A City’s History and Future in Place

[Featured image: Firehouse Hostel and Museum in Little Rock’s MacArthur Park]

Each month in our Nature Sacred blog we share insight from leaders in our communities who are advancing what it means to have sacred, open green spaces in our cities. In April, we talk with several companies and initiatives developing meaningful places in our cities.

 

“There is a sense that everyone wants to build more community”.

Linda Fordyce, one of the cofounders of the non-profit FireHouse Hostel and Museum, has her thumb on the pulse of changes happening in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. The hostel, set to open this year, is housed in an old firehouse within the grounds of this southern city’s oldest municipal park. MacArthur Park was formally established as Little Rock’s first public park in 1892 when the US Army traded the Little Rock Arsenal’s land, located in what is now Downtown, to the City of Little Rock to “forever exclusively be devoted to the uses and purposes of a public park”. The hostel represents a link between the city’s past and future, with part of the building devoted to a Firehouse museum, and a progressive park plan creating green space opportunities for neighborhoods and international visitors.

In the “last 6 to 8 years, place making has become more common in Little Rock.” Recently, the Firehouse Board met with the organization Hostelling International to learn how a hostel helps build community. “… I love the idea that all of us are doing this as a gift to the city. It is a historic building that is going to be used as a firefighter museum (in addition to a hostel). Off duty firefighters will do tours. We will have classes on community topics, recently we ran a course empowering women to travel solo. Community volunteers have been the impetus at raising funds and doing restoration work…We want all, especially the young, to gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through traveling and visiting this park.”

The Firehouse has also collaborated with Americorps to build a deck that connects the old firehouse to the park space, with a view of a small lake. “We are going to have people all over the world visiting, talking to locals, using local businesses. Our locals will meet and understand people from other places. We want more cultural exchange, it works for the community and travelers.”

It is unusual for a hostel to be situated within a park. And its location creates an amazing opportunity for visitors to use the surrounding green space for a walk around a small lake, or a rest in the nearby contemplation and memorial gardens.

A memorial contemplation garden in MacArthur Park
A memorial contemplation garden in MacArthur Park

 

The park has won several awards for excellence in park planning and landscape architecture. “MacArthur Park is in the middle [of downtown], and these green areas to the east, south, west and from every direction are focused on creating connectivity corridors. The architects redesigned one area where people rest and sit. A new playground for children with physical disabilities is being built. There are more roads from the neighborhoods that were previously closed off. A long-range plan is to put in a canopy with plants and vines that cover the interstate, to block sound and sight.

A donated bench near the Firehouse Hostel.
“At Ease” reads a donated bench near the Firehouse Hostel.

Surrounding the hostel are flower gardens with pansies and jonquils blooming. Ten donor-funded wrought iron benches enclose an intimate area. “Everyone who bought a bench wanted to put a message on each, something that was more than their name. Everyone picked messages like ‘At Ease’, ‘Take A Moment’, and ‘Relax and Refresh.’ At the contemplation garden, I go over there and sit and pause and think and remember people I have known.” Linda’s experience resonates with the elements of Open Spaces Sacred Places. Our green spaces can be places of respite that invite one to pause and reflect. The hostel, community events, and historical buildings in MacArthur Park draw the community in to experience the restoring effects of nature. More than just a place to sit or sleep, this space is an invitation to pause on one’s journey – to sit, to rest, to breathe, to be present, to experience all the gifts that community green space has to offer.

A circle of benches in MacArthur Park.
A circle of benches in MacArthur Park.

 

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