Forget 'change,' plan for 'exchange'

What’s all the hubbub? At Tuesday’s well-attended roundtable on the future of Winslow, talk focused on creation of a “street plan” to give us all a better idea what our urban core might look like as it fills out.

We were going to praise the proposal as worthy of a little hubbub, until we recalled that that term comes from from an old Scots Gaelic interjection (“ub ub ubub”) referring to “the confused shouting of a crowd.” And that seemed more appropriate to, say, a hearing on Ericksen Avenue...which is perhaps why we need a street plan in the first place.

Indeed, one subtext of Tuesday’s discussion was just how to translate the goals of planners, engineers, neighbors and city officials into a lingua franca, a common language of community development. A good place to start might be a book now making the rounds (Peter O’Connor loaned it to the mayor, who read it and loaned it us) called “Street Reclaiming” (New Society Publishers, 1999) by David Engwicht. The text is an easy but invigorating read, and even those who find the ideas too abstract can at least enjoy the funny drawings. While we’re not on the author’s payroll, we will say that someone ought to stock some copies at Eagle Harbor Books, and scatter a few around the Bainbridge Library, the Senior Center, city hall, coffee shops and other local salons.

A community and transportation thinker, Engwicht begins with the axiom that our streets were historically a place of “spontaneous exchange” – defined as the sharing of goods, culture, knowledge, friendship and support, all of the commodities that make up our commercial and social economy.

Enter the development of the automobile and the ominous phenomenon that ensued – traffic – which replaced spontaneous exchange with “planned” exchange in distant locations. Streets were displaced in their traditional role as “destinations,” relegated to mere avenues for travel elsewhere.

A social and psychological toll followed; the “sense of place” folks once derived from their own streets vanished; children and the elderly (who cannot negotiate the modern street) were marginalized from public life; and even across-the-street neighbors were driven apart by the wedge of speeding cars between them.

Positively, Enwicht proposes a program for traffic calming and “street reclaiming” that includes many of the tools we’ve discussed in our community – pedestrian islands, public squares, landscaping, nooks and crannies for benches and tables, features that can bring people together for spontaneous exchange.

But where “neighborhood character” comes to be defined as the absence of rudimentary improvements that should have gone in years ago -- bluntly, sidewalks – some changes should be seen as positive. We need a language to express that.

Which takes us back to Ericksen Avenue. There, sidewalks and bike lanes came to be seen as threats, something to be feared and defeated. Even some city council members, apparently unsure what they are for or against, have called for a project shorn of landscaping – among the very amenities needed to make a street liveable.

When the council demands the right to vote against the planting of trees, it’s clear that the confused shouting of the crowd – hubbub -- has drowned out rational discourse.

Changing our language – replacing the “fear of change” with Enwicht’s “fostering of exchange” -- could do a lot to re-establish mutual goals, and heading off such disputes.

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