Public spaces give Gainesville its unique sense of place

Published: Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 27, 2013 at 5:28 p.m.

After two days of gloomy, humid, decidedly unDecember-like weather, Tuesday dawned like an early Christmas present. The sun came out, the air grew brisk and Christmas Eve screamed “get outside already!”

Our two 20-something children were home for the holiday. And the house was beginning to feel a lot smaller than any of us had remembered it. So we eagerly unwrapped the early gift from Santa and got outside already.

In the morning we went for a long walk through Ring Park, exploring the serpentine creek and posing for photos on the same giant fallen log that the kids had scampered over when they were considerably smaller.

I bought my house in Forest Ridge lo those many years ago precisely because it backed up to Ring Park. We live on a nature preserve smack in the middle of the city.

In the afternoon it was a picnic at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, where we discovered that the giant oak tree, so easily scaled in years past, had inexplicably become unclimbable. Some odd shift in the gravitational field, no doubt.

Ring Park and Kanapaha are two of those wonderful spaces that conspire to give Gainesville its unique sense of place. Ring Park evokes a scene out of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel. Kanapaha, with its seemingly endless varieties of bamboo, Rube Goldberg water contraptions and weird statuary looks like the Garden of Eden as envisioned by Frank Zappa.

As much as anything, remarkable public spaces — places where people want to go to see and be seen — are what defines a livable community.

And it's not just those carefully preserved slices of nature that give us our unique sense of place. Now that I'm no longer tethered to an office I've found some exceptional places in which to take conference calls: A bench at the Thomas Center with a great view of the fountain, for instance, and the steps of the Hippodrome.

Jill and I plan to ring in the New Year at the Bo Diddley Plaza. If you don't think our downtown is a special place — the very definition of a quirky college downtown — try celebrating New Year's Eve in that “other” college town just northwest of here.

Downtown Tallahassee is essentially an office park for lobbyists. Nobody goes there for the sheer joy of being there.

As college downtowns go, Gainesville's is not as extensive or complex as those in, say, Athens, Ga., or Ann Arbor, Mich. But we're getting there. You can already see once-empty storefronts stretching north and south of downtown being rehabbed and reoccupied since the Main Street makeover. And when the long-fallow brownfield on Depot Avenue completes its transformation into a pond-and-trail enhanced park, downtown will stretch out to encompass it as well. Because that's where the people will be.

Make no mistake, this community's future prosperity will depend as much on its ability to create and preserve its special places as the University of Florida's ability to keep on generating innovation.

The Project for Public Spaces, an organization dedicated to promoting “placemaking” as a community development tool, argues that “Cities are not going to effectively compete with each other by just developing better physical infrastructure, but by creating great places ... that attract people to help them further develop.”

There is no Department of Placemaking down at City Hall. Creating special places requires the hard work and participation of civic and business leaders, public interest groups, canny investors and everyday residents who want to make their community a better place to live.

That's why we need the leadership of self-formed groups like FROGS, the “friends” who have banded together to bring the long-hidden Glen Springs back into the public realm. And why the transformation of the old Gainesville Correctional Institute into a new community center of hope and opportunity is best left to the dedicated folks who make up the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry.

In some ways 2013 was a rough year for Gainesville. GRU's devolution from an organization with a national reputation for innovative leadership to the Rodney Dangerfield of public utilities seemed symbolic of a community in quiet crisis.

But I'm feeling pretty good about our prospects in 2014. We will get our arms around GRU's problems. We will keep building on our already solid foundation of innovation to create more economic opportunity.

And we will continue to create those special spaces — those people magnets — that conspire to give this city its unique sense of identity.

I love this town.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top