South Bend, public land, and the dilemma of Elbel

When entering the city limits of South Bend, we are greeted by a sign announcing that we are entering a 21st Century City. This strikes me as a statement of the obvious and a mistake. We have no control over our temporal situation; our control is exercised in how we choose to live. The recent issue of Elbel Park speaks to both concepts – what does it mean to be a 21st Century City, and how can we demonstrate that we are choosing to live that way?

I read the South Bend Tribune every day. A persistent link on the website directs readers to an article titled “Can We Dream Big?”, and I think that question is imminently important for South Bend. Dreaming big is seeing South Bend as a creative leader, an innovator, a city in control of its own destiny. It’s perhaps easy to slip into a simplistic mindset where this means action for action’s sake, a kind of machismo of making tough decisions. However, the real challenge is to think things through, avoid panic, and listen carefully before you act.


Frozen lily at Elbel

I bring a newcomers perspective to South Bend, having arrived here just last August. I’ve spent the last few years on the East Coast, in Massachusetts and New York. Many of the towns and cities in New England and the Mid-Atlantic have suffered through changing circumstances similar to South Bend’s – shifting economic and demographic patterns, the decline of industry, the rapid and expansive growth of suburban areas. While in transition themselves, the idea of jettisoning public parkland as strategy for growth would be unthinkable to the majority of citizens in these regions.

South Bend feels like a city slowly starting to recover from a long illness, but probably lags behind many of its Midwestern peer cities in this regard – I think of Bloomington, Grand Rapids, MI, or Rochester, MN. More importantly, South Bend is competing against newly vibrant cities in other parts of the country – places like Boulder, Colorado and Greenville, North Carolina, for example. These cities, and many others like them, are both attracting young people and growing their public parkland, sometimes aggressively. Rochester manages 3,500 acres, Greenville, 1,267, and Boulder an amazing 45,000! By comparison, South Bend manages 1,330, which would drop close to 1,000 with the loss of Elbel.

Winter at Elbel

Winter sledding at Elbel

It is completely reasonable to ask the question – does South Bend need two public golf courses? However, the bigger question is the one posed by the Tribune – Can We Dream Big? Public parkland exists for the benefit and enjoyment of the citizens of South Bend, and all public land should be considered a valuable community asset, especially when it has robust ecological, educational, and recreational value. Our peer cities, our competitors, are growing their public space, with the goal of serving the changing needs of their populations.

And South Bend? The city wants to sell precious public land for a short-term boost in revenue. When I think of what I’ve learned about South Bend over the last 6 months – the industry, the innovation, the creative exploits –  the idea to sell or lease Elbel Park feels like very small dreaming indeed.


Design with Children

Not design for children, or by children (though those are certainly things), but design WITH children, in their presence, or, better said, in spite of their presence. You see, I am a designer, an architect, and I work from home. I also have three lively children who return to the house promptly at 3 pm Monday through Friday, which immediately changes the timber and effectiveness of my work. So my day has two distinct phases – a very quiet, sometimes lonely one from 8-3, and then a chaotic, undisciplined, and productivity-challenged one from 3-5.


You often read that young children are naturally creative and imaginative creatures – sort of ur-desingers, yet to be corrupted by society, school, their parents, etc. Picasso is said to have noted that “Every child is an artist”. There is truth to this, and the elegant free-form animals my 5-year-old can produce and the obsessive pencil eyes my 13-year old sketches are examples. Children can approach design the way I, as an adult, approach grocery shopping when hungry – I can go into a huge supermarket full of wonderful food and buy WHATEVER I WANT. I don’t have to beg my mom for Frosted Flakes, buy off-brand bratwursts because I’m pinching my pennies, or worry about the calories in that loaded frozen pizza. Likewise, kids design with colors, shapes, proportions and dimensions with no thought to standards, conventions, or limitations.

I’ve heard rumors that some children wake up and independently locate paper, drawing media, and clean work surfaces, after which they proceed to create page after page of fanciful dragons and princesses, bringing them up to their parents for show-and-tell no earlier than 9 am. Many children, on the other hand, seem to need some hand-holding – to stretch the grocery store analogy, they are likely to view a blank page with a limited understanding of their possibilities the same way they would be if asked to go into a grocery store and purchase the family groceries for a week. I’m not sure how much creativity there is in cereal and hot dogs every day. It is with learning that we expand our horizons; the trick is to keep learning – otherwise the limited knowledge we gain becomes an ill-kept cage.


Trying to work with the beeps and sonic tones of a Nintendo Wii in the background is possible, but draining. If Charles Eames was right, I’d be the best designer in the world (and, also, he means something somewhat different by that quote). My best moments are when my kids seek to copy me – they see a paintbrush in my hand, or a drawing on my computer screen and they want to be part of it, they want to do it too. However, more often they want a thousand other things, and pull me from my fragile state of concentration back into a world of yogurt, board games, and homework.

Design is hard to copy, and hard to learn, and often consists of internal and external processes that are challenging for children to mimic – thought, research, writing, brainstorming, learning from failure. How are these skills imparted? Maybe at the end of the day the result clarifies the path. The kids see an overcomplicated adult process unfolding, with drama and heartache and bad temper, but then they also see a finished product and happy parents, the result of a process they may not understand, and may not immediately know how to copy, but one that hopefully impresses on them that the thorny path is navigable, even desirable, when struggling towards a creative goal.