“Years later I’m going back and looking at the projects we did. My critique is, they are pastiche. They are cardboard facades. The real town is a block behind them, and it’s still awful, in trouble. So we didn’t help the people who live there, the thing that was supposed to be helped.” – Walter Hood
Finding what is particular and special to a community is part of what urban landscape designer Walter Hood does; over the years it has become clearer to Hood that urban centers require different formulas for renewal, depending on relevant measurable goals.
Pittsburgh, with its steel industry history, at one time existed for opposite reasons than Jackson exists. But, says Hood, Pittsburgh (sort of a sister city for me, and a great example in urban renewal) has found itself again. Like other mid-west industrial towns Pittsburgh fell on hard times; hard enough that a few decades ago many were giving it up for lost. Jobs disappeared, people left in droves, and the city was gritty and depressed.
Jackson and Pittsburgh have traditionally relied on single industries. Jackson’s magnificent beauty and location have made it an economy inflated by landscape; Pittsburgh’s economy relied on steel.
Now Pittsburgh’s economy is strong; it has weathered this recession relatively well, in large part because the city has taken pains to attract diverse market sectors. Healthcare, education, technology, financial jobs play a large role. City parks are being restored. Abandoned spaces are recycled into new housing and businesses.
Hood opines that whatever direction Jackson takes in shaping its future, keeping traffic in check is crucial. Open space cannot be fully protected unless we control congestion and emissions.
“I think where we are as Americans, things are hitting the fan. We will have to make some really serious decisions about the land. I have a lot of projects where people are investing in alternative transportation modes; they are starting to say “we don’t need that much parking.” They are beginning to say we want to be greener—it will force them to act differently.”
Its community locking horns over a new Comprehensive Plan, Jackson’s town and county officials are attempting to correctly address a demand for affordable housing. The risk of over development is very real. To date, officials are treating mass transit as a finishing touch for building more units; most urban planning takes the opposite approach.
Whenever I return to Jackson from the east coast, my immediate sense is Jackson’s traffic is under control. Then summer arrives.
“In the winter it is really fantastic to be here—you could drive and everything goes back to scale,” says Hood. “When spring comes the scale gets smaller but it is still big. You see more in Jackson. It’s sensory overload.”
A national park’s purpose is defeated, says Hood, when 4,000,000 tourists a year jam the roads and the scenery is…”unseeable.” If you want to reduce traffic, and impact, you make roads smaller and narrower. Cars then have to get smaller. Discourage, don’t encourage, more traffic.
We agree that the town of Jackson should be about this place. That gentler transitions from park to town are optimal, but not planned. Approaching downtown Jackson, there is a sense that our open spaces are chopped off at the knees. It’s good, we conclude, that the National Museum of Wildlife Art is one of the first things you see. But many buildings and landscapings closer to town are visually harsh. Lots of aging concrete, signage, little shoulder softening, no real thought to the landscape.
And simply as a marketing concept, in addition to the conservation benefits, planning should accentuate sensitivity to place.
But what about helping a community through recession? Hood may not have Jackson’s specific economic remedy, but he does have experience with plans that didn’t work.
Hood says that collectively, we often make big mistakes when trying to “save” community.
“There are some amazing places, but the way we act in those landscapes is still the freakin’ same way,” he notes. “I worked for a firm in the 90’s that would go to lots of small towns, particularly in Washington state. There was, at the time, the whole notion that you can go to these communities and save them by design. A lot of them have lost their industries; they were river towns and people logged, or fished…those economies died.
The community then dies.
So we’re in this amazing valley or setting and what do we do? Tourism. Immediately the main street programs help fortify the preservation of these towns—and I was into it. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.
Years later I’m going back and looking at the projects we did. My critique is, they are pastiche. They are cardboard facades. The real town is a block behind them, and it’s still awful, in trouble. So we didn’t help the people who live there, the thing that was supposed to be helped.”
Hood says the reasons people do choose to live in Jackson Hole are clear. Safety is big, he says, and that feeling of safety springs in large part from how we control growth.
“It is a gift to have the ability to just walk around without fear and collision. Last night I saw a woman running in the near dark, without street lights, without fear. Wow. She’s safe, there’s no traffic, the landscape is still visible, and she wants to be there.
I could not do this where I live. Those are the kind of experiences to save. The ability to navigate the landscape at night! But more people, more traffic—more security and more lights come in. Success breeds more demand. It’s a circle. I asked for a room on the upper floors of my hotel, facing the mountains, so I could take that in. That’s the experience! I know why people live here.”
To find out more about Walter J. Hood and his work, log onto his website here.
Post Script: The Jackson Hole Art Blog is VERY happy to hear of Blaize Oswald’s encouraging progress as he recovers from a bad fall from a ski chairlift. Our prayers and best wishes go out to the Oswald Family.