Old sense of place could inspire new bonds

By on March 3, 2011

A group of University of North Carolina students spent a semester researching Nags Head’s past to create a snapshot of what could be its future. Their “Capstone” project with the Albemarle Ecological Field Site was titled, “Looking Back to Move Forward Sustainably: Nags Head, North Carolina.” This is the first of two stories by students who participated.
Audrey Whetten, from Raleigh, is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is studying French, city planning, and sustainability. She interned with the Town of Manteo Planning Department last fall and hopes to return to the field of planning after graduating in May.

By Audrey Whetten

Looking into Nags Head’s past, our research on community focused on how the built environment informed the sense of community for the small populations of year-round residents and summer visitors.

Our investigation resulted in one key finding: both communities gathered at two common spaces, the Casino and the store/post office. Both places filled people’s needs, whether for fun or for necessities.

“Sense of community” has been defined to include a sense of belonging, mattering and emotional connection with a group. Much can be done to strengthen these elements individually and collectively, but the will to do so must come from within the community itself.

We believe Nags Head has the potential to do this, and we hope that our efforts contribute to the process.

In developing our recommendations, we took what worked in the past – common spaces that filled some need – and tailored it to the guidance we found in both the town’s most recent vision statement and one of its most recent citizen surveys. Moving forward, our question was how – and where – can such spaces be re-created to strengthen the sense of community among and between local residents and vacationers in Nags Head?

We recommend that the town begin by creating two public spaces for community gathering: a multi-use facility and a town park. The multi-use facility could host such events as art shows, weddings, fund-raising galas and others, and could be built as proposed on the Windmill Point site (or elsewhere). We also recommend an outdoor performance space for the site, which could host regular concerts and movie screenings during the summer.

To encourage a more far-reaching economic impact, Nags Head restaurants could offer discounts to guests with concert tickets. To address possible issues of parking and accommodations, a walking path could be constructed between the site and the Beach Road, to facilitate non-vehicular access from the hotels and other accommodations along N.C. 12.

Additionally, designing the site for bicycle and pedestrian accessibility – in tandem with expanding the town’s network of multi-use paths, which is addressed in the transportation section of our report, could reduce the need for parking on site.

Bicycle and pedestrian accessibility are also important in our second recommendation: the creation of a town park. The choice of a park was inspired by the results of a 2006 survey of Nags Head residents and property owners, in which it was clear that respondents felt that landscape, open spaces, parks and recreation, and tourism are important for the “preservation and enhancement of Nags Head as a community,” all of which are key factors in the purpose and use of a town park.

Dancing at the Casino, once a popular Nags Head gathering spot. (Outer Banks History Center photo)

In addition, there was higher demand for a playground than for any other park facilities. We recommend that the park include native vegetation – especially trees for shade – and open space, as well as playground equipment for a variety of ages and a pavilion with picnic tables. The open space would allow for pick-up games such as Frisbee and soccer, and could be a possible site for the farmers’ market we recommend in the food section of the report. The playground equipment would fill a noted need in Nags Head, and the pavilion would provide additional space for formal and informal community gatherings.

We recommend that all these facilities – the multi-use space, the outdoor performance area, and the park pavilion – be designed in the historic Nags Head style that is so iconic of the town. Both the facilities and their sites as well should be designed according to high standards of sustainable design, which should be established by the town and are addressed in the architecture section of our report.

As public spaces, these facilities and their sites should set an example for the community as socially sensitive, environmentally prudent and economically sound steps toward a more sustainable future for Nags Head.

Our final recommendation is that the Town consider hiring a part-time contract employee to coordinate the events and volunteers to help run them. As a result of efforts by a similar employee, the Town of Duck has seen community strengthened not only through the events themselves but also in the greater overall community involvement of their volunteers. Such an employee could also work with local businesses to provide advertising at events in exchange for support through donations of goods, money or services.

A sense of community need not be limited by geographical or temporal circumstances; it arises from a sense of a rewarding experience, of emotional connectedness, of feeling significant and of belonging.

One can easily imagine that Nags Head’s summer people and year-round residents of yesteryear felt this and, correspondingly, a strong attachment to the community and to Nags Head as a place.

If a similar attachment and love for the town could be engendered in today’s short-stay tourists, perhaps they would stay longer, return every year, or even buy a home in the town. Indeed, if short-stay residents felt more attached to the community, they might act more responsibly and conscientiously toward the place which is the permanent home of several thousand residents.

Such a change in attitude could have social and environmental benefits as well.

Also see: Generations connect in looking to the future »
The full Capstone report »


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