Whether we realize it or not, the parks and buildings of a city become part of the lives of everyone who lives, works or visits there. All who make use of urban environments orient themselves around those structures; we become who we are partly in reference to them.
So when we consider redesigning Naftzger Park, or replacing Century II, working with multiple groups to get right the “spirit” — the inherent character, the basic nature — of those locations, and bringing that spirit into their architecture and landscaping, is crucial.
Unfortunately, articulating through public discussion our expectations for a building or a park can sometimes also skew those conversations in the direction of ever larger and grander meanings, rather than smaller and more organic. We end up ascribing to our places expectations, hopes and resentments that demand big answers.
We’re seeing this in almost every public forum discussing the future of Naftzger Park. Whether hosted by the City Council, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, or by the city’s design council, the language tends to turn toward how to make Naftzger “iconic.” The goal, apparently, is to make it into a “destination” — as if it hasn’t already been one for decades.
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Grand talk of making something iconic fits well with conversations about the spirit of Century II. The whole point of a structure like it, after all, is to serve as a destination for conventions, concerts, touring shows, theater productions and more. Cities rightly want to be able to be able to host such things, and so envisioning a building that has both the capacity to do so, and an iconic look which draws people in, is appropriate. So we should be willing to bring into the conversation about Century II large-scale concerns and aspirations; to shut down such talk denies the whole nature of a building like it in the first place.
But the conversations about Naftzger Park should be different. Leaving aside legitimate concerns about the TIF funds being relied upon for its redesign, or the disparate motivations of city leaders and downtown developers pushing for its improvement, or the disputed data about the actual foot traffic and business around it, there is also the possibility that Naftzger’s “spirit” is so local and humble that it will simply get talked (and later, unfortunately, paved) over.
I know designers are putting a lot of care into their thinking about the park. Many of their ideas — improved lighting, a dog run, etc. — have great merit. And obviously, Naftzger’s location between Intrust Bank Arena and the restaurants of Douglas Avenue makes it a hard-to-resist target for planners looking to maximize downtown’s urban potential.
But the fact remains that many plans have come and gone over the park’s nearly 50-year history, and whatever has been done, the same populations have returned: the city’s homeless, its idiosyncratic lovers of urban landscapes, its offbeat photographers, its casual walkers with their brown bag lunches. Trying hard to make certain that key money-spending populations will find in a redesigned Naftzger an iconic location for concerts and gatherings would only exclude — though probably only for a time — the folks who organically, year after year, find their own small delights in this quaint green space and refuge in the midst of our busy city.
There is much to improve at Naftzger, and changes will surely come alongside the planned commercial developments adjacent to it. Certainly the city should work in conjunction with such. But would not a correct assessment of the park’s real “spirit” — not to mention its history — point toward a redesign that leaves much of the park undisturbed and undesigned, that treats it as the humble oasis it has long been?
Dr. Russell Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.