The goal of the iQuilt — which was the topic of discussion Wednesday evening (30 March 2011) at the Hartford Public Library — is to connect “45 cultural assets to create a more vibrant, walkable, sustainable city and downtown.” This project was created in 2008 by the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and The Greater Hartford Arts Council. While some residents were dubious during the early stages of this, for a variety of reasons, the project seems to have since evolved, seeking more input from residents.
Right now the project is exploring preliminary planning and design options; there should be a final design ready in September or October of this year. Wednesday night’s meeting about Bushnell Park followed the format of introduction, two breakout sessions, and a regrouping to summarize what people came up with. Dozens of people attended and most stayed for the entire workshop. Participants were reminded of the plan principles: respect history, integrate park and city, enliven the park, engage nature, and enhance sustainability. It was emphasized throughout the workshop that the iQuilt planning is intended to be an open and ongoing process.
There were four concurrent sessions, focusing on uses and users, lighting/night activities, water and landscaping, and the relationship to the city. At each of these sessions, iQuilters (planners?) presented an overview of topics for discussion. There were impressive photos and maps at every station. “Playing cards” listing different ideas were made available late into the session so that participants could affix red or green stickers voting the ideas up or down.
A few small problems with this system. First, no explanation (at least not at the first session I attended) was provided that red meant “no” and green meant “yes,” so I know that at least one participant was just putting stickers on to indicate his interest. If one person admitted to this error, then it’s possible that others did this as well. The other item that some participants griped about was that they were basically given choices and steered toward certain ones. This seemed more like the style of a particular iQuilter, as it did not occur in every session.
In this three part series, you’ll find summary and commentary of the four breakout sessions. Tonight’s will discuss the “uses and users” session. This was mainly a discussion of what kinds of activities to include, expand, or eliminate from Bushnell Park, though there was some participant-generated discussion about how to make the park more user-friendly for residents. Activity categories were: carousel, playground, pavilion, ice skating, small performances, lawn, quiet activities, court games, and food.
This particular session felt too guided and simultaneously disorganized by the iQuilters-in-charge. We were given a lengthy overview of the topics and then handed little cards that illustrated a range of activities, but it was not clear what exactly we were to do with these. On one hand, these could generate some interesting ideas, but on the other, it felt almost like we were expected to choose from what we were handed. Discussion was chaotic, with people talking over each other at times, and it was not always clear whether or not a suggestion was heard. The positive in this is that there were enough people involved in the process where chaotic discussion could be possible. The participants were a mix of people with planning backgrounds and just those who enjoy (or would like to enjoy) Bushnell Park.
One priority was that activities for families be considered. There was some discussion about potentially moving the carousel to another location within the park due to some issues with its foundation “settling.” It was noted that the playground should be near the carousel, as this provides a natural play area for children. Participants added the need for maintenance, repair, and upgrades to the playgrounds already in the park. Someone mentioned that the carousel was “hidden” and should be in a more prominent location. Though this did not come up, having the carousel open for more of the year would be nice.
Another set of ideas were brainstormed about water features. A reference was made to the choreographed water fountain that’s in front of the Brooklyn Museum in NYC. It was agreed that children are attracted to this kind of feature, and that having an interactive water component would be desirable. Right now, there is an interactive water feature in Bushnell Park, but you would never know it since it’s busted. This is located in the playground next to the carousel. Another water feature idea was to revisit the space around the Corning Fountain. Right now, the arrangement of benches makes it seem closed off. There was talk of opening this up more and giving children the opportunity to run through it.
The concept of moving the pavilion to another part of the park seemed to be pushed a bit. I am not entirely sure what is wrong with the current location, other than the need for people to use more sunblock when they spend time in that area. As someone who has gotten sunburns on both East and West sides of the park, I’m not sure if the sun is reason enough to move a large feature. One of the maps posted showed how one side of the park receives more foot traffic than the other side, and it felt like organizers were steering participants toward the idea of moving more activities to this side.
An idea that appeared to originate from a participant was that of book loans. This is something she described as being available in a park in Mexico, so that people could read while their kids played nearby. This is an interesting idea, yet a bit ironic since this meeting was held in a book loan center (the library) which is only a two minute walk from Bushnell Park. If this would actually be used, though, it’s not a bad idea.
The call for food in the park was also one that I found to be redundant. During the week, there are food trucks around the park. One resident asked where children could get ice cream. There are only two foodstuffs that I have ever bought off a truck in Hartford. One was ice cream. The other was a cupcake. The ice cream was obtained from a truck parked near one of the Charter Oak scions, right along the park. Given the obesity rate, I’m not convinced the children of Hartford (or myself) have a need for more readily available junkfood. Encouraging the existing food trucks to stay later on weekdays and on the weekends would be more desirable, as it’d take a more affordable food option and expand its availability. An idea that I’d personally be more receptive to is that of closing off Trinity Street and placing food vendors there.
Something that was not really discussed was the need for real bathroom access. If we’re going to add food options, then we need to have decent bathrooms, not just outhouses. People may want to wash their hands before eating. There are bathrooms inside the perpetually locked Pump House Gallery. I don’t know that the fabric of society would rip apart if these were left unlocked during regular business (no pun intended) hours.
Nobody cared for the idea of a dog park. Until people start picking up after their dogs, I don’t think a dog park is anything I’d want to see develop either.
Someone suggested that a winter park be created with skiing. I tried to get a word in about how the ice skating was great, but would be even better if we used the natural ice created on the park’s pond. Besides not needing to build a rink, it’d force someone to shovel the snow off the ice, thus preventing massive fish deaths like the one we saw a few weeks ago at that same site. I’m not sure how taking a Zamboni to the pond ice would work out, but it somehow seems more sustainable than the setup we had going in the park this past season.
One participant suggested that a labyrinth be added to the park. If I could get a guarantee that such a creation would result in me breaking through to the other side and meeting David Bowie in spandex, I’d sign up in a second.
Someone else suggested a bike rental. Given the iQuilt’s goal of connecting Bushnell Park to the Riverfront, where there is a very long bike path, and given that the East Coast Greenway goes directly through the park, this makes a lot of sense. A few bike racks could be installed too.
There seemed to be a little interest in quiet activities like chess and ping pong; meanwhile, tennis and basketball courts were rejected by participants. There was relief in hearing that. There are other parks in the city that have such activity spaces and often they are in poor condition. The tennis courts in my neighborhood are totally destroyed and kids use the space to play baseball. Doug Suisman, the project’s Lead Designer, said that they are “not interested in building anything that is not maintained.”
The idea of closing off Trinity Street, even if only on the weekends, was tossed around. This is the street that runs through the park. This is the street that buses are parked along during the week, making crossing difficult for pedestrians, as they have to walk out halfway into the road to see if it’s safe to cross. Besides parking food vendors on the street, another possibility was turning the street into a temporary marketplace.
Finally, in this session, one participant expressed annoyance about how residents do not always feel welcomed into the park on weekends when it is overbooked with particularly large events, like marathons. Event management could be coordinated better; some events could even happen at other city parks to balance out the wear-and-tear. I have witnessed occasions where three different major events are booked in the park at the same time. In that circumstance, one could be held elsewhere.
Part Three: Bushnell Park’s Relationship to the City