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Sun, Sand, and Sidewalks: Transforming Salisbury, Massachusetts

Ethan Kent
Jul 26, 2017
Dec 21, 2017

What can a garbage can tell you about placemaking?

This June, the Town of Salisbury, Massachusetts launched an ambitious program to improve and activate their beach center. They brought in a carousel, reclaimed a lane of traffic to create more space for pedestrians, installed a parklet, and set up programs like free outdoor movies -- but it might be Salisbury’s garbage cans that best show how this community came together to take ownership of their public spaces. As visitors walk through the area, they are greeted by more than 60 garbage cans decorated by local artists with mini murals; a statement that colorfully shows how excited locals are to engage in a collaborative experiment to imagine what their town can be.

‍A local artist contributes to placemaking efforts in the beach center. Photo Credit: Salisbury Beach Partnership

Salisbury, Massachusetts has the classic story of a New England town, incorporated in 1640 and historically powered by boat manufacturing and trade facilitated by northern railway lines. Salisbury’s beachfront soon emerged as a regional highlight, rich with a mixture of carnival traditions, its famous “beach pizza,” and old New England charm. However, in recent years, the town’s Beach Center was losing ground as a destination. After successfully securing funds to construct a boardwalk along the beach, Salisbury began the process of siting a new comfort station to accommodate summertime beachgoers. But as possible locations were discussed, the conversation expanded. With assistance from PPS, locals began re-imagining the entire beach center, which consists of two commercial blocks with a large center esplanade. The area had all the ingredients of a great urban space; the dimensions were ideal for walking and social activities, and the surrounding restaurants and amusements added life and energy to the space, day and night. But still, the space lacked the range of activities and inviting environment that would transform it into a true destination.

‍The Salisbury beach center before and after recent improvements. Photo Credit: Philip Winn

Over the course of a year, PPS explored a range of strategies with the town and local partners. PPS proposed a plan for better place governance, tasking a newly formed working group with continued conversation about shared goals and approaches to managing the new space. Stakeholders, ranging from the Salisbury Beach Partnership, to local staff working in senior services, to environmental conservationists and entrepreneurs, hoped to extend the “feel” of the beachfront further into town. This vision of greeting visitors with a welcoming atmosphere as soon as they step foot into the beach center became the central goal of the working group.

Creating this “off-beach oasis” began with some recommendations from PPS, including a lawn area with synthetic turf, Adirondack chairs, string lights, and giant building blocks. Some of the recommendations that arose were aimed at experimenting with “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” options like a mini “parklet” with spaces for eating and socializing instead of parking spaces. The working group was also able to see the streets in the town center as more than just a corridor for cars. Focusing on streets as places led to the idea of converting one of the street’s travel lanes to a pedestrian area, enhanced with planters and benches for the enjoyment and safety of summertime visitors.

‍The new lawn area is full of lots of things to do - day and night. Photo Credit: Philip Winn

One of the most striking elements of the transformation was the installation of a classic carousel in the beach center, hearkening back to the earlier days of Salisbury’s fame as a destination for summer vacation. The result is a great example of PPS’ concept of the Power of 10 in action; together all of these elements create an appealing place where everyone has a range of activities from which to choose. Now even on formerly quiet weeknights, families can be seen strolling the beach center again with ice cream cones in hand, or playing a game of cornhole on the lawn.

With this transformation, Salisbury has shifted a sometimes contentious debate about the location of a new comfort station into a broader and more productive conversation about the life of the entire beach center. It all started with community members asking each other a simple question: What do you want to do here?

As more and more people experience Salisbury’s new atmosphere, the dialogue has only just begun for residents. Working with PPS, the town is evaluating all the changes they’ve made. Lessons learned from this ongoing experiment will inform more permanent capital improvements to the beach center in the near future. By contributing their time, passion, and creativity to the beach center, and fostering a new vision of what streets can be, community members are finding lasting solutions and uncovering vibrant new spaces that have been hiding in plain sight.

‍Local community members working to install improvements in the beach center. Photo Credit: Salisbury Beach Partnership
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