Building a Space for Community

Originally published in the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival November 22, 2011


Nevada City Council member Reinette Senum writes this week’s blog, describing Nevada City’s efforts to become environmentally responsible. The Nevada City Sustainability Team is working to regain the commons within downtown. One such project is the boardwalk on Commercial Street.

It was in March of 2010 when my fellow council members voted to sanction the development of the Sustainability ‘Vision’ Team to create a holistic plan to develop and implement priority projects addressing three objectives: economic vitality and resiliency; healthy ecosystems; and community well being.

Upon city council approval, an ad hoc committee of local experts and residents was organized to establish the framework for planning and to identify and prioritize projects. Utilizing public workshops and weekly ‘sustainability team’ meetings, a matrix of projects was developed and prioritized based upon local benefits, partnerships and need. One of the identified priority revitalization projects was the Commercial Street Beautification initiative.

Like many communities throughout the country, it was in the late 1960’s that Nevada City lost its vital downtown plaza to the Highway 20/49 expansion that cut through the heart of Nevada City. If you talk to any of the ‘oldies’ about this community dissection, it is not uncommon to see them shed a tear. Nevada City has never been quite the same.

In recent years, Nevada City has been working to reclaim the commons through the Union Street development project, which included the rehabilitation of Robinson Plaza (in front of the Chambers of Commerce), and the establishment of the Nevada City Farmers Market.

Following a community survey and store owner input, volunteers from the Sustainability Team developed the “Commercial Street Beautification Plan,” which they then presented to City Planning and the City Council for review. After addressing a number of concerns, the City Council approved the implementation of the pilot project.

The Commercial Street Boardwalk would be the starting-gate for a larger revitalization effort to make Nevada City a more sustainable community.

The installation of the Commercial Street Boardwalk would encourage more economic activity, create a space for all members of community to enjoy and demonstrate the applicability of this sustainable development technique. It would also increase pedestrian access to more public right-of-way, thereby alleviating congestion on the sidewalk. To reduce vehicular traffic impact, the Boardwalk would only take up only three parallel parking spaces.

By utilizing volunteer labor and reclaimed materials, the entire project would cost only 53 cents per Nevada City resident.

To raise the total $1,600 needed for the new material for the decking, the NCST team members began selling raffle tickets for items donated by surrounding merchants. The benches, railings and planter boxes would come from a reclaimed redwood deck belonging to a NCST member, Al Bulf. Once volunteers removed the screws and nails from the reclaimed lumber, NCST member and construction lead, Gary Tintle planed the redwood planks at his workshop and transformed the wood into benches and planter boxes.

Work parties were organized to engage the public. Volunteers, young and old, completed the assembly and sealed the benches and planter boxes. The Boardwalk blueprint, designed by landscape architect and NCST member, Karin Kaufman, were coming to life. After several work parties the sections of the boardwalk were complete and ready for installation.

It was on an early Sunday morning that volunteers with some solid carpentry skills arrived and began assembling the Boardwalk. They had given themselves two whole days to do so, but in the end they would surprise even themselves. They would have the decking, planter boxes, benches, soil and plants installed in 5.5 hours. By 12:30pm, the volunteers’ work was completed and they began to savor the surprised expressions of passer-byers coming upon the boardwalk for the first time.

Today, the seating areas have enhanced the services of the surrounding businesses while drawing a larger variety of foot traffic in downtown, ultimately increasing the economic viability of the commercial district.

Within the first 4 days of the Boardwalk installation, three merchants painted their storefronts. A month later, two Boardwalk ‘regulars’ took it upon themselves to repair a decaying storefront across from the boardwalk by purchasing the needed materials and doing the carpentry repair themselves.

And now, along the edges of the Boardwalk, there are three parking meters that have been transformed into Give-O-Meters. Coins dropped into these meters are dedicated to the upkeep of the Boardwalk as well as other beautification projects around Nevada City.

It is in this 60×8 ft dimension that our community and its complexities play out.  The Boardwalk has created a setting that represents a micro of the macro: buskers learning to work along side the opened doors of storefronts, non-smokers learning to deal with smokers, and merchants and locals navigating how to establish ownership of the Boardwalk.

Though the Boardwalk is a two-year pilot program that is meant to assess the impacts to local businesses and the general community, it has been built to last a dozen years. We believe that by simply providing a place for community to gather, we will begin to build the most crucial element of a sustainable movement: a strong sense of community and a true sense of our place in the world.

Before the Boardwalk was built and installed, citizens kept asking, ‘what do you mean by a Boardwalk?’ or ‘What, exactly, will this look like and what will it do?’ Today, nobody asks these questions. Instead, they approach me with suggestions for where the next Boardwalk installation should take place. Such as in front of the Nevada Theater so as to provide space for intermission during performances or in front of the Alpha Building and across the street at the National Hotel so as to provide an gateway onto Broad Street

Through a physical example, the public now understands the benefits of a walkable and pedestrian friendly town, and a majority of our community members now tangibly understand and support the idea of providing more space for community to gather.

Simply by providing a space for community to work itself out, our world is already changing for the better. The rest will follow.  The Boardwalk is a testament to this.