Friday, September 5, 2008

landscape architects fear "the turf" could kill their jobs

"The Turf" as it existed in June 2006.

If "the Turf" did anything during its brief tenure at the corner of Ellsworth and Fenton (other than offer a place for East County emo kids to loiter), it's scared the shit out of the people who make great outdoor places. "If you can just throw down some artificial turf and bring in hundreds of people, who really needs landscape architects?" asks writer Daniel Jost in this month's issue of Landscape Architecture magazine.

The article, "Beauty and the Turf" (which isn't available in full online) and a related blog entry compare "the Turf" to Silver Plaza down the street, a space that definitely bears the mark of a designer. It has places to sit, lots of shade, immediate access to food, even a colorful fountain that's been very popular with the preschool set. "The Turf," meanwhile, is just 35,000 square feet of fake grass. There are no trees, no places to sit, and by itself is no real draw. And while you'll still see quite a crowd in Silver Plaza on a Friday night, we know which space was the real winner.

People don't like to be told what to do, or how to use a space. They like places where they aren't pressured to have an agenda, like buying something. Silver Plaza is the epicenter of the "mall" they call Ellsworth Drive, surrounded with chains and constantly programmed with activities: concerts, movies, etc. It can be overbearing and even unwelcoming to someone who just wants a place to chill.

That's why you'll find kids hanging out in the mall parking lot: the tangible attractions are inside, but the freedom is outside. Not to say, of course, that public spaces should look more like parking lots, but it does suggest a hidden demand for so-called "blank slates," perhaps as a balance to places that are heavily designed.

It makes you wonder what'll happen when Veterans' Plaza is finished a couple of years from now. Will people use it as they did "the Turf"? Will its design allow that? Or will we see the adjacent Whole Foods parking lot become East County's newest teen hangout?


Duncan said...

Although I am in the synthetic turf industry, I would recommend not fearing this stuff. It is a fact of public activity now, even though some of us install more environmentally friendly versions than do others. No designer was fearful when the trend moved into hardscapes, so why don't they(or you)simply embrace it as another design component? It is not for every use where there is grass, but is good for high use and hard to reach (or maintain) public and municiple areas. Grass leads to geese being jet engine food, turf doesn't. Grass wears away easily on sprots fields, turf deosn't. Greass keeps a guy on the shoulder of the highway with a weed wacker 5 feet away from trucks going 70 MPH, turf doesn't. Come on, your better designers than it in where it is good, use grass-stone-trees etc. where they are good. It's the designers who use their abilities with all availible mediums that thrive, the rest...

Thomas Hardman said...

At last night's "Creating Opportunities for Youth" meeting a Georgian Forest Elementary in Glenmont, we had a variety of discussions in a charette environment.

I was sitting in the mini-group discussing how to sell this "Youth Initiative" to the business community, discussing desired outcomes and then strategies to get to those outcomes. Among other things, business needs to benefit somehow, and they can do that when people gather at an open attraction such as "the Turf". They -- and the larger community -- can also benefit when potentially troublesome youth is gathered in one place rather than being scattered all across the landscape doing who-knows-what.

My idea of the desired outcome is that business gets not merely a steady stream of customers but also a steady stream of job applications and also an opportunity to observe these applicants in their natural habitat, the better to select who will best mesh with their business needs and the customer base as well. Ideally, jobs find employees and employees develop careers and become taxpaying involved citizens, the bedrock of democracy etc etc. That of course is just my humble opinion and which is unlikely to be widely shared within either the MoCo business community or the MoCo sub-regional government offices.

The young adults and highschoolers who were present had their own ideas. Among other things, they wanted a place to meet and greet and in particular some expressed an interest in intercultural cross-pollination, as it were. Among other suggestions there was the idea of varieties of dance and musical exchange. I mentioned the successes of the monthly "poetry slam" at the Plaza del Mercado Starbucks. Ideas continued to circulate.

Yet when I voiced an idea that seemed blatantly obvious prima-facie, "all you have to do is to let a Scene get started, and it will evolve over time to fit the needs and desires of those involved" -- which statement produced much nodding among the youth and the non-county adults -- the MoCoGovCorp(tm), Inc people seemed to have a pall cast over their features, as it were. It's as if they were thinking "that's what we're afraid of".

And actually, I think they are afraid, or at least apprehensively regard the idea of something as free and open as "the Turf" happening in downtown Wheaton's Central Business District. Wheaton may already be scenic enough, or so it would seem. Or perhaps it's just the MoCoGovCorp's inevitable itching to be utterly in control and to have not the least thing happen that isn't the result of some script issued a day late and a dollar short after months or years of classic MoCo "paralysis by analysis".

The Business Community certainly would benefit from "exposure"; what the County seems to think of as "an attractive nuisance" would for the business community be a gathering place for customers and a major selling point and a "draw". A Marketing fellow in attendance seemed to think that you probably couldn't ask for a better marketing opportunity, unless maybe you ere canvassing out free samples of new booze products in the Adams Morgan bars. (No, he didn't actually say that, but I know Marketing types and it's not hard to read between the lines.)

And what the Marketing fellow "got" is what the County doesn't seem to want to get. This is the perfect place for the unmarked squads to see who's an asshole and who's an upstanding and recruitable example of how to fill future leadership needs. It's the perfect place to hand out "change the battery in your smoke alarm" flyers, or pass out notifications of where to get your free flu-shot. The County doesn't seem to understand that "if you build it they will come, unless you try to overcontrol it to the point where people start avoiding a known gathering place of nervous nellies on control freak power trips".

So go to Wheaton and put down "the Turf", though actually I suggest that there's no need to sell Business on it; Business will probably fund it themselves with great cheerfulness in the same way they sponsor or host 4th-of-July events. The County probably just needs to avoid the tendency to over-regulate spontaneity out of existence, and take advantage of a ready crowd on a low-key and impromptu basis. If they want to throw a show, I expect that the best thing they could do would be to pay for the electricity and have someone responsible hold the sign-up sheet so that the events move forward in good order.

Of course, the question remains, what do you do in the wintertime. Move it indoors? Actually, there's a fairly sadly large amount of vacant retail space all over the place, and the county is already pretty cozy with shopping-mall managers all over the place. This is where someone probably needs to work something out between Business and Government, but in my opinion, it all needs to be done with a very light hand, and let it all be about the Scene that's created, and catering to that Scene, rather than trying to create a Scene that would rightly be viewed as something the County wants to cater to it.