Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, February 2013

MMA Innovation Award winner, 2013

Gloucester fishermanHow does a historic seaport city balance the needs of its working port with the desire to make the waterfront more accessible to residents and visitors? In Gloucester, the answers began to emerge in a series of community forums in 2008.

“Many residents claimed that if you wanted to observe the working waterfront in action, either they didn’t know where to go, or they would have to trespass, and there was no good public space,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk recalled.

The following year, the need for public access was incorporated into the city’s harbor plan, and in 2010 a plan for what now is known as HarborWalk won a $1.2 million grant from the state’s Seaport Advisory Council.

What eventually emerged was a 1.2-mile loop with 42 markers, called Story Moments, that describe each site’s significance. The project includes a 21st-century touch: Each plaque includes a QR code that enables anyone with a smartphone to access online images or video or audio clips.

From the hilltop house of 19th century painter Fitz Henry Lane, for example, there is a prominent view of the Our Lady of Good Voyage church, which boasts one of the nation’s oldest sets of carillon bells. By scanning the QR code, a visitor can hear a 1921 recording of a carillon concert.

Other markers, such as the one devoted to the painter Winslow Homer, allow visitors to send digital postcards.

The planning process included a good deal of discussion about how to make the HarborWallk attractive to kids, according to Kirk.

“There were people at some of the public hearings that would say, ‘Well, we need talking lobsters along the route, to make it interesting for children,’” Kirk recalled. “A whole other part of the community would say, ‘No.’”

City officials, the mayor said, were determined not to “Disney-fy” the harbor. The question of how to appropriately engage children was left to the city’s consultant, Cambridge Seven Associates. The answer was to include on each of the 42 markers a raised image – a whale in one case, a starfish in another, a bell and a sailboat and a whale’s tail in others – all of which can be rendered on paper as stone rubbings that kids can take with them. Children who complete rubbings from all 42 markers are rewarded with a prize at City Hall.

The rubbings, according to Kirk, are consistent with the purpose of the HarborWalk.

“It’s not a drive-by experience,” she said. “You need to get out of your car and linger, and immerse yourself in the stories of Gloucester.”

For more information, contact Carolyn Kirk at (978) 281-9700.

The winners of the annual Kenneth Pickard Municipal Innovation Awards were recognized at the MMA Annual Meeting on Jan. 26.