A Heartwarming Holiday Example of Reclaiming Public Space

Chelsea Lawson
Dec 24, 2018 · 4 min read

Walpole, MA transforms a blighted property into a bustling center for seniors and beyond.

A smart city (or region, or country) is one that can collaborate through differences to identify projects that the community most needs and employ creativity to make it happen. The opening of Walpole, Massachusetts’ Senior Center on Thursday, December 20th, was an encouraging example of what that looks like. I felt lucky to attend along with my civically engaged family-in-law, with whom I am staying this holiday week.

Identify A Need

Pursuing an idea for public improvement requires both physical and political capital. In a town like Walpole, which my mother-in-law often categorizes as a “microcosm of the United States,” any investment of public money is an uphill battle. So civic leaders must be incredibly selective in what they take on.

One way to identify that deep community need is to look out for ideas that have been tossed around for years and repeatedly put aside as being too difficult. The Senior Center was exactly that. For too many years, seniors in the town of Walpole were using a cafeteria that lacked privacy or sufficient space, or were traveling to abutting towns to use better facilities. With demographic trends set to increase the needs for senior services in the coming years, the time was now to come up with a solution.

Get Creative

Once that “flicker of light,” as one speaker at the event called the idea for the new center, starts blazing brighter, it needs resources to stay alive. The town’s Board of Selectmen and various champions for the Center went on a relentless fundraising campaign to ultimately raise over $1.3 million from 1600 donors. (Two years prior, a voice at Town Meeting had vigorously protested that the town wouldn’t be able to raise a dime for this project.) Defying expectations, the town came together to make this once-distant dream a reality.

In addition to widely distributed fundraising, my favorite element of the project was that it did double duty. There was a blighted property on South Street that was classified as an EPA “Superfund site.” A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. That meant that, for years, just as the need for a new center was growing stronger, there was a property that was fenced off and doing nothing for the community.

So, town officials sought help from the EPA and coordinated with the responsible parties (companies that ran factories back in old New England days) to clean up the properties in an efficient manner. Now the entire street is a welcome center of town activity.

Celebrate

Embarking on a fundraising campaign for the new center and choosing South Street as the location (which also now houses a brand new police station) were risks that paid off. Its dividends come in the form of better quality of life for the town’s seniors, but also in recognizing what Walpole is capable of when it comes together.

The packed house at the opening ceremony was a testimony to this, and the cherry on top was when a representative from the EPA presented Walpole with an award for “Excellence in Site Reuse.” It was also nice to see representatives from each of the “responsible parties” at the event to celebrate alongside the town.

The cherry on top for me, however, was when we revealed that the Veteran Services Office within the new building was dedicated to my father-in-law, Michael Lawson, a First Lieutenant in the US Army who was wounded in Vietnam and returned home to serve increasingly responsible positions with the Department of Veterans Affairs, retiring after 42 years as Director of the the VA Boston Health Care System.

Best wishes to you and your loved ones this holiday season. May we all remember our humanity and what we are capable of when we come together.

Chelsea Ursaner is a Senior Associate at Cityfi. Reach out at chelsea@cityfi.co, or follow us at @teamcityfi.

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Chelsea Lawson

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We’re in the business of urban change management.