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Map the Sacred, then Design

26 March 2010

The old boat-manufacturing buildings. The porches where families gather at dusk to enjoy the breeze and shell beans. And above all, hanging out.

Those were the things the people of Manteo, North Carolina, identified as being sacred to their community.

So those were the elements of the town that Randolph Hester, who spoke at SUNY ESF on Thursday, seized on in his planning and design work in the struggling coastal town where he had been hired to design a park.

“Every community has both mean-spirited values and sacred values,” Hester told the packed lecture hall. “A designer’s job is to pull out and emphasize the sacred.”

Hester, a University of California at Berkeley professor and author of Design for Ecological Democracy, knew what was scared in Manteo because he asked.

His firm published two surveys in the local newspaper. Hester hung out with fishermen at a local diner before they went out to sea. He lingered on the porches of anyone who would talk to him. He hung out on the waterfront he was changed with developing, and he watched how people used the space and interacted with each other, looking for “the patterns.”

The end result was a design that built the waterfront of Manteo into a “civic porch” — a place were locals and visitors could relax, could interact with each other, and could enjoy the beautiful wetlands and the ocean beyond. In other words, it became an place ideal for hanging out.

Recognizing that design was only part of the community’s problem — it had a 22 percent unemployment rate — Hester’s role in the community expanded well beyond that of your typical landscape architect.

He worked with the town to start a specialty wooden boat-building business in the empty factories where outdated wooden commercial boats were once constructed.

Now, wealthy collectors spend $200,000 not only to have boats built, but to travel to Manteo and participate in the building of their own boats. With that project alone, jobs were created, vacant buildings occupied and a tourist attraction born.

Hester and the town also decided that the construction of the waterfront “porch” should be done by local people. Only small contracts were awarded, exclusively to local firms. Volunteer groups sprang up to participate in the building. A local furniture maker produced the rocking chairs, benches and picnic tables.

Some of the townsfolk were surprised by what the process identified as being sacred. They thought maybe the churches or the house owned by actor Andy Griffith would top the list. Engaging the citizenry and mapping what they identified as sacred helped get everyone on the same page and provided a basis for moving forward, Hester said.

That’s not to say the process was easy or flawless.

The parts of the boardwalk built by the local construction firms and the parts built by volunteers didn’t exactly match up, for instance.

“It’s not perfect,” Hester said. “It’s funky. But it is beloved by the locals, and, of course, it is despised by the landscape-design Nazis.”

Not everyone could be sold on the idea of “civic porch.” Some disliked the music teenagers played when they hung out on the docks. Others were uncomfortable that white teens and black teens spent time together on the waterfront. Anything that encouraged kids to hang out on the waterfront was a bad idea, they said.

The issue reached a boiling point at a town council meeting, where one councilman in particular complained about encouraging the teenagers to hang out more. That’s when another councilman stood up and threatened to revel all the things the other councilman had done as a teenager.

According to Hester, that ended the debate, and provide an important lesson as well.

“There’s a time for collaboration, discussion and negotiation, and there is a time for fighting for your principles,” Hester said. “Too often, designers want to be shrinking violets, when they should be Venus Flytraps.”

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