By Andrew Kilduff
After staring at one of the braille signs for a minute, I decided to move it about twenty feet from where we’d originally set it. It may seem trivial, but the experience of “feeling” the landscape in a precise way is crucial in this regard; when one can “feel” where a headwater begins— and how the rest of the site is influenced by this hydrological feature— the image of the landscape becomes all the more clear. What emerges is a unique language of this landscape, place, and community.
I’ve been living with the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail project for over five years, which accounts for my deep level of connection with the area’s particularities. I had just finished a graduate program in ecological design at The Conway School when my work partner Tim and I (under the heading of TK.designlab) were approached by Doug Albertson, the town planner in Belchertown. In the years to come, we would become very familiar with the half-hour drive between our homes, in Northampton, and Lake Wallace, and get to know the community and its interests. Our little company was acquired by Terra Genesis and our careers evolved accordingly, but we carried the project forward and I continued the work of conceiving and realizing our project. Building the trail would prove to be as much a study of place and community as it was an exercise in ecological design.
In order to get a deep understanding of place and community, we facilitated many conversations with community members, especially public meetings at town hall. There, the loudest voices were often dissenters who were reluctant to see resources committed to a project that they didn’t regard as valuable to them or their community. “Who’s going to clean it up?” “I don’t want too much stuff here.” “Where’s the money for this coming from?” In response, I found myself overcommitting, as if the success of my work would prove and insist on the value of the trail. I did my own research in order to learn more about the community and their values, and the ways in which they were already building towards and investing in itself.
Now it’s 2022, and the nature of my role has had me mostly office-bound for the last year, separated from traditional client work and site visits. The trail’s construction has continued a predictable timeline, and I’ve had the luxury of being able to trust the very reliable contractors to complete the direct construction work without my needing to be directly supervise. In fact, the build was constantly ahead of schedule. Naturally, the chance to return to on-site work was deeply enticing to me– and the conclusion of the first major phase of construction offered a long-awaited chance to emerge from my remote-work “hibernation” period.
In June, I returned to complete some last-minute inspections, and was surprised to find so many members of the community experiencing the place already. Most projects are not “realized” by the community until after they are completed, but this project has been seen/known by the community for several years, and the excitement of watching it realized seems to have permeated throughout the neighborhood. On the days I was there, several residents came back nightly, asking questions about the recent and upcoming features. It was deeply motivating to watch as the concept I held in my mind for so long become embedded in the experiences of people I’ve never met– birders stepping over “caution” tape to snap a picture of a hooded merganser, couples going for a romantic stroll, children scrawling hopscotch grids onto the asphalt. One local said to me, “I can’t wait for me and my wife, who is in a wheelchair, to use this path for our walks.”
Despite the fact that it’s unusual for a designer/manager to tend to high-level details directly, I found that, for my two weeks in the area, I was compelled to endure the blasting sunlight and 95-degree days to continue tinkering into the evening on key features like braille signs, directional markings, and learning stations. I often made subtle changes to the placement of these features so they most-closely aligned with the desired experience of the user. Even though we’ve wrapped up most of the last details, it remains to be seen how others will experience this site, but we’re motivated by the fact it will expand and evolve over time. Memories are already making their way into conversations over the kitchen table, in classrooms, and during evening walks. As I see it, direct engagement of the landscape is how a designer can evolve both how a community sees itself, and its relationship with a place.
For the most part, things went smoothly– a tribute to our team’s careful planning and thoughtful consideration. I gave myself wiggle room within the design so that its elements invited continued evolution– and so that small surprises would not become insurmountable obstacles. Naturally, and because I afforded myself the luxury of time, I’m taking advantage of that opportunity to make subtle alterations to the design in order to match the desired conditions of the user experience. Now that the community can see and experience the trail, the self-selecting neighbors who are motivated to visit and engage with the trail remind me that there is a group of community members who will commit in ways that their concerned neighbors might not– and my role is to seek out the former group so they can lead the way for their “constituents”.
I think this is why I felt so liberated when I worked on this trail last month. It will always be a work in progress, but it has a clear direction: to consistently represent a shared community vision. Because I can focus on culminating the ideas and commitments of others, I manage to avoid the pitfall of treating it as a personal assignment that requires me to conceive everything in isolation.