Written by: Jeffrey Kerr, ASLA, AICP, Principal
Reflections on the solstice – thoughts on Lakewood’s Solstice Steps first summer solstice
I have to admit, the summer solstice always comes with a little bit of disappointment. From that day, the sun is tracking back towards the dark of winter. It never feels like I am able to stop and enjoy the longer days, the smell of spring rains, greening of the grass and trees, or warming weather. I think that’s why the Lakewood’s Solstice Steps project was so personal and special to me. I feel that I – we all – need to do a better job at slowing down, disconnecting, reflecting, and just enjoying a moment, a day, a season, and our lives.
Too often in our business of high-design public spaces, we try to outdo, overdesign, and create temples for ourselves. It is really hard sometimes to just tread lightly on what is already majestic and authentic, making only small simple strokes – clearing away brush to provide a view; a simple path through deep woods; immersing ourselves in history and culture; finding places to watch people, read a book, or have a lunch.
The Solstice Steps at Lakewood Park is one of those projects that simply had the DNA to be a great place. Our objective was not to over design it, but to let the experience and our great lake do the work. What has always been ironically symbolic is the seeming inability for people to really capture the steps in a photograph; it’s just not very photogenic. The best photographs have been from the drones looking back at it – but nobody really sees it that way, and that’s okay. The show is not the steps, it’s the view. To be honest, it is really not even about the view – it’s the tranquility and reflection that people seek in the experience at the steps. I often talk about the importance of creating places of disconnection from our daily din of overstimulation and overconnection. We need places that allow us to just sit, reflect, talk with family, friends, and neighbors – sharing the motion of an endless lake, a fall breeze, a storm on the horizon, or a sunset.
We are often asked how we came up with the name Solstice Steps. Yes, the Solstice Steps is about celebrating the deep biophilic response we humans have with our environment – an annual track through the seasons and daily ritual of our sun dropping below the horizon. But the word ‘solstice’ also has a deeper symbolic meaning. Solstice also means turning point, and I think this place symbolizes a turning point in our appreciation of the lake and natural resources. I find it amazing that for so many decades we turned our back on the lake. It may not be evident today, but a large portion of Lakewood Park is actually an old dump, and yet, we were literally able to transform trash into treasure to create this amazing amphitheater.
Admittedly, the steps have taken on much more than we even envisioned. We obviously expected high use in the warm summer months, but I was amazed by the number of people who went out in January and February to visit the steps. Though sitting is still the primary use, we have been fascinated by other uses that people have found enjoyment in. Hey, all the better, right? I think we have counted hundreds of selfies since it was opened in November (although there may have been some shots taken on the steps a little before they were actually open to the public). The Solstice Steps even have their own Instagram hashtag. We have had math classes, yoga classes, book clubs, and fitness programs out at the steps. This year a local church had an Easter morning vigil service at the steps on a cold but spectacular sunrise.
The investment that the City of Lakewood was willing to make on this project shows how a few communities have rethought and revalued the importance of investing in place. I know it is often a tough sell to the public. They often see these types of investments as frivolous compared to many of the struggles that our communities face today. But from conversations that I have had with people who visit the steps daily, I would say it’s making a positive impact on Lakewood. We may never be able to analytically understand the economic impact to Lakewood, but listening to residents, they are incredibly proud of their community and investment. In a time where all of our communities are trying to retain and attract residents, businesses, and visitors, I believe investments in quality of life like the Solstice Steps is often undervalued in our discussions. The new generation of residents – the millennials – care more about experiences and this quality of life than any other generation. We need to start understanding what that means to investments in our communities. Those who get it will thrive, and those who don’t will continue to struggle to stay relevant.
I hope everyone can find an opportunity to stop by the Solstice Steps – not because we are proud as parents of what we were able to create, but more importantly, what it offers each one of us – a sanctuary or special place to get away and appreciate the captivating beauty and significance of our mother earth.
See you on the steps – I’ll be one of the many who applaud as the sun sinks below our marvelous lake.