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Reflecting Change: “City • Plaza • People” Revisited

by on June 13, 2013

A group of students in “Methods in Public Humanities,” a course taught by Steve Lubar at Brown University this spring,  have been working to bring a version of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s exhibit “City • Plaza • People” to Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

Raina Fox, writing on behalf of her fellow students Ann Kremen, Lara Savenije, Selen Senocak, and Nate Storring, reports on the group’s work to both expand the audience for the original exhibit and participate in an ongoing conversation about the plaza’s redevelopment.

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The Haffenreffer’s exhibit City • Plaza • People was researched, designed, and mounted by students in Rebecca Carter’s course “Urban Life: Anthropology in and of the City,” last fall. Based on ethnographid research in Kennedy Plaza, it was structured to highlight the history, present use, and possible future manifestations of the plaza; it included a series of panels, a video of people moving through the plaza, an iPad with digital content, and a series of photographs of people holding signs reflecting their hopes for the plaza. The exhibit was an impressive feat, though its reach was somewhat limited by its location on Brown’s campus, a concern shared by students who worked on the original exhibit. As students in Public Humanities, our goal was to explore ways to make this project more public, by linking the information explored in the exhibition to those for whom it might be most relevant.

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“City • Plaza • People” on display at the Haffenreffer this spring.  Photo and illustration by Nate Storring.

Our project coincides with an important moment in Kennedy Plaza’s ongoing development: a new plan for the space, revealed by Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy (DPPC) on April 18, will soon begin to reshape the plaza and the ways that people interact with it. In this new vision of the plaza, the bus operations that currently make up the heart of the space will be moved to its outer edges, allowing the middle of the space to be reimagined for public use.

CPP_GKP1Kennedy Plaza “Before” and “After.” Illustration by Union Studio Architecture.

The plan envisions the plaza as a more pedestrian-friendly environment with trees, public art, activities, dining and shopping opportunities, arts and cultural events, space for public organizing, and safer, more pleasant travel experiences for those using mass transit. By increasing the number of simultaneous activities in the plaza, DPPC hopes to embrace the concept of the power of ten – originally developed by Project for Public Space – which holds that successful public spaces have at least ten complementary activities at any given time, with visual access between them. Depending on funding, reconfiguration of the bus stops and improvements in front of City Hall could be completed as soon as 2014 with other elements likely to be completed by 2017. According to a study by the Rhode Island Transit Authority, 45,000 people pass through the plaza each day, making these changes relevant to tens of thousands of people. As an extension of the Haffenreffer exhibit, we see our project as an opportunity not only to share some of the changes the plaza has experienced in the past, but to help people to shape their own informed opinions about the changes coming to the plaza.

In our initial meetings, we struggled to identify the shape and goals of our project, most notably due to the complexity of the needs we sought to address. One of the most persistent challenges we encountered was the need to identify and then respond to an incredibly diverse and undefined audience. This diversity is not only a question of age, gender, language, or ethnicity, but also of use. People come to the plaza for many different reasons- to eat lunch in the middle of their workday, to wait for a bus, on their way home from school, to pass the time when there is nowhere else to go. We found it difficult to identify an approach that would be multiply meaningful to these many different audiences.

We ultimately decided to create a series of thematic panels to insert into Kennedy Plaza itself, which would be light, quick, and cheap to implement. We thought carefully about the design and placement of these signs to make them as accessible as possible, and brainstormed a series of themes that could potentially encompass elements of the plaza of interest to viewers.

We researched, wrote, and designed eight panels; sought appropriate rights and permissions for all images and quotes included; researched and priced materials to print and install these panels; and built connections with DPCC. Upon receipt of the appropriate funding and approval the panels can be easily printed and installed in the plaza.

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Envisioned Kennedy Plaza exhibit. Photos and illustration by Nate Storring.

Each panel follows a similar format, including a title, large image, smaller text broken up into easy to read sections (in the form of a quote, caption, and short body paragraph), and smaller images.  The eight panels focus on the following themes:

  1. The Unfinished Plan for Downtown Providence, 1970
  2. Occupy Providence and Political Movements in the Plaza
  3. Words of Our Presidents: Political Speeches at the Plaza
  4. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument
  5. The Statue of Ambrose Burnside
  6. Getting Around Providence
  7. Providence’s “Superman Building,” the Industrial Trust Tower
  8. The Struggle of Life: The Bajnotti Memorial Fountain

Our engagement with “City • Plaza • People” began as an attempt to bring an exhibition to Kennedy Plaza. Yet the experience proved to be more about the process than the product, and about learning to work with a variety of student colleagues and community partners. We were inspired throughout by the enthusiasm with which our ideas were received by people in the community, and encouraged that our efforts seemed to be of interest to the general public.

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Thank you, Raina! We’ve enjoyed working with you and are glad to be involved in both the ongoing conversation about the redesign of Kennedy Plaza and the effort to engage with Providence’s many constituencies. And we look forward to seeing your panels installed downtown soon.

We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact Jennifer_Stampe@brown.edu

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2 Comments
  1. This project raises many interesting questions. Personally, I am not convinced about that the DPPC’s plans for Kennedy Plaza are the right thing. They seem to embrace a common problem in architecture and landscape/cityscape design which I call “clipart-ism.” In clipartism, architects’ renderings are peppered with people walking, babies in strollers, well tended trees (always in leaf, never in winter). The view position is usually one which few if any people could ever really attain, about 20′ in the air. The surfaces were painted in using CAD and are intact and clean, not chipped, cracked, and dirty with rain streaked soot. Customers snap up these designs like chocolate truffles with gold leaf on the top but once they’re built people are left wondering how they got stuck with this unpopulated, hard edged, dirty, useless space. Think Boston City Hall and Plaza. No one ever thinks about how big the annual bill is to keep a space as full of people as the rendering shows. Museum designers and exhibit designers are as guilty of this as regular architects.

    Right now, Kennedy Plaza is bustling BECAUSE the buses are there. The bus system works because it has a hub where you can transfer between spokes by walking up or down the curb to different stands. To “push the buses to the periphery” would mean someone transferring between lines would have to orbit the entire plaza, stroller or suitcase in tow. According to the DPPC plan, they may even have to figure out which side street they have to go down to get to the right bus stand. It’s a regression to the un-usable bus system we only just fixed a few years ago when the current plaza’s configuration was built.

    I would be very careful about being lulled by clipartism into thinking that this loss of functionality would be balanced human use of the space created. The space would never look as attractive as it does in the renderings. There would not be the funds to program the space often enough to keep it nearly that full. Half the year it would be a dingy, leafless mess, some place you hurried through as you tried to figure out where they hid your bus stop.

    All this said, I’m willing to accept that there MIGHT be a version of the plaza that captures more of the social function DPPC seeks than it has now without breaking the bus system, but let’s approach this more carefully and with appropriate suspicion of urban planners wielding clipart.

    • Well said, David, and thanks for the comment. The exhibit “City • Plaza • People,” engaged with just this concern by presenting multiple views of what Kennedy Plaza is and might be. You can explore these at Voices of the Plaza, a web site posted by students in “Urban Life: Anthropology of the City” at Brown University last fall.

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