Columns » Warwick Sabin

Pretty is as pretty does

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A national magazine recently profiled the mayor of Tirana, which is the capital of Albania. Among other things the article discussed how he had revitalized the city — a charmless, soulless remnant of the Communist era — by splashing the ugly gray buildings with bright colors, planting trees, and creating parks. “People can say that my color is only makeup,” the mayor is quoted as saying. “But suppose all makeup disappeared. Suppose all women had no makeup, no pretty dresses, no pretty hair.” That’s an old-European, politically incorrect way of making an important point. Appearances matter, and they matter even more when people have to share space and live in close proximity to each other. The intersection between urban planning and psychology is well charted. Modern Paris was designed because Napoleon III wanted to prevent future uprisings and inspire pride among his countrymen. So his lieutenant Baron Hausmann tore down the cramped medieval neighborhoods and replaced them with wide boulevards, lots of green space, and monumental architecture. It worked: citizens felt liberated because they had room to breathe, and they felt more at peace because they had beautiful places to retreat. Similar effects have been achieved in cities around the world, including here in Little Rock. But it seems that it is always an uphill battle to convince the public that aesthetics can be as valuable as strict utility. Beautification projects are usually criticized as wastes of money, but they can be wise investments, because smart design schemes don’t have to cost a lot, and they can quickly lead to increases in property value, attract new businesses, and strengthen connections within communities. Simply planting trees, installing street lights and improving sidewalks can make a neighborhood a safer place to live. Most recently, we have observed the transformation in Little Rock’s River Market and North Little Rock’s Argenta district that began with coherent design plans. Other neighborhoods have been slated for comparable rehabilitations, including the area east and south of the Clinton presidential library. However, every part of Little Rock should demand its own aesthetic improvements. We usually think of certain areas as beyond redemption, but a little imagination can go a long way. For instance, just think of what the strip-mall-infested stretch of Markham Street in West Little Rock would look like as a tree-lined boulevard with elegant lampposts and grassy traffic islands down the center. The same kind of ideas should be proposed by residential neighborhoods around the city, the more creative the better. Each community could have unique design elements, such as art installations, that reflect the history and personality of the people there. And we shouldn’t think small. Look around your neighborhood and consider what you would like to see there — and what you would like not to see anymore. Along those lines, I put together a short list of fantasies about downtown Little Rock. Some are more unrealistic than others. • I would like to see the interstate ramps removed from the center of the River Market area. They are ugly, can be scary at night, and unnaturally divide the neighborhood. Having them made sense when the River Market was a warehouse district and had a lot of tractor-trailer traffic, but now they have outlived their usefulness. Let’s come up with a different place to get on and off the interstate. We could build a couple of interesting buildings where the ramps stand, as well as an elegant square-block park (with a fountain) where people can sit and eat their lunches. • Why don’t we put underground the portion of Highway 10 (La Harpe Boulevard) that runs from Markham Street to Broadway? Right now the road keeps most people from enjoying what should be an easy walk to the river from downtown. We could build a promenade park on top of the buried road that would be an attractive complement to the Old State House, the Peabody Hotel, and our convention center. • Look at downtown Little Rock from the top of a tall building and you will see mostly parking lots. Most of them are at least half-empty. Let’s buy some of them and turn them into public parks. Some people would complain about having to walk an extra couple of blocks to work, but our city would be better for it. • Tree-line the parts of the streets that pass over I-630. It would be a nicer sight for the drivers above and below. That is all I have room for here. But if you have any suggestions for your own neighborhood, please send them along. Perhaps we could create a regular feature in the Arkansas Times spotlighting ideas for improving every part of Little Rock. Even better, perhaps City Hall could do the same thing.

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