In Defense Of Postman’s Plot
Since NEWaukee's additions, the space was used and activated all summer long.
Earlier this year, I wrote that there are two things that Milwaukee needs to do in order to move forward: to invest more deeply in connectivity and to finally shed our collective aversion to risk.
Let us set the record straight about this temporary public space experiment and hopefully enliven a larger discourse about how to inspire civic engagement in public space and to collect public feedback prior to making massive public investment.
First, NEWaukee is a social architecture firm, which invests in the artist community by commissioning them to create all sorts of works of art. We are not artists, but believe that bringing an artist to the center of community and real estate development will result in better public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
By implementing low-cost, privately funded (by NEWaukee) interventions, the aspects people use can be invested in to be more permanent and the features people do not use can be removed. The thought is that we can save public money before investing in permanency and making parks more adaptive to the surrounding community. All the furniture was movable, temporary and inexpensive. Over the duration of the installation, NEWaukee studied behavior in the park to track what installations are being used. We worked with the surrounding businesses and neighbors to continually solicit input for future improvements.
The reason we are taking this approach to public space is because dollars are drying up for public works projects. If we took this approach to public space maybe we would have ended up with a O’Donnell Park that is functional, a MacArthur Square where the public wants to gather, a Riverwalk that would have been built wider for bike access and even a Cathedral Square that was built with a stage.
Conceptually, the design of Postman’s Plot is a response to the rich diversity of constraints and opportunities that the site provides. That is, the design simultaneously responds to its historical significance and geographic location, sun angles and context, while adapting to the requirements of the budget and the human experience. More specifically, the design utilizes a series of interventions that serve as a toolkit for social engagement. This grouping of aesthetically coordinated built forms respond to the needs of the existing community (lunch hour office-use passersby) as well as the new community of residents beginning to once again call Westown home.
Like all experiments, we had some interesting findings:
- Despite some weather damage, nothing was stolen from the park. (Note: the pictures used in Mr. Blau’s piece were not accurate. NEWaukee fixed the broken chairs and signs throughout summer as we found them.)
- The letterbox actually worked! We received hundreds of love letters from residents, employees and tourists with positive feedback about the park and the city of Milwaukee.
- The number one solicitation we received was that neighbors (and their dogs) wanted a waste receptacle. Who knew the biggest constituent of the park, our four-legged friends, would benefit so greatly from this temporary installation?
- The stage wasn’t used once. We had imagined pop-up performances taking place, but it turns out that’s not the highest and best use of the space. Luckily, a huge of sum of public money wasn’t spent on it only to find it wouldn’t be used long-term.
- People used the space! From pop-up beer garden events to community dinner parties, for what is probably the first time in the park’s history, the space was activated all summer long.
When it comes down to building community there are people that talk and complain and there are people that act. From all the work we have done in Westown, you can probably make the conclusion on what side of the fence NEWaukee falls on.
Finally, NEWaukee doesn’t own the park; it is City of Milwaukee property. We are really grateful to the city for being so progressive and open to this type of experimentation. Our intention was simply to kickstart the use of underutilized space in a neighborhood we love. Debating aesthetics, what should be installed permanently, how it should be programmed — all of that describes NEWaukee’s mission — to change the way people connect.