Over the past year, citizens of Bethlehem have learned about the surprising and exciting ways that artists can inspire civic engagement. Inspired by community interest in uniting walking paths on the North and South Side, Doug Roysdon of Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre led us in the process of imagining a pedestrian bridge for our city. While we may think about city planning meetings as boring or, at times, tumultuous affairs, Doug’s background and expertise in theater inspired a different process for imagining the shape and design of our city.
What happens when an artist turns his attention to civic infrastructure?
Over a series of public meetings, Doug, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and the South Side Initiative changed how we might think about city planning by beginning with community reflection upon our values and needs. Rather than starting with developers’ designs, Doug asked residents to examine how a pedestrian bridge might promote a healthier and better quality of life for inhabitants of Bethlehem. When an artist takes the lead in directing community conversations about civic life, the result is a powerful collaborative performance in which we are empowered to reimagine the city in which we live.
With Doug at the helm, public meetings about the bridge have become joyful gatherings in which we identify our civic values for pedestrian safety and easier access on foot to the arts and business districts on both sides of the Lehigh River. As in the construction of a theatrical performance, Doug helped us to think about the story we would like infrastructure to tell about our civic identity. He also encouraged collaborative participation in developing design ideas and building a vibrant vision of the city in which we want to live. Aided always by Don Miles, the chair of the Lehigh Valley Sierra Club, in organizing public meetings, Doug allowed attendees to reflect on how a bridge might encourage greater civic connectivity to the river.
The success of pedestrian bridge meetings will come as no surprise for the many of us who have been impacted by Doug’s unique contributions to our local arts scene through his work with Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre. Since 1978, Doug and the Mock Turtle crew have performed over 4,000 shows in our region with a particular emphasis on family friendly puppet theater and educational programming in area schools. Because Mock Turtle has been a dynamic presence in Bethlehem for nearly 40 years, many of us have attended a show or heard from local children about their work in the classroom. When Doug turned his attention from crafting theater for children to the civic stage, he utilized his artistic expertise to create a rare experience for the cast of citizens from Bethlehem.
For example, at a public meeting in the fall of 2016, Doug and other organizers decided to engage citizens in the creative process by asking us to imagine how a bridge might alter our lives. Dividing attendees into groups and providing us with paper and colorful pens, participants identified what we hoped a bridge would provide the city. Some residents reflected on the need for greater safety for walkers and runners as we move from South to North Bethlehem. Nature lovers described a yearning for the ability to commune with the river and for a bridge that might link up with the D & L towpath and the South Side greenway. Others focused on a longing for the unification of the “two downtowns” and the possible benefits of linking the business, arts, and historic districts of South and North Bethlehem.
How does the experience of city planning change when an expert in theater collaborates with citizens to envision a safe walking city?
Given the freedom to imagine how a bridge might impact civic life, participants also shared more whimsical visions of a possible bridge. Some suggested that the bridge might offer spaces for musicians to play during the summer months. Others wondered if the bridge might provide kiosks for businesses to sell hot chocolate and coffee in the winter and lemonade in the summer. With both of these suggestions, attendees began to move beyond the utilitarian aspects of a bridge to how it might promote enjoyment of the city and our connections to each other.
Because this meeting called for creative engagement, attendees also began to think about a bridge as a civic art object. Beyond a straightforward pathway across the river, they pondered if the bridge could have green spaces and vegetation, places for quiet contemplation of the beauty of our city, or benches for reading the morning paper and conversing with friends. At the conclusion of the meeting, facilitator Dave Hasbury from Neighbors Inc. integrated participants’ ideas into a large drawing that reflected our multiple desires for a pedestrian bridge. In contrast to city planning meetings that begin with a developer’s proposal, this public meeting began with a collaborative and imaginative process and ended with a canvas—a picture—of the city in which attendees want to live.
Subsequent public meetings engaged the public in addressing the uses and the design of a pedestrian bridge. With Doug at the lead, each meeting became a rehearsal of sorts in which we collaborated on the set design for the city. We learned that attendees at public meetings share a vision of Bethlehem where residents can walk safely to work, school, businesses, and entertainment. We discovered that many of us are committed to creating pathways that unite South and North Side residents of Bethlehem. Through imagination and collaboration, Doug and other organizers have put on quite a show in Bethlehem in which the public develops the script for possible future development.
Currently, Doug and other organizers are in the process of seeking endorsements and funding for a feasibility study based on the designs and ideas shared by the citizens of Bethlehem. His engagement with city planning as a collaborative community theater project is moving into the next stage of production. In the coming year, Doug will lead a team in working to bring citizens’ visions to life by building from the vision statement produced by citizens. It reads, “We envision a bridge that allows safe passage for all community members, including walkers, bikers, and runners, and unites North and South Bethlehem’s neighborhoods and businesses, allowing them to flourish. We believe that an architecturally beautiful bridge that promotes recreational enjoyment of the river is essential for Bethlehem to become a true walking city.”
Doug Roysdon has left all those who attended pedestrian bridge meetings with a model for civic engagement that begins with collective creative reflection about our city and its design. In this, he has worked toward building more than a vision of a bridge as he has directed substantial public performances in which residents of Bethlehem have dreamed about our future together.