Thursday, March 19, 2009

'k-town' sparks discussion about accountability in public-private spaces

Skaters in the former Silver Spring Metro Urban Park.

Yesterday's Gazette discusses unrest over 'K-town,' a makeshift skate spot in a park behind the Housing Opportunities Commission offices on Summit Avenue in Kensington. Four years ago, Kensington skaters made an agreement with neighbors to take care of the space themselves, but a rotating cast of kids has led to a drop in upkeep and unsafe conditions for both skaters and park users alike.

This is a literal example of giving kids a stake in the public realm, something I've really taken an interest in over the past few months. (I've always wanted to be a skater, you see, but I am deathly afraid of putting my feet on anything that moves by itself.) The K-town skaters 'own' this space, much in the way that young people owned "the Turf," though it was clear who was responsible for maintaining it.

The County will face an increasing demand for public or semi-public urban spaces for people of all ages to hang out/do recreational activities/hold concerts, festivals and parties. I mean, it already happens with skaters, who make a hobby out of repurposing the rooms and furniture of the city. With today's budget crisis, it's feasible to imagine a whole network of these informal public-private partnerships on underutilized government properties throughout Montgomery County. (In fact, County Council candidate and frequent commenter Thomas Hardman suggested doing exactly that with vacant parking lots in a comment thread here a few days ago.)

But where K-town fails is that there was an unclear delineation of responsibility - the neighborhood and the County gave the space to the skaters to maintain, but didn't install a framework to keep it maintained; i.e., nobody was put in charge. It's a tenant-landlord relationship. A tenant makes a contract with the landlord to take care of the space given to them; in this case, neither the tenant or the landlord was clear. No one was held accountable and there's no one to be held accountable to.

Accountability is also a major concern in Downtown Silver Spring. Ever since the redeveloped area opened, people have asked if the patrons are held accountable for their own [bad] behavior; if it's the County or Peterson Companies that are accountable for maintaining Ellsworth Drive; or who should be held accountable for the post-concert violence two weeks ago.

The lesson learned here is that it's not just about providing spaces for people to go, but making it clear who's in charge and what the rules are. There's no reason why a County office building, a skate spot and a neighborhood park can't coexist - but the boundaries of use and responsibility need to be made clear.


Mortis Olaf said...

I can imagine you've seen this, but just in case:

Thomas Hardman said...

Talk about synchronicity: I was just hunting for one of the "but what can we do to prevent more youth violence like we saw in DTSS recently" threads to post a link to this.

This is an example not too far from my own recent suggestion about maybe finding someplace that kids already hang out, and giving it an official or semi-official imprimatur of acceptability and tolerance.

And as you point out, the real thing is about sorting out the lines of responsibility, and setting boundaries and getting people ot honor those boundaries.

You may feel free to hark back to some of my remarks about how a huge part of "growing up" is about internalizing those concepts of boundaries and responsibilities. Teenagers often are a roiling ball of feeling excluded and put-upon on the one hand, and seriously entitled on the other hand. If you leave them a place where their feeling of entitlement is real, but comes only with exercising some responsibility, they learn that if they play by the rules, they get their own space, and if it's done properly, they learn that other people play by the rules, too.

And once again, I want to point to North Gate Park and how really quite inexpensive efforts -- over most of a decade -- have transformed North Gate Park from a generally overgrown and icky lair and open-air drug market into a much more family-friendly area.

The hardest part -- cleaning up maybe decades of deadfalls and overgrowth by invasives -- was done with the cooperation of the MNCPPC Parks maintenance and development people, and the Department of Corrections people. Folks who got sentenced (or who got probation before judgement) to hours of Community Service got a chance to get outside in the park, to do some fairly simple work, and get in their service hours. We also made significant use of volunteers from the community, especially from school kids.

We also had several National Night Out Against Crime events in the park, which mostly went off very well and certainly brought out both County agency reps seeking clients where the clients lived, and the clients as well.

The park evidently doesn't require much cleanup or maintenance nowadays, and the locals seem to take pretty good care of it and don't let the kids get out of hand as much as in the days when we first started working on this.

Probably this "K Town" thing can be made to go the same way.