Open Places

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

A few weeks ago I wrote about edges, beginnings, and endings. After walking through Dead Horse Valley and Tuppancy Links with the dog the other day, I started to think a bit more about open places. As another major planning thought process, open places are sometimes just as critical as creating edges and boundaries. However, it is the misunderstanding of open places that cause communities to become large voids.

It was my first trip into Dead Horse Valley. I had heard a good deal about it from my friends with children. I can see how it would be a great sledding place for them. It was quiet and the wildflowers were in bloom. We walked over there to get away from the Laundromat and crossed through the ocean of parking at the hospital. It was a stark feeling to cross through the pavement and then disappear into a little path just past Small Friends School. Perched on either side of the valley are long lines of trees and brush. I was struck with how even open places often have edges that define them from the rest of the world.

The dog also has a daily trip to the Tuppancy Links where she can bound around the couple of acres and have her "puppy playtime." (Folks without children seem to get lots of pleasure from seeing their "children" play.) This particular place is another perfect open space. From the small hillocks a visitor can see the edges of town, largely defined by the Westmoor Club building. To the south the edges are defined a bit more by the trees and beyond that the houses in the distance. Graham Gund’s house forms the western edge along with the new gambrel style house going up. Yet it is the openness that one notices, not the edges. That is the key feature of good open places. When edges define the space it becomes too easy to create boundaries for ourselves. Without the edges we have limitless ability to imagine the space.

This idea can be extended a bit further into places like Squam Farm or Squam Swamp. My wife and I are in a constant wrestle to decide if we are mountain or ocean people, and both of these places provide a bit of mountain relief from the oceanside. Squam Farm and Squam Swamp have edges only defined by the trees and landscape. This permeable edge makes for a much more pleasurable experience, compared to open spaces defined by "hard edges." The Swamp, on the other hand, is only defined by its closeness. The density of trees and brush creates a feeling of closeness that cannot be paralleled by the density of humans and buildings—both forming "hard edges."

Sanford Farm and the Ram Pasture provide excellent sources of edges as one walks down the pathways to the ocean. Standing at the barn, about half way through the land, one really notices the lack of edge. Far out away is the ocean, providing no visual break or visual clue to distance. Only behind in the brush or along side with the barn is your sense of space defined.

The other day we wandered our way between Fisherman’s Beach and Nobadeer Beach and reveled in the ability to have unlimited open space. The ocean, of course, is monumental in its ability to be open and provide limitless mental wandering. The beach, as the ocean’s edge, is also limitless, but perhaps in a more linear way. Our minds stretch out along the coast line—much in the way that our minds stretch along those large open expanses of American roadway. I believe this is why more people seem to like the highway than the waterway. It’s easy to understand and comprehend linear paths, but open spaces create fear in some. Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about this at the turn of the century in his famous "frontier thesis."

The idea of openness and closeness is one that has defined America in a way that, perhaps, has not defined Nantucket. Nantucket is very much used to the idea of closeness and edges. It cherishes its open space as a farming community, but it doesn’t define itself with open places like the mid-west does. Perhaps, and bear with me while I speculate, it has more to do with the ocean and its open space. Nantucketers were defined by the limitless ocean and the open beaches as much as the semi-openness of the fields and moors. Compare this against the openness of the mid-west’s oceans of fields. Sociological study isn’t one of my strong suits, but perhaps it leads me to a conclusion about why Nantucket is what it is today. The liberalness and attachment to arts and culture grows, perhaps, from the openness of the sea.

So, how does this all tie into preservation and sense of place here on the island? Certainly the Conservation Foundation, the Land Council, the Land Bank and the other organizations on the island contribute to this sense of openness and the preservation of open spaces. Sometimes this comes at the expense of the built environment. Houses and buildings are torn down to make way for the open space. This, unfortunately, is often the way mainland ideals work. It creates false open spaces with strong hard edges or even edges that are indefinable and create a place that is unwelcoming without a sense of place. My suggestion to make sure that open space is considered part of the overall edges and boundaries of place and determine if new open space will tie into the overall program of sense of place.

Open places are critical elements of the landscape. They are also the toughest to understand and define. For that reason, I hope that those who must make choices on open spaces and their use consider the complexities of creating good, useable places. Without thoughtful reflection on how to define the edges, these open spaces can become vacant wastelands. Well, better be off to my open spaces. See you out there.