21st Century library, 1950s planning
By Edmond H. Rahme, AIA, LEED-AP
Once again, the expansion of the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library is in the news. Several years ago, there was much public outrage that this important institution was being planned for a suburban site on Ways Lane, outside of the Borough. This antiquated planning concept – important institutions being placed outside of town centers—is what led to the development of the New Urbanism movement as well as the desire for more sustainable environments.
In the article titled “A New Home for the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library?” in the Chester County Press, Barbara Cairns, President of the Library Board, talks about “…building a library for the 21st century.” If this was the goal then the Library’s board needs to understand that town and city planning in the 21st century is focused on urbanization of suburban and sprawling areas, not promoting and planning for more sprawl. Relocating a primary urban institution from a central location in a downtown to a suburban site outside of town is consistent with planning strategies of the 1950s, not the 21st century. The new strategy proposed by the library board is consistent with the way of thinking that caused suburban sprawl in the first place.
This “new” plan introduced by the library board is a rerun of the proposal from several years ago to place the new library on a site outside of town. That proposal met with significant opposition for the same reasons that this new proposal will meet opposition – it is an antiquated town-planning strategy and will deprive businesses in the downtown area from peripheral revenue from the thousands of visitors to the library every year. It will hurt the downtown for the convenience of pursuing simplistic planning solutions. To cite reasons such as inadequate parking on the current site as justification for isolating the library from the downtown only reveals the profound lack of creativity on the part of the planning team in solving the complex problems necessary to maintain a vibrant downtown.
Aside from schools, libraries are the most visited public institutions in our towns and cities. This brings significant activity and commerce into our downtown and needs to be encouraged, not fragmented.
Furthermore, if the real goal of the library’s Board is to build a 21st century library then they need to understand the direction that the designs for new libraries are going. While books will never disappear, the diversity of other media is increasing. This will bring more visitors to the library who seek these electronic services. The library of the 21st century must be located to serve both a pedestrian-oriented public and an automobile-oriented suburban population. The challenge for the Borough of Kennett Square is to develop creative parking solutions for those who live outside of a comfortable walking distance.
Several years ago a proposal was presented for a new library and the YMCA to be connected to a central parking structure. This proposal also presented a new entrance into Anson Nixon Park. It is this linking and unification of our urban institutions that will build a sustainable Kennett Square for many generations to come. What the library board seems to be missing is that architectural and town planning must be fully integrated with the town’s economic development plan.
If our goal is to build a library for the 21st century, we need to consider the big picture of town planning and growth, not just an isolated solution for the library.