I've experienced Riverbank Park from different perspectives over the years. There is, of course, the plentiful people-watching opportunities the park offers, most notably during the first weekend in June. And during my days as a wild-eyed rebel, I actually sat on the park's benches after sunset to take in the park's clear, white lights atop ground's sparkling, white snow. Most recently, though, I've experienced the park under the guise of the doting dad, making the almost-daily pilgrimmage to my daughter's mecca of swing sets, slides, and jungle gyms. As such, I've graduated into that class of Westbrook "families with young children" who apparently seek municipal protection that most menacing parental nightmare...wait for it...the farmers' market.
At least that's according to Tess Nacelewicz's American Journal article on the possibility of relocating the city's farmers' market from the CVS parking lot to other locations, most notably Riverbank Park.
All snark aside, I do appreciate the City's concern for the safety of kids at the playground and its fear of stalled traffic. As I pointed out in an earlier post, I think vehicular traffic should be barred from the sliver of pavement that bisects the park, as I'm afraid the unfortunate meeting between youthful flesh and motorized metal in that narrow thoroughfare is merely a yet-to-unfold tragedy. Moreover, I claim ignorance of any efforts the City has made to reach an agreement with the abutting Stephen W. Manchester American Legion Post No. 62 to use their parking lot, an agreement that would increase safety and reduce traffic in the park's interior.
Nevertheless, it would be a shame if the City decides against relocating the farmers' market to Riverbank Park on these grounds, mostly because a relocation of the market to Riverbank Park is the best option.
In her 1961 book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs stresses the importance of diversity in public spaces. In order for a public space to be vital and lively, Jacobs argues, it needs to have diverse functions that attract diverse populations.
As the most visible function of Riverbank Park, the park's playground certainly attracts a diverse population. I've heard sons chastised in a half-dozen languages for chucking wood chips and granddaughters chided by grandparents with a wicked impersonation of Tim Sample. I've seen the Bobo sipping her latte and checking her iPhone between nudges on the swing set over there and the Westbrook Tuxedo-clad dad escorting his daughter down the slide over here. However, as culturally eclectic as the park can get sometimes, the pattern to playground use is pretty uniform.
So, instead of disrupting the rhythm of the playground, a farmers' market in Riverbank Park could actually complement activity in Riverbank Park.
To take but a few examples: Surviving the morning routine prevents even the most efficient of us parents from getting down to the park until 9:30-10a at the earliest. Since the farmers' market is expected to be open from 6a-6p on Thursdays and Fridays, that means the use of the space will not be even remotely competitive for at least 2-3 hours in the early morning. Thus, besides enticing some of the regulars who like to use the Presumpscot as a scenic backdrop while they read the morning paper in the car, a farmers' market in Riverbank Park could actually recruit a new crowd to the space at a time when it is otherwise lightly occupied.
The convoy of minivans pulling in around 10a would definitely make the park a bit more snug (which come to think of it, is a good thing), but the farmers' market would again fill the gap created by the vacancies caused by domestic duties (read: lunch, nap, mental health break, etc.) at 12p or so, just in time for those noontime strollers walking along the Riverwalk.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Instead of detracting from the civic life that Riverbank Park uniquely cultivates in Westbrook, a farmers' market could actually enrich that culture. Let's just hope the City is creative and wise enough to allow that to happen.
- John C.L. Morgan