Can a train station be a great public space? With a little thoughtfulness, I think the answer is very much yes. There are prerequisites, such as being clean, well-maintained and well-lit. It also makes a great difference if the station is integrated into the fabric of the community it serves, rather than being surrounded by a sea of asphalt and cars. Some NJ Transit stations already do this well, or are moving in that direction. In our home town of South Orange, the commuter train station is itself the hub for our public space and community activity. Planners refer to this setup as a transit village, one of the distinctive features of transit oriented development in suburban towns.
Our neighbor Maplewood is also a transit village, and was one of the towns my wife and I considered when looking for a place to live several years ago. We head there for meals and strolls every so often, but until the past weekend I had never actually been inside the station itself. I had taken my camera and planned to document the relationship between the station and walkable downtown, and was delighted to discover that businesses and volunteers from the community had taken it upon themselves to personalize the station interior.
All outward appearances suggest nothing unusual about Maplewood Station, except for some ornate wood filigree under the eaves on the platform cover and these rippled flange and large globe lights, which differ from the boxy, Mission style lighting found at many other stations.
A coffee kiosk and information desk take up residence in the main interior building of the station. This setup is not unlike many smaller stations in suburban and rural Japan.
The real gems, though, are these murals painted on the walls of the underground platform access tunnels.
Some function as both art and advertisement, though just as many were created by children, community groups and individual volunteers.
I think it’s a wonderful experience, either in the morning on the way to work or on the commute home, to be reminded that the transit infrastructure is part of the community too. Far from being a cold, emotionless portal, Maplewood’s station reminds us that this is a space for people, just as the streets and businesses are environments for social interaction.