where residents will share their local artifacts for a single day. Already a 1950s-era community sign that reads "Welcome to Friendly Fairview" has surfaced, courtesy of longtime resident Wadeen Hepworth.

Re-imagining place is high on the to-do list for the Fairview Community Council, which is why it so quickly embraced the students' request to stage the pop-up in their neighborhood.

"We want to replace one story with many stories," says activist Chris Constant, who's lived in Fairview for 11 years and started sitting in on Kessler's classes once the pop-up project began. Crime stories make one-day headlines, Constant says, but "good neighbors, really good neighbors, is the truth about Fairview."

A broad ethnic and socio-economic diversity is at the root of its connectedness, resident S.J. Klein said.

"Some 30 to 35 percent of us don't own cars, so we're out walking and we meet each other.

"Our houses are small, they don't have attached garages, so when people come home from work at night, they walk from the alley around to their house. Again, they're out on the street, talking," he said. "We know each other."

Exactly what other Fairview artifacts will pop up at the one-day museum remains to be seen.

The students' other project is a set of public walks in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, a journalist and activist who shaped urban planning by insisting the experiences of city dwellers be included. She's known for stopping Robert Moses' push for a Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have passed through Washington Square Park and eliminated neighborhoods like Greenwich Village. Students leading the walks have been reading journalist William Whyte's 1980 book, "The Social Life of Small, Urban Spaces."

The My Anchorage Walks, six total and one to two hours each, will be Friday through Sunday, Nov. 8 through 10. Free and with a simple online sign-up for information and directions, tthe walks are aimed at inviting residents to re-imagine parts of their downtown. They range from a zombie-inspired Urban Survival walk to a family-centered Nature in the City walk to The Glow, a nighttime tour through Anchorage's hot and not-so-hot downtown locales.

Interestingly, Kessler said, several walks include Town Square. The nature walk starts there, student organizer and mom Jennifer Howell says, because its mature ornamental trees and hills and walls are fun for kids to play among. The hot and not-so-hot walk plans to pass through there after dark, with glow sticks in the hands of participants. Because of the recent safety discussion, Kessler said UAA's next Urban in Alaska conference in March plans a "design charrette" to ponder solutions.

So, what would Candy Chang say about a plan to eliminate seats from a public park "to discourage loitering?"

Her answer flashed on a screen during one of her campus talks. It showed city dwellers struggling to perch in public spaces that didn't offer any benches. "These people want to sit here," she says. "Help them."

Her "Before I Die" project was staged on the exterior wall of an abandoned house in her own neighborhood. It attracted so many visitors that a resident across the street said the whole neighborhood felt safer. Eventually someone bought the house and turned it back into a home.

The answer, Kessler, Chang, Whyte and Jacobs would say, is that people make public space safe. Don't shoo them out; find ways to invite many more of them in.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life on social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U