Wednesday, August 24, 2011
When Peter Vandorn laid out downtown Jackson's streets in 1822, he designed a checkerboard of alternating green squares. His plan created a public park on every other block. Stores or residences or offices would open doors and windows to green spaces.
That plan didn't last very long as development spread in Mississippi's capital city. It was big thinking to plan a new city of perfect proportions balancing buildings and gardens. Perhaps it seemed too much like a dream and not practical enough for economic development.
Vandorn had the right idea. The Art Garden, opening Oct. 1 at Mississippi Museum of Art, reminds us that public green spaces create a sense of place and, for exactly that reason, can boost economic development. People want to live and work in beautiful places where they feel connected to nature and to each other. Art helps that feeling.
City leaders and developers should think small as well as big when coming up with plans for future projects. Everything should not hinge on huge projects such as a convention center hotel or a sports arena. Some thought should go into small projects that dot downtown with creativity.
For example, we'd like to see landlords of vacant buildings allow artists to display their paintings and sculptures in the empty storefronts on Capitol Street. Many downtowns have done this, from Seattle, Wash., to Austin, Texas. It's a simple, small thing that doesn't come with an over-the-top budget. The dividends would last, though. When visitors staying at the King Edward step out on Capitol Street, they could look out at small pockets of art.
Businesses want more residents downtown. Getting them there is going to take more than just creating new places to live. It takes adding little touches that make people want to be downtown all the time. People have got to want to walk the streets. The best way to do this is to give them things to see and appreciate along the way. Imagine if the playful alligator bench with its mosaic shell crawled out of the Art Garden to a spot somewhere on Capitol Street.
Art with function is a way to spread bright spots around. The city of Jackson, through a new arts initiative, is looking for artists to paint 340 traffic boxes. It's a simple and fast way to create many small points of optimism and inspiration. Beyond the city's push, landlords and residents should join a grassroots effort to add a little joy—maybe even just a potted plant or two—in an effort to recapture at least part of Vandorn's vision.
For inspiration, join us at the Art Garden this fall. We can't think of a better place to dream of grassroots creativity than the new public green space. Feel free to slip off your shoes and dip your toes in the play pools and let them dry on the grass.