Vermont's villages, cities and rural farmsteads create a landscape that sets the state apart. The marriage of historic, cultural and natural resources evokes an intense sense of place whose focal points are the state's numerous village greens. So strong is this image that the village green has become synonymous not only with Vermont, but also with this nation's colonial past.
Photo by David Raphael/Landworks
The town greens are not only a window on history, but they are also the nexus of the state's web of roads, which for the most part follow the lay of the land. Unlike many places where highways symbolize gridlock and congestion, Vermont's roads offer a more leisurely journey, inspiring a sense of neighborliness and discovery as they twist and turn over mountains or through valleys dotted with churches, covered bridges and farms. In Vermont, a road is more than a ribbon of asphalt -- it is a significant cultural and historical asset.
Danville, with a population of about 2,000, is the quintessential New England town. Its village green, courthouse and general store are set against the backdrop of the White Mountains in neighboring New Hampshire. Through the heart of the community runs U.S. Highway 2, which is undergoing reconstruction by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) in collaboration with the Vermont Arts Council. This unusual partnership is an acknowledgement of the value that the state places on the cultural, social and historical elements that constitute its landscape. Danville was selected as a pilot site for this creative collaboration precisely because this highway project embodies all these elements.
Restoring the Green
Over the years, Danville's green had become a hub for as many as four roads radiating out of town. Today it is bordered by U.S. 2 on the north, bisected by a local street and crossed again by another. Trucks roll through town barely slowing down for the yellow flashing signal at the intersection, a broad asphalt stain that blurs the boundaries between the road, the green and the business district. For nearly 30 years, VTrans and local residents had been debating the design for the reconstruction of this small stretch of road, the only remaining segment of U.S. 2 to be completed. Finally, Micque Glitman, deputy secretary of VTrans, decided to invite the arts council in as a neutral third party to bring a fresh perspective to the table.
The catalyst for her decision was a presentation on public art projects in Phoenix, Arizona, sponsored by the Vermont Arts Council. Soon after, Glitman came to the arts council to discuss incorporating artistic design and public art into the reconstruction of U.S. 2, and the Danville Project was born. The idea for the project is rooted in the vision of a Federal Highway Administration program called transportation enhancements or TE, which is also funding the project. Each state transportation agency develops criteria and guidelines for the 12 TE activities, which support projects such as trail development and historic preservation. One of the unique characteristics of this federal program is its intent to engage communities and make them partners in the design and project development process.
During the course of dialogue with VTrans, it was obvious that Danville's residents had strong feelings about the road and their town. One of the first steps was to give voice to their concerns. With cooperation from the Danville Select Board, the arts council and VTrans created a local review committee of community leaders. The nine members of the review committee selected a lead artist for the project and effectively served as the ear for the community and its advocate. The artist in turn worked with the committee and the public at large through a series of meetings and workshops to develop concepts and set goals for the project.
The artists drew on the past and the input of community members for inspiration in their preliminary sketches, which focused on influences like weather and more tangible aspects such as walls, fences and posts. Together these elements attempt to reveal the cultural and historical context of the community. At the same time, they are tools that the highway engineers can use to slow traffic by narrowing the road, improve safety by adding sidewalks and give definition to the green. Walls and fences, for instance, evoke not only Vermont's character, but they also are practical building elements that give a coherence to the overall project and restore the boundaries between the community and the highway.
The saga of an 86-year-old oak tree demonstrates how effective artists and engineers working with the community can be in creative problem solving. The story of this particular tree, which practically abutted U.S. 2, was bound up with that of an elderly lady on whose property it sat and who was a fixture in Danville. Although there was no way to save the tree, 300 members of the community signed a petition insisting that it be preserved. This apparent dilemma found a happy solution through a Vermont Arts Council grant to a local school. A third grade class interviewed Mrs. Dole about her memories of the tree, and then they collected the tree's acorns. They planted the seeds and will nourish the seedlings behind the school until they are ready to be planted along the green and the highway.
"This is definitely a cutting-edge experiment," says Alexander Aldrich, arts council executive director. "We are hoping it will pave the way, no pun intended, for future collaborations, not just between us but among local arts agencies, artists and their communities."
Goal: To provide a safe, attractive and comfortable pedestrian environment in the Village of Danville, and attract visitors to the area by celebrating its unique historic, rural, manmade and natural features.
Partners: Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Council on Rural Development, Vermont Agency of Transportation
Timeline: The project will be completed by 2006.
For More Information
Vermont Arts Council