EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part II of a 3-part series within the "Rising from Rust" project, looking at how public art can help revitalize a city.
Have you ever experienced the feeling of arriving at work, and suddenly wondering how in the world you got there?
This feeling of coasting through your commute is universal. Oftentimes, when you're traveling a route you are familiar with day after day, you forget to take in the sights you're passing. You may even miss something new and exciting in your own city.
One person who understands the importance of perpetually exploring their own city is Matthew Stanfield, owner and principal architect at FiEld9: architecture, a Mansfield firm with a mind for community.
“Architecture is a culture act that serves as a means to shape community,” the company’s website states. “It creates space, not simply buildings; space to interact and engage. It serves as the field in which activity takes place and the scaffolding upon which our community is built.”
Stanfield was one of 15 people to travel to Austin, Texas as part of the local SXSW419 project created with the intent to reimagine Richland County. As an architect and frequent biker around the city of Mansfield, Stanfield traveled to Austin with walkability in mind.
“Walkability” is loosely defined as the measure of how friendly an area is to walking, which has measurable benefits on the health, environmental and economic well-being of a community. The app “Walk Score” gives Mansfield a score of 30 out of 100, rating Mansfield a “car-dependent” city.
“I have spent a fair amount of time riding my bike and walking around the city of Mansfield,” Stanfield wrote in a blog for the #SXSW419 project. “As such, I would have thought I had a pretty good grasp on the deficiencies that hinder walkability in Mansfield.”
Some of these problems include the crumbling state of sidewalks, litter, and the sprawling blueprint of the city of Mansfield. These are some of the same challenges facing the City of Shelby.
Shelby’s Project Manager Joe Gies faced the city’s problem of walkability head-on by attending a walkability conference in Atlanta nearly two years ago. Even something as simple as installing curb ramps, especially in low-income areas, can make a drastic difference in a city.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important that is because for one, it’s the law, and for two it does make a big difference in changing the focus.
“Some people may say we need to put our focus on the areas where the most travel is, but in low-income areas, that’s the only way they can get to work or the grocery store, so you need to look at that and how it might affect the economy.”
In the bigger picture, Gies and his colleagues were also challenged with creating different programs encouraging people to walk more and improve their health.
But it’s not just about the function or the health of walking – it’s also about creating a place for people to walk to.
“We’ve got a group really starting to talk about getting downtown spruced up,” Gies said. “We don’t have shade trees so walking downtown is hot, or if we had benches you could stop and sit and talk. It all ties in together.”
It turns out the city of Austin is plagued with many of the same problems as Mansfield and Shelby, down to cracked pavements and unkempt sidewalks. Despite this, Stanfield deemed the city of Austin very walkable, and Walk Score rates Austin as the 33rd most walkable large city in the country.
The defining factor? Visual interest.
“Austin is a visually interesting city. The density certainly contributes to this,” Stanfield wrote. “But it is really the public art that is the strongest contributing factor.
"From murals on buildings, to sidewalk mosaics, to stunning buildings (both old and new), Austin has something to catch the eye and imagination on nearly every block.”
Having a destination can certainly make up for some of the deficiencies of walkability, Stanfield said. But relying on having a destination falls short of what makes a place truly walkable.
“It does not account for the wanderer. The explorer. These are the people that really test the walkability of the city,” Stanfield said.
The trip prompted Stanfield to wonder, what could Mansfield look like with an ever-changing landscape of public art? What could happen if the city gave itself the space to be creative and inspiring?
Luke Beekman of Mankind Murals believes he has the answer.
“It’s about trying to connect the dots and trying to find opportunities where public art can happen and then we breathe new life into the city, with an artistic design or something that is community-based where everyone can take part,” Beekman said.