Where We At?

This week has seen the release of a flow of master planning like the City of Spartanburg has never seen before. Parks and Recreation and the city have both made substantial commitments of funds and resources to shaping the future of our community through citizen-driven planning. Both organizations are holding forums and “charettes,” or “idea-shaping sessions,” as they are called. I salute planning and have hopes the process will yield great results for our future.
Land Design, a Charlotte-based firm, is leading a $50,000 process for our planning our parks. The Lawrence Group has been chosen to coordinate the $160,000 sessions for shaping the future of the city. Both firms say that the process is about getting everyone involved. The process seems to promise that there is a better chance these plans will not sit on a shelf like so many have before.

Where could we start with the process of planning our future? Maybe the two firms could administer the famous environmental awareness “Where You At?” quiz when our citizens gather for a charette or forum. This quiz measures basic environmental awareness with twenty questions such as where our water comes from, and where big storms come from, both winter and summer. It asks participants to name ten native plants, and ten native animals.

Good planning could begin with knowing where you’re situated in space. “Point north!” someone official could yell at the charette before the idea-shaping begins. Everyone could enjoy the wild flurry of hands and fingers pointing in every possible direction. A city and its citizens can’t know where its going until it literally knows where it is.

Why is it important to be able to point north? Well, maybe it’s not that important today since all we do is drive around in our cars, but it sure makes for a little comic relief and charts a clear starting point for planning. We need to make contact with our natural surroundings before we can plan for a big make-over.

After everybody has pointed north and had a good laugh, I’d suggest these charettes move on toward the past. Gathered citizens could be given exaggerated topo maps that cast the terrain of our hilly city in stark relief, and then they could be asked to strip away all human activity in the city-roads, infrastructure, buildings, etc-and try to imagine how we might have planned this place if we knew now what we didn’t know then.

This would take us back to the city’s real “base” we need to build from-rock, soil, and flowing water. It would help citizens see clearly how water runs through our community and creates it, and it would point out that flowing water could be seen as the single most important aspect for planning our future.

Our city is only 175 years old, a tiny trickle in geologic time. Lawson’s Fork Creek, Fairforest Creek, and the tributary branches that scratch like fingers up into the ridges the city is built on, have carried water toward the Atlantic for millions of years. In less than two centuries we humans have done a good job of obscuring their drainage patterns of these two important streams by flattening the ridges for better roads, filling the low spots for construction. Under our city still flows an ancient series of waterways. We need to recover some sense of them.

Many have pointed out that we are not Greenville with its impressive Reedy River Falls at the center of the community, or Chattanooga with the Tennessee River sweeping through, or Charleston with the Atlantic Ocean visible just off the Battery. The mistake though is thinking that Spartanburg doesn’t have any important water features to move front and center in our planning process. It’s not true, and I’m hopeful that the planners we’ve brought to town will help to reveal our water resources to our community as they plan.

Drive around Spartanburg this week and attempt to create your own grand master plan for a city planned around flowing water. Drive down St. John and imagine a dramatic series of water features, parks, and ponds on the steep slope where Courthouse Branch has carved its ancient path between the Montgomery Building and the new Chapman Arts Center. Note the way the new construction on the old K-Mart site on North Pine Street has used the Chinquapin Creek, Lawson’s Fork’s biggest tributary, to its advantage.

Cruise around the old Spartan Mill site and imagine a lake there where the mill used to be with the historic smoke stack standing on an island like a fortress from Hobbit-land. Follow that tributary of Fairforest Creek (known once as Greenville Branch or more recently as The Nasty Branch) downstream and speculate about the San Antonio-like potential there for Spartanburg’s developing “west end” near the old grain mill.

Figure out a way to bring Lawson’s Fork into a central role as the city’s prime green space by building more trails and adding more access points from Whitney all downstream past Spartanburg High School.

A renewed commitment to our waterways could come out of this $210,000 process. We can scheme together to find key ways Spartanburg can be seen as what it is-a city with flowing water at its heart.

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