Concerning Hidden Thoughts and Public Spaces…

By     Aug 1, 2014

We, the people, the city planners, the bureaucrats, the artists, we think about civic spaces and risk mitigation-how to keep park goers safe, how to keep the city safe etc. Personally, we navigate as safely as we can though "sketchy areas", some of us noting spots someone would lurk in, if they had bad intent. We think about the people who intend to hurt others and the people who could accidentally hurt themselves, despite the best intentions and planning. Park planning reflects these concerns with basic guidelines around clear-lines of sight, smooth foot/traffic flow with no bottlenecks, keeping public spaces well lit and avoiding the creation of hidden, dark locations.1

In designing structures, layout, lighting, materials, we typically think about outwardly expressed violence and accidents but what about the people who intend to hurt themselves?

Why am I thinking about this? I'm thinking about the suicide at Element 11, a young man who ran into the fire, as our own burn night, at SOAK, safely wore on. I'm thinking about his choice, to do it at the peak of the event, to leave that gift for everyone who saw it and who couldn't stop it.

I'm also thinking about someone in my Portland community, who died about a week later. When the news of his passing reached a local Summer Santacon event, the jolly interactive, Cacophony Society pub crawl became an instant wake.

Finally, I'm thinking of my friend, who I met at Oregon Country Fair, which, this year, took place the same weekend as SOAK, the event I lead Placement for. The last time I saw her was about a year ago. This year, she was going through a break up but did not share much of her feelings and only at the end of the festival. Country Fair is a place where, unlike Burning Man, the "positive" is almost a requirement-most people will not tolerate talk of real world woes during this event-it is the time of fairy whispers, drum circles, and laughter but not sadness. At least not shared sadness. There have been three divorces/relationships ending for these old friends over the last few years-none would talk about it. The chance my friend had to receive all sorts of love and affection from her friends, in her favorite environment, she did not take. She left the world about a week later, her Eugene service taking place the same night as the impromptu Portland wake.

She was a Country Fair gal with at least 25 years of service given and a newer Burner, this would have been her third or fourth year. I never got to see her in the dust and her passing affects at least two large communities.

What can creative placemakers do in a world where, sadly, people choose to leave-and sometimes choose your event or structure or village or park as their last touch-point. Sometimes people choose public spaces or spaces they know will have great impact when they choose to die. A few people even leave a festival space so inspired that their own world "back home" is what makes them choose to leave. Sometimes the culture created by an event or space has an effect on someone's actions. What is our responsibility as placers of space, event planners, facilitators of creativity, authenticity, freedom of expression? What is our role as neighbors, community members, artists, healers,friends?

Should we do anything specific? Can Design and Psychology work in union to help people make other choices? And, perhaps more disturbing, can we truly do anything at all?

While I believe our physical environment influences who we are to a great extent, I'm not sure lower fences and a clear line of sight lowers crime, inward or outward facing. And in terms of psychology, what about the brightly, hummingly-lit, amphitheater-type social spaces, the large, concrete, public pools, and, often in urban spaces, a clear line between planted, installed nature and the rest of the concrete, signage and buildings? Some parks are almost laid out like jails; correctional facility-influenced design would be clearly influential in a park-setting. I personally do not thrive in spaces where I can be seen from all angles. It makes me feel less safe. What works for some fails for others.

Do these spaces create some of the problems? Or interact with local sociological factors, providing a stage for the Socio- Economics of America?

What would a park or event setting look like with smaller pockets of seating? Softer but ample lighting, ambient as well as overhead? What if non-climbable, tall, metal-mesh backs supported seating, creating a visual screen, implying intimacy, while being open air? Instead of standard fluorescent, what about clear sculptures, lit from within, glowing from the top of the bench backs?

Can you create a public space more conducive to depth-full conversation, the sharing of secrets and the storytelling that can sometimes relieve us when we are hurting? Can you create a sanctuary with no high places to jump from, nowhere to hang from, no dark corners... I'm hoping so.