Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Refurbishing the Stale

It’s midsummer in the northern hemisphere and that means it’s nice outside. It’s sunny, it’s cloudy, it’s breezy, it’s rainy. From 8 to 5 Monday through Friday I’m prone to remember what I’m missing. Lamenting the loss of my carefree youth I, like many others, have been condemned to spend my summers primarily behind a desk rather than exploring the strips of grass between corn fields or launching an expedition into the nearby creek. While Microsoft has gone to great lengths to allow me to adapt and control my desktop into a reflection of myself, via background colors, images, and icons, I can’t help but think I could be more productive elsewhere. If I was truly creative, I wouldn’t be behind a desk. I’d be holding meetings in coffee shops or in a downtown loft with high ceilings. I’d be riding my bike at lunch or on the road to facilitate change in the hinterlands. But that’s not where I am, I’m in an office. While I’m thankful for my desk, door, and workstation, and VOIP phone, I can’t help but think that this too is in need of some innovation. Why not spice it up? Why not bring about a new perspective on the workplace? Rather than conduct space studies and refurbish the stale, is there a more cost effective solution? With these questions in mind, I came across Coffitivity.

Coffitivity is a website that pipes in the sounds of a real life coffee shop into your work environment. While I was initially skeptical of this frivolous sounding web tool, I reluctantly gave it a try. I plugged in my headphones in and instantly transported myself away from my desk. Suddenly all that scientific hypothesizing I read about made sense. I strangely found myself with an enhanced sense of focus. Alas, I’d found a way to electronically import a small portion of my favorite hangout into my Monday through Friday. Provided with an auditory cue my mind takes over, overriding my other senses, a strange sense of relaxation and focus bring about a new zeal for completing the tasks at hand.

Walking through the streets, I can’t help but think if only there was an electronic solution for all of this. If only there was a way to temporarily alleviate the doldrums of modern downtowns. A simple observation of a typical community reveals a litany of barriers to reinvestment in the historic core. Decaying buildings, small daytime population, non-existent night time population, an abundance of parking and lack of cars, dark alleys that smell like a carnival, landscape struggling to survive, and substandard streets are just a few of the challenges that have to be overcome to facilitate investment in the core of communities. Thus I contemplate, what would it look like if a downtown could be temporarily transformed into the vision described by planners, designers, and experts? Or better yet, what if we adapted our desired uses to these seemingly unfit spaces? That's exactly where Jason Roberts of the Better Block found himself when attempting to bring about changes to the neighborhoods of Dallas. Robert's describes it best when he said that the community had "rending fatigue". Rather than computer generated trees, people, and storefronts, they acted on the seeds that had been planted in their imagination and went beyond the world of paper and ink.

Despite advances in image editing technology, one can’t feel the shade of twenty year old trees, sit at a sidewalk cafe, ride a bike down a bike lane, or interact with neighbors on paper. These are things that can only be felt through experience and unlike bringing the sound of a coffee shop into my work day, these things require trucks, tools, and labor. The Better Block concept turns ideals into something tactile and substantive and provides a modern solution to this dilemma. The projects transform the dull, undesirable, and inhumane landscapes between buildings into something more than pavement. The projects demonstrate an alternative reality where public space is influenced by more than the automobile. Unfortunately, these projects can only plant a seed in the imagination. Yet unlike paper they provide something to feel, hear, smell, and experience. Perhaps these attributes invigorate us to sharpen our focus and recreate the enhancements which the designated authorities crueley remove after a brief flirtation with streetscape enhancements meant to do something other than get a car from point A to point B.

What Coffitivity and the Better Block demonstrate is that place matters or more importantly the quality of space matters. Space is part of the equation that shapes how we think, interact, and progress from one day to the next. Just as sound can affect the quality of our thoughts, so too can the physical world affect the richness of our lives. The places that inspire us to think, create, interact, and imagine are more than just sounds. In the coffee shop it's the smell of beans roasting, sounds bouncing off high ceilings, the texture of the exposed brick, and the character of the original wooden floor that creates a cosmopolitan hub of activity the creative mind craves. Immersed in this active environment profound moments of clarity emerge, derived not from a single attribute but by a cosmopolitan mix of characteristics whose authenticity can’t be recreated through a smart phone ap.

The brick wall with a bicycle attached to it, the untidy pile of yesterday’s newspapers, the intermittent sounds of blenders, steamers, and a cash register, these are seemingly insignificant facets that contribute to the character of “space”. Every detail reflects some aspect of our values and the activity taking place. While I enjoy the soft murmur of the coffee shop throughout the day, it leaves me hungering for more. Although the sound is a pleasant addition to my space, my computer’s speakers are incapable of emitting the scent of roasted coffee beans or bringing about a chance encounter with an old acquaintance. With the conclusion of a productive work day I look forward to some authenticity. I look forward to something real and as the walk home demonstrates, a seed has been planted. If there is value in the mere sounds of an authentic coffee shop experience, then there is value in the space between these buildings.