Another TED talk and thoughts on cross-pollination for results

Besides education, one of my other favorite subjects is urban design. Strange, I know, for someone who has never lived in a major urban area until now. But in 1997, our university invited Howard Kunstler to talk about new urbanism and I began to recognize and put a name to the malaise that we suffered in our town… the issues that we faced living so far from work and school, the blandness of our neighborhoods, our lack of sidewalks. He got booed, I’m sorry to say, but this member of the audience was riveted.

So why am I talking about urban design on this blog, which mostly focuses on my professional thoughts about education? Well, I think they are all completely interrelated. Let’s cross-pollinate: urban/suburban design, education, and transportation… stay with me, and I’ll take you there.

Our public library is a medium-sized system with 13 (soon to be 14 branches) in far-flung suburbs all over a county that is a member of the metropolitan Kansas City area. We’re talking about our future in a new strategic plan, and the same old same old is coming up: how to market ourselves, how to position our branches for maximum impact, how to drive traffic, and most importantly how to help our patrons get the information they need to improve their quality of life. But we are a non-profit focused on life-long learning, affiliated with county government, and all these things seem to be insurmountable challenges… for example, where do we get the money for well-situated buildings and advertising when we can barely fund the materials collection?

One thing is for certain – we may not choose to (or be able to) support our current way of life for much longer. We see the craving for urban amenities in our suburban area and can’t make them happen because of zoning, a lack of funds, and a fractured ecosystem of separate cities and townships all determined to hold on to what makes them unique (which is not necessarily bad, but presents serious obstacles to cooperative work).

In order to really innovate in ways that make us sustainable in the long term, I envision working outside our boundaries and partnering with a different agency: the county bus system. Our buses have limited routes and almost no bus shelters along routes (riders are instructed to just wait anywhere along the route to be picked up, which is inefficient, dangerous, and causes unnecessary exposure to the elements). People are often very far from these routes, causing bus riders to face potential walks up to a mile or more at both or either end of the ride. It’s just not a really great system as it currently stands. For example, I don’t ride the bus because I would have to walk nearly a mile to my workplace from the point where I would disembark. Showing up to work sweaty in the summer and totally frozen in the winter is highly unappealing.

We should partner with our bus system to accomplish several of these tasks. FIRST: buses should stop at every library in the county – period. We should be bus stops to encourage people to use our resources, visit us regularly, and we can provide an appropriate place for riders to wait in out of the elements.

SECOND: the buses could assist in carrying our courier loads. If we were part of the bus system, we wouldn’t need separate courier vans taking trips only to deliver books… we’d be delivering patrons too! We might also be able to provide materials faster with several courier trips a day instead of only once or twice around the circuit.

THIRD: The best part of the deal might include co-branding of the buses so that the library name and message is tooling all around the county and being seen everywhere.

FOURTH: Our involvement with transportation would provide an important bargaining chip when obtaining land for new and expanded buildings – bus stops need to be front and center on major roads, so we could use that leverage in maintaining our physical presence in the community.

FIFTH: Eventually, we should merge with existing school bus companies to provide expanded routes and additional stops so that a single system could serve multiple groups of people in a more efficient way. It would provide additional flexibility for teachers to take students to use the public library during the school day for more differentiated instruction – we have resources and programs that complement both remedial and advanced learning plans, and could develop more in concert with one another with improved physical access.

We have the opportunity to take concrete steps towards a more cohesive (sub)urban design, and as a library we could help knit things together in a logical way by combining existing systems. This idea still needs refinement, but it’s what came to mind as I was thinking about our library as part of the bigger picture. It’s so easy just to think about what we need and want, but if we can combine our mission with that of other agencies we might be able to create something bigger than ourselves: the first steps towards more unity in our larger community. Maybe these sorts of connections create community 2.0 🙂 Our “systems,” as Jaime Lerner says, should not compete with one another. They should make sense on a human scale to improve our lives, with thoughtful design and an eye on the future.

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