[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Naftzger Memorial Park was a small, pleasantly run-down city block of trees, grass, and benches, near the center of downtown Wichita, KS, just a block north of Intrust Bank Arena, recently of much-heralded (in the local media, anyway) NCAA March Madness fame. The park had a gazebo for wedding photos and a decorative waterfall that flowed into a pond that was often (though not always) kept clean of trash. It wasn’t anyone’s example of a perfect civic space–can there be such a thing?–but it had its historic place along the Douglas Avenue, one of the main drives through Wichita’s downtown. Built on land that the city acquired in 1980, with money donated by the Naftzger family, it was a place where idiosyncratic lovers of urban landscapes, offbeat photographers, casual walkers with their brown bag lunches, and, yes, many of the city’s homeless used to gather, rest on the grass, and lean against the Carrie Nation memorial, spring and summer and fall and winter alike.

I put everything in that paragraph in the past tense, because beginning last week, following months of meetings, where proposals were put forward and audience input requested–but never, and this is crucial, truly and fully assessed–Naftzger Park is being torn apart and rebuilt. Supposedly, in a year’s time or so, it will look more or less like this:

That’s not a bad result, I suppose, all things considered. The new development right to its east will have an attractive (and presumably, though almost no one will say so directly, at least slightly less homeless friendly) and cleaned-up greenspace at its doorstep, the park will have a stage to host mid-sized events and a dog run for local dog-walkers and owners, and the old decorative iron fencing around it will be removed, opening it up to the “eyes on the street,” in the classic Jane Jacobs sense. Considering the sort of boondoggles that some cities have committed significant expense to in the name of enlivening their downtowns, this could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, “could have been much worse” is about the best I can say about this redesign, for reasons that go far beyond any number of specific arguments that attended the long process through which the city of Wichita–or at least, those of us who got out to the meetings and attended the various advisory board meetings–has arrived at this point. (For example: wasn’t this just a sweetheart arrangement between downtown urban boosters and local property-owners looking to attract buyers to and offset the costs of developing a not-terribly-in-demand Douglas Avenue location? Or: is there any solid reason to believe that the area’s TIF district–which was extended to incorporate the property in question–will generate sufficient revenue to pay off the $1.5 million bond the city floated to begin construction, much less generate the additional money later to complete it? And, of particular interest to students of politics like myself: was there really any genuine interest in trying to measure citizen input about the park, or were all those public discussions only cosmetically relevant, with the real decisions having been pre-determined by the hiring of an NYC-based urban park design team to draft various options for the space?)

But no, beyond all those questions, I have a more basic one: why do some of us have problems with an old park? A “worn and outdated” park, in the words or some, that was a “destination for only neighborhood residents” only? An “underutilized” greenspace, in the words of others, that was lacking in “flexibility“? I don’t deny at all that public spaces, and their design, matter; we are, after all, embodied and spatial creatures, and become who we are in part through our interactions with the buildings and streets and fields and parks which make up our lived environments. But just what is this frequently felt imperative that such environments be updated, programmed, and “activated”? That’s my most fundamental question here. And the answer, I think, revolves around how so many people in cities (which means, allowing for some definitional slippage, more than three-quarters of us) find ourselves necessarily thinking about growth.

Here in Wichita, the obsession of many is with the same problem which bedevils a great many mid-sized cities in America and around the world: we’re not growing, either in population (20-year projections suggest that Wichita will grow at an average of .8% a year) or in economic heft (recent employment numbers suggest only around a 1% average increase in available jobs each year)–or if we are growing, we’re still not growing at a rate sufficient to generate the increased revenue necessary to match the obligations of our existing infrastructure. (Those same 20-year projections suggest that the city of Wichita will have $9-10 billion in repair and maintenance costs over that time period which it won’t be able to pay.) As I and others have discussed at length, the current stage of economic globalization is one which has overwhelmingly concentrated financial resources, and hence human and cultural incentives, in large (if not always solely the world’s largest) urban agglomerations. Wichita, the 50th-largest city in the U.S., is a good-sized city, but not big enough to generate the sort of gravity which would pull in those capital and creativity flows.

So do we content ourselves with holding on to what we have? Ideally, yes, we would address ourselves to pioneering some kind of urban conservation or contraction, pursing a “steady-state” or “strong towns” model. Unfortunately, figuring out how to do so, when faced with the economic and political realities which characterize cities in an era of finance capitalism, is a puzzle.

In any community that reaches a certain size (and leave off for now figuring out exactly what that size is or how it gets there; suffice to say that there are towns, and there are cities, and the differences between them can be persuasively articulated, even if not exactly innumerated), various cultural and economic factions will emerge. Achieving urban political power in the midst of those factions–for whatever purpose, however high-minded or venal–will almost inevitably involve building something, whether a highway or a museum or a program. Cities in the United States do not have the taxing and regulatory authority made legitimate by being handed down via constitutional channels; on the contrary, cities emerge organically through history, and are legitimated through governmental fiat (though much democratic agitation may precede that). Consequently, the policy tools available to them (especially if the city in question is not just a major urban metropolis as to be able to harness the political and economic power to make demands on the states they exist within, or the federal government itself) are generally pretty circumscribed. As a result, with broad issues of social import mostly off their table, and extensive funding mechanisms usually forbidden them as well, crudely relying upon, and then satisfying in turn, the aforementioned local factions, through the sort of construction enabled by sales taxes and subsidies and CIDs, usually becomes almost inseparable from the ordinary business of a city.

The above is, reductively speaking, the story of what multiple scholars have called the “growth machine” of American urbanism. Interestingly, you don’t actually have to have real growth for that logic to take hold. Here in Wichita, Chase Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State University, has argued that city leaders in small and mid-sized cities will feel impelled to discover growth wherever they can, so as to be able to justify, to themselves and others, the belief (or presumption) that they are actually responding to the needs of the city–which, in the end, generally means building things. So they will, for example, invest urban guerilla pop-up parks or resurgent local symbols with sufficient meaning as to make them count as signs of growth. Which, in turn, justifies more growth, and the cycle of promotion and promises continue.

To be sure, not all schemes of transformation and growth are equal; if a combination of urban factions in my city–downtown boosters looking to engage in “placemaking,” city workers enamored of the prospect of addressing what some residents consider an eyesore, restaurant and club owners that want to increase foot traffic between the Arena and Douglas Avenue, ambivalent developers and business owners that would be happy for an upgrade to their property if some of the costs could be shared–come together with an idea to remake a rundown but still perfectly adequate local space, and the alternative to such is to see that invariably generated reconstructive energy invested in adding to our already far-overbuilt highway infrastructure, spreading suburbanization ever further out along the east-west corridor, believe me, I’ll choose the park. After all, it’s not like any urban development will ever truly be a simply matter of black and white; there really were downtown residents who wanted the Naftzger Park opened up, with better lighting and more amenities. And of course, those two options weren’t placed in opposition to each other on the table; the former, for all the questions attached to it, is driven at least in part by genuine civic concerns, not pure capitalist expansion. For that reason, while I stood with a lot of doubters through the long meetings over Naftzger, I never quite thought the “leave it alone!” voices had a fair take on what the options for Naftzger really were. (To his credit, Chase’s defense of the park’s history likely moderated some of the architect’s original plans, saving at least a couple of the park’s historical features.)

Still, recognizing the way communities change and grow (if they do), in their organic, push-and-pull way, with government in the mix with all the other constituencies of the city, doesn’t mean that the very idea of a “programmed” and “activated” public space should escape critique. Because, frankly, even if the idea fits seamlessly into the reigning logic of built-on-credit American cities of today (and, for that matter, of the past couple of generations), it’s still pretty questionable as a human matter. Remember that urban communities have, most essentially, a kind of anarchist quality to them; Jane Jacobs observed that, as have many other urban scholars and activists. Planning events is one thing, but planning spaces themselves around the presumed gathering of people in coordination with planned events is, perhaps, something else entirely.

Various Wichita boosters have lately gone all-in on the vital need for “placemaking” in the city, and I know and like and respect a lot of these folks. When they talk about “underused spaces” being “activated with…a touch of theater,” I’m sympathetic–I like public art and creative pathfinding and all the other stuff employed to generate a desire to walk or bike around a community and look at it (and, therefore, at the people who inhabit it alongside oneself), rather than one’s phone. But there has to be a fine line walked here, I think. The goal of “programming” said places easily can (and, unfortunately, frequently does) take over, becoming an end to itself, bypassing the people that presumably would actually gather in any of those places in favor of those connected enough to the aforementioned factions to get their preferences written into the imposed programming in the first place. (When one of these well-intentioned factional leaders in Wichita defensively says, in regards to criticism of the above-mentioned bit of pop-up urban programming, that all is well from “the public standpoint,” you may be forgiven for feeling some sympathy for the article’s final quote, from a downtown resident: “I’m their biggest advocate…but it’s like they almost forget that we’re here once they have you.”)

The world has become thoroughly urbanized, and will only become more so, so long as resource extraction and finance capitalism continues to reign. We can work to change that, and in the meantime struggle to find different, more sustainable and local and democratic, trajectories for our lives and communities. But while engaged in all those important tasks, and while responsibly accepting the compromises they will have to entail, let’s hold in front of our eyes the simple fact that, whatever imperatives seem to rise up in our communities, nailing down, specifying, programming, and “activating” the public spaces in our midst needn’t be one of them. People can, in fact, gather on their own. Maybe, in such unstructured environments, the people that will gather won’t always be of the sort which will most effectively contribute to one possible economic consequence of the space in question. But we don’t live in communities to be cogs in a process of producing economic consequences–or at least we shouldn’t. We live where we do, and we become what we are through that lived environment, organically. If there is a consequence to it, it might be best, at the very least, that it not be one already determined by a planning board, because however well-meaning, their logic is likely not to be wholly their own.