She formed the Riverbend Park Trust the following year. The group got permission to try the idea and organized a huge picnic on the street to celebrate. A small group of volunteers worked to raise funds to cover the basic expenses of Riverbend in its initial form: portable toilets and park rangers. The Trust lobbied the Metropolitan District Commission to approve Riverbend one year at a time, before the momentum for the idea was enough to make it permanent. Since 1985, it has been managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Time has long been a means of rethinking the conception of cities and spaces. There are lightweight versions – a baseball field designated as an early morning off-leash dog park, for example. Some malls open their doors before normal retail hours, allowing people to walk their halls for exercise – a safe and fluid passage particularly appealing to older people.
Time can also be a transformative tool to redesign spaces with more ambitious goals in mind, making the built world more accessible and fair. Many museums have made adjustments to their physical access modes – ramps and elevators and audio tour apps – but significant accessibility may also require a creative change over time. At the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, DC, for example, a time-based program called Morning at the Museum makes exhibits much more user-friendly for clients with disabilities, especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Normally, an exhibit is designed to be visually and auditory dynamic, with lots of interactive lights and sounds. But when community research clearly showed that some people with autism spectrum disorders found these characteristics difficult to live with, staff members realized they were ruling out a group who would appreciate the museum more. without these intense sensory experiences. Instead of redesigning the architecture or software to bring about permanent change, Access Smithsonian, the institution’s office for accessibility, designed a clock-bound structure to meet these sensory needs. On dedicated weekend days, one of the museums opens early for visitors with disabilities of all kinds – a door open to anyone in need, says Ashley Grady, the senior program specialist who oversees the program. Morning staff at the museum make adjustments to certain features of the exhibit – turning down the sound or dimming the lights, and offering targeted preparation materials before the visit. For a determined number of hours, a museum offers a special welcome to an unknown population.
In Mexico City, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, who ran the city’s vast experimental laboratory between 2013 and 2018, used time structures to reclaim play spaces for children. The city was home to more than two million children in 2015, and its green spaces and parks are unevenly distributed. Ms. Gomez-Mont’s group worked with residents of a pilot neighborhood to reclaim play space for children where no built structure was available. They tried a temporal experiment once a week: a street closed to cars and open to children’s games for four hours at a time. Much like Riverbend Park, the idea was to start small – temporary, built to meet the needs of local residents, while sowing the seeds for more substantial change. The group eventually opened eight ‘play lanes’ across the city, created a replication manual for other neighborhoods, and generated data to advocate for a more sustainable play space in the future.
In this way, a city could change shape to adapt to the changing needs of its citizens. Multiple and imaginative uses of public space could be made from what is already in front of us. In 2020, cities like Philadelphia and Chicago have also opened up play streets for kids instead of traditional indoor summer camps. But open streets for children could be more than just a stopgap for pandemic emergencies.
A rediscovered park, a welcoming museum, streets that change shape for children: these are drawings built over time as a sculpture tool. Ordinary people like Isabella Halsted have been able to reshape time and make our public spaces more truly public. What other worlds might be possible, inside or outside of a pandemic? Who else could take care of the cause of a small lag in the clock, a saving of time outside the efficiency machine?
Sara Hendren is an artist and design researcher, and a professor at the Olin College of Engineering. She is the author of “What can a body do?” How we meet the built world.
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