Maine Articles > "A Sense of Place"

Text of article.

Portland Press Herald

Maine Sunday Telegram (Portland, ME)

May 25, 1997
Edition: CITY
Section: INSIGHT
Page: 1C
Estimated printed pages: 5
Article Text:
It's three o'clock in the afternoon and Camden's village center is full of kids. The library, the parks, the churches, the YMCA - institutions all clustered in the village center - begin to fulfill their roles as stages for the next generation's concept of who they are - where they're from.
Each morning, children clamber onto bicycles or walk the short distance to school, which is centrally located. Buses reach out to gather those living on the periphery. This ritual, repeated over and over, becomes one of the strongest identity factors in each child's life: ``I am from here; this is my street; this is my path to school; this is my town; this is my place to play hackysack.'' Although we live in the information age, some things, like our senses, never change.
When it came time to expand Camden's library, the town didn't think, ``Hmmm, let's sell this old landmark and build a new library on a greenfield site a couple of miles from downtown, where square footage costs will be low and vehicle circulation will be optimal and there will be plenty of parking.''
No, the thinking went more like, ``How can we add the space and preserve the character and enjoyable space outside as it relates to the town as a whole?'' Priority was given to strengthening the quality of the village concept. This respect and commitment to the idea of village was so strong that the new library wing is actually underground.
Now Camden and its surrounding towns are going to build a new regional high school on a greenfield site three miles from downtown. It will be a wonderful school and everyone is very excited about it. Many of our new schools around the state are being built at similar locations. This is logical, given the need for a large building, for large amounts of land for athletic fields and for easy access for buses, which will be necessary for transporting so many kids who used to walk to school.
But it occurred to me that something precious will be lost. And will continue to be lost unless we put our heads together and come up with some solutions.
On the one hand, each new facility built on an open site on the outskirts of town will function very efficiently, with one building, ball fields and bus traffic all taken care of.
On the other hand, the car appears to have won. Traffic engineering would appear to be the most important factor, along with square-foot costs, in deciding where to build a school. Almost all the kids attending the school will be bused in, or will arrive by private automobile. The same criteria that govern the building of suburban malls by private developers appear to have been applied here. No more stepping out of the classroom and into the town square; the kids will line up at the curb waiting for rides home.
BASED PURELY on the numbers, the greatest need in planning a new school is classroom space, followed by athletic fields and traffic. The classroom space can be easily accommodated in any town, if the state would support efforts to keep our kids in the town center and therefore strengthen our town identities. As for the athletic fields, they can be located at various places and used by everyone. Imagine everyone in town playing on the town green surrounded by some of the institutional buildings we all use.
As long as we allow decisions to be made on the basis of pure numbers, the way life should be is in trouble. Slowly, we are disassembling our towns piece by piece. Soon, no discernable town will exist, only traces: ``That building used to be the post office. That police station used to have a town hall next to it.''
Our tendency to see a building as an object alone and unique keeps us from seeing the relationships between buildings, and between us and the street space. We then continue to build our buildings standing alone, heroically fulfilling their only purpose, be it school, library or town hall, without also forming a part of a greater whole called the town.
Several spaces come together to form the experience we call a town. And several spaces come together for each child and us as we move from front door to school or library or town offices or five-and-dime. In today's world disorienting gaps appear in our spatial experiences when we suddenly change from walking down the sidewalk to hurtling through space at 50 mph to sitting in a room some distance from home. We need to create wonderful town spaces to reconnect ourselves to our surroundings.
In Maine, high school is not merely a step on the road to a bright future. Each town's high school is a container for the town's living history. The basketball games are dynamic events to be cherished and discussed for eternity. The identity of each town is formed in large part by the stories from events occurring in the schools. Our high schools are in many ways our most significant buildings, and perhaps in our should be placed in the center of our towns.
In the future we will have access to unlimited alternate realities in 3-D video. Access to our institutions, such as libraries, town offices, police, fire department and even schooling may come through the video world. From a purely pragmatic view, there will cease to be a need for many institutional buildings. Based strictly on the numbers, we might say that life will be more efficient without them.
But no matter how many tasks we can accomplish with the computer or how entertained our children can be by one, we will always desire to be around people for a certain amount of time each day. How many of us go into a shop after work just to be around people, even if we don't need to purchase anything?
Therefore, our institutions might simply change to fulfill needs that are not based solely on function. The library may be a ``quiet zone''; the police station will contain a ``safe zone.'' We can develop our public spaces based on emotional values.
In Orono, I lived across the street from the road up to the high school, so I walked to school. The high school in Orono contains the public library. The building sits behind the middle school, which sits behind the police/fire station/town office building, which sits on Main Street.
After school we could walk into town, and maybe go to Pat's Pizza or LaVerdiere's. The institutional buildings were all placed in town because it was common sense to do so. We must use common sense when placing our institutions in the future.
The zoning laws we write are the rules by which developers play. Any time we see a building go up that does not fit our concept of what our town should be, we have only ourselves to blame. The rules we write are the basis for the creation of our towns, and we need to incorporate goals that are in step with the experiences we would like to have in moving by foot through our town. These rules should incorporate networks of experiences such as the movement from library to school; from town hall to post office; from police station to town hall; from shops to school, etc.
When we plan our public institutions around automobile traffic, we place the comfort of a large piece of metal over our own comfort. We try in vain to have a meaningful conversation in five seconds as we pick up a burger at the drive-through window. And while our cars sit comfortably in their spaces, we wander aimlessly through seas of asphalt to complete simple chores.
In Camden, the best place for a new high school may be smack in the middle of town in the old mill now used as offices for a telemarketing company. That company with all its commuters may in fact be better off at the proposed high school site. That would make common sense.
An exchange student from Switzerland was interviewed recently regarding her experiences so far in the United States. She said it was so different, all this rushing around by car to run simple errands. In her village, people walk. ``Things are so hectic here,'' she said. ``We move a lot slower where I come from. My house is closer to everything there, and it's new to always have to drive somewhere. We don't even have school buses there.''
Where was she? Los Angeles? Miami? Some New Jersey suburb?
She was in Camden, Maine.
Staff photos by David A. Rodgers Downtown Camden, above, is readily accessible by foot from the current high school. That won't be the case with the new high school, its site marked by a sign, left, on Route 90 in Rockport. The author argues that room for the school could be found in Camden, at an old mill now used as offices for a telemarketing company. That company with all its commuters may in fact be better off at the proposed school site, he says. PHOTO: 2 color
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Michael Belleau is an architect who lives with his family in Camden.
Copyright (c) 1997 Maine Sunday Telegram
Record Number: 9705240130

A Sense of Place.
May 25, 1997