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Bring new life to Anchorage public spaces by encouraging use

Bree Kessler

Great public spaces are what keep cities vibrant and interesting. In evaluating thousands of public spaces throughout the world, Project for Public Spaces found that successful public spaces share several key characteristics: They are accessible and convenient, there are activities taking place there, people feel comfortable and safe in the space, and there is a sense of attachment to the place.

It’s important to talk about public spaces as public spaces because utilizing this terminology and discourse opens us, as a community, to a necessary dialogue about our community’s land-use policies, our formal and informal policing of certain populations, and better solutions for how to cultivate our city into a world-class place.

Over the last few months, there have been several stories on public space issues in Anchorage. First, the tree cutting in Town Square Park; then the removal of benches at a downtown playground and most recently, the alley smells next to the 4th Avenue Theatre. These cases are all clearly public space issues; however, none has been framed as such. Instead, the general story presented seems to be about how to control and close off our public spaces so that not only “the undesirables” (the public urinators, for instance) can’t access them; but also, so no one can use or enjoy them.

The real problem here isn’t “the undesirables” -- a chronic problem, according to the municipality -- that have led our city to cut down trees, remove benches and close off fascinating alleyways. The real problem is that these areas aren’t fully utilized, and that allows for unwanted activities to take place. What about instead of investing our public funds in building fences and gates and removing trees and seating, we utilized public and private funds to create wonderful public spaces that enticed people not only to frequent them, but also to stay and sit or stand for awhile? These interventions do not need to be major capital projects. In places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, the alleys have been filled with community murals and musicians playing instruments -- even during the wintertime. Imagine if instead of blocking off places to the public, the municipality encouraged or even paid local musicians to inhabit our downtown alleys as a creative way to make use of this wasted space.

Populating spaces is a more cost-effective and a longer-term solution than emptying spaces. Creating lively public spaces produces what Jane Jacobs, the urban activist and author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," terms the “eyes on the street” principle. Research shows that crime tends to decrease when there are more people informally watching what’s happening on a given street. In fact, the now very crowded Union Square Park in New York City was once a crime-ridden deteriorating public space until a developer built a large condominium building with street level storefronts overlooking the park. Very quickly, Union Square Park began to change due to additional “eyes on the park” as well as the new users from the condominium building began to frequent the park.

In 2013, the American Planning Association named the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail as one of the great public spaces in America. I think we can all agree that the accolade is well deserved, and it’s worth thinking about: What does make the Coastal Trail so great for everyone?  The people-watching opportunities? The view? Then consider, what would the Coastal Trail be like, feel like, if we cut down some of its trees, took away its benches, built a gate blocking it off.

Bree Kessler is an assistant professor of health sciences at University of Alaska Anchorage.  She researches creative placemaking in northern cities and currently is organizing an Anchorage Park(ing) Day.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.