Before COVID, New York City restaurants, often long and narrow, would occupy the base of a tenement building, their designs leaning into the cozy or crowded nature of an evening dining out in New York. When COVID restrictions began, a restaurant which could typically accommodate 40 diners, now had its occupancy dramatically cut down to 10. A saving grace for many; outdoor dining structures, would expand into lanes of traffic, allowing for an additional 16-20 patrons, depending on the size of their business frontage. This successfully spread people out, however now they were exposed to the busy street life, with traffic on one side and pedestrians on the other. We know that this change was made to prioritize safety during this public health crisis, but how would restaurants adapt long term? They would need to be creative to extend their ambiance out of their interior space, and incorporate their dynamic neighborhood around them. How would this change the nature of public space when it comes to outdoor dining structures?
Something we’ll touch on in later blogs is the potential for a “greening” of New York City. I’d argue sidewalk cafes are an important first step here. When you approach an outdoor dining structure, perhaps you’re considering the durability, how protected you’ll be from the traffic or weather. But if you appreciate art and design you might also be considering its artistic contribution to the city. I encourage you to really take them in when in passing, or while dining. Consider their unique design, function, connection to their surrounding community. But we have to keep in mind that the outdoor dining structures we are enjoying today in 2023, have been rapidly developed from the first iteration in 2020. With the need well established, tactical urbanism took place to start them off, that being; low-cost, temporary interventions that really quickly transformed the public space of our streets and sidewalks.
In July 2020, NYC released guidelines for expanding dining onto the streets - ‘NYC sidewalk cafes’. The pandemic in this context really exemplified how the use of space is constantly evolving. The goal of NY’s Open Restaurant program is; “an effort to implement a citywide multi-phase program to expand outdoor seating options for food establishments to promote open space, enhance social distancing, and help them rebound in these difficult economic times.” - DOT, N. Y. C.
Restaurants had two options here: individual establishments could apply and use their sidewalk or curb lane adjacent to their business, or they could become part of an open street. An open street is a temporary full closure that beautifully has to be community based. A group of three or more restaurants on a single block can apply to temporarily close traffic all together.
It’s an interesting time now in 2023, where we can see the sidewalk cafes and their impact on the urban landscape with some hindsight and perspective. The success of outdoor dining encouraged the city to create more permanent structures. Some questions to ask in evaluating the wide range of outdoor dining include: How durable are their wind barriers, their carpentry, heaters for the colder months or even choice of lighting? For many establishments across Manhattan, you can perceive the permanence of their structures upon first glance.
Sidewalk cafes were first built in quick and effective ways to define a space. Looking to space out diners over 6 feet apart, while allowing ADA* access, quick constructions could take many forms. Most using construction palettes, tent like structures, and repurposed hardware. The diner's proximity to cars raised an important design question; how to ensure safety for diners while aesthetically aligning with its corresponding restaurant. As this design question was asked, designers and artists answered. Overcoming obstacles of function, resulted in creative design, public art and ultimately placemaking through the creation of these structures.
The first iterations of sidewalk cafes were defined by function, but have since evolved and will continue to, thanks to artists, designers and placemakers. Sidewalk cafes as a whole have changed the way in which New Yorkers operate within their city. In such a pedestrian friendly city like New York we can see how important thoughtful public space design can be. However, the balance between creating these spaces, as placemakers ourselves, while maintaining the necessary processes that are required within the urban landscape will require innovation and collaboration. Something that excites me as I consider the possibilities for creative problem solving. How can we use this as a jumping off point to demonstrate the potential for greening cities and reorganizing the space we currently have? The unique circumstances around the emergence of sidewalk dining in NY created conditions where new interventions were being made bringing placemaking even further into the forefront of the conversation when we look at the future of our cities.
So many of Southern California’s city and suburban parks boast picturesque views, yet their poor access, amenities and vast underutilization perpetuates a peculiar paradox. Only a week after spending an eye opening Placemaking Weekend in New York City, the stark contrast related to parks in my California city have become painfully evident to me.
While many people understand, especially due to COVID, that within dense urban spaces, public parks are vital life-giving contributions. The understanding that parks contribute not only to the well-being and quality of life, but also to mental health is important. Parks offer a connection with nature, overcoming social isolation, acceptance toward building social life in public spaces as was well described in the New York Times article Where We Are by Pierre-Antoine Louis. However, in California the regular issue of inequality in access, amenities and underutilization in public city parks is really shocking. The issue is widely exacerbated by the my state’s grossly over developed infrastructure that continues to perpetuate car culture as its god.
In the land of never-ending highways and traffic snarls, the very idea of strolling to a city park in many California cities instead seems like a whimsical fantasy. California's car culture continues to reign supreme, its roads crafted with an audacious ambition that defies reason. Pedestrians and “utility cyclists” or what are known as “commuter cyclists” are harshly judged in California as mere socio-economically challenged side characters in California’s theatrical production of public space access, many of which are unhoused. Those in low-status communities are regularly forced to navigate labyrinthine streets, with no crosswalks, that prioritize the almighty automobile. Moreover, many of these communities have high statistical deaths related to walking and bike riding. California's car-oriented infrastructure exacerbates the problem of inequitable access to parks. As demonstrated in the television series "Portlandia," which humorously critiques California's traffic culture, the dominance of car-centric planning and infrastructure creates barriers to accessing parks for communities relying on public transportation or active modes of transport. This perpetuates social isolation and restricts opportunities not only for marginalized but all communities to engage with nature and enjoy the benefits of green spaces. Now contrast this to pedestrian rich, walkable New York City, where parks beckon from every corner, inviting residents of all races, classes and visitors alike to partake in the vibrant tapestry of urban life.
In the land of sunshine, palm trees and beaches one would expect an abundance of parks accessible to all. Yet, the reality is more akin to a twisted game of hide-and-seek. California seems to have a knack for segregating parks along racial lines. It's as if the trees and grass themselves hold a membership card. While affluent neighborhoods in California flaunt their green spaces like status symbols, low-status communities are left longing for more public parks, its nature as respite from overcrowded and impacted neighborhoods and basically a breath of fresh air. It's as if the powers-that-be have declared amenity rich parks a privilege reserved only for the chosen few, leaving the rest of us to wander aimlessly through hot, sun soaked sprawling concrete deserts.
It seems to be the wisdom of City Parks and Recreation, that “Parks are for no one." Why bother with vibrant, lively parks filled with people enjoying nature and engaging in recreational activities when we can have empty, desolate spaces that serve as a testament to our commitment to solitude and social isolation? In Orange County some examples include: Fullerton's Gillman Park described on reddit as one of the most underutilized parks in the city. Another is Frontier Park in the city of Tustin which even designates it as "not busy" online. Yes, California cities are littered with these kinds of green spaces, forget about the concept of community and social interaction. Who needs that when we can implement defensive design strategies to deter people from actually using the parks? Let's scatter uncomfortable benches or, better yet, eliminate seating altogether. After all, we wouldn't want anyone to get too comfortable and actually spend time in these supposedly public spaces. And why stop there? Let's install fences, gates, and barriers to make it abundantly clear that these parks are off-limits to anyone seeking leisure or enjoyment. Birch Park in Downtown Santa Ana is a great example of a space like this filled with defensive designs such as no bathroom, no benches and a gate around the park. Perhaps we can even add some intimidating signage that warns people to stay away, or police vehicles driving through the park ensuring that the message of exclusion is loud and clear. Oh, and let's not forget the brilliant idea of implementing hostile architecture (described here by journalist Jonny Coleman in LAist). Those pesky skateboarders and homeless individuals might dare to use the park for their activities, so let's install those uncomfortable spikes, armrests, and uneven surfaces to make it virtually impossible for anyone to find solace or comfort within the park's boundaries. Because, really, who needs a thriving, inclusive community when we can have parks that are void of life and energy? Who needs the laughter of children, the sight of families enjoying a picnic, or the simple pleasure of a leisurely stroll when we can maintain the sterile, unwelcoming atmosphere that perfectly aligns with our vision of a park-free utopia? So, let us embrace the genius strategy of City Parks and Recreation, where the motto is clear: "No one is welcome, and we'd prefer it that way." After all, who needs vibrant parks that bring people together when we can have empty, soulless spaces that serve as a constant reminder of our disdain for human presence.
California's public parks, with their unequal distribution and car-centric infrastructure, embody a tale of absurdity. It is imperative that we challenge the status quo, prioritizing equity in park planning, community involvement, and active transportation infrastructure. Let us reimagine a California where parks become symbols of inclusivity, nurturing the well-being and connectedness of all residents, regardless of their socioeconomic background or cultural identity. Limited access to parks means limited opportunities for communal gatherings and shared experiences. While New Yorkers revel in the vibrancy of Central Park, Bryant Park or the High Line, where every corner bustles with life and laughter, Californians are left to ponder the irony of their sun-soaked but desolate recreational spaces. The social isolation experienced by many becomes a stark reminder of the missed connections and lost opportunities for community engagement.
Madeleine Spencer is the Co-Director of PlacemakingUS and is working towards building social life within public spaces, with emphasis on equity and inclusion. This article is meant to make visible the need for placemaking in California city parks where the co-production of public space with community in parks would including everything from regular community programming, entrepreneurial opportunities through kiosks, public restroom access, movable seating, better lighting and the production of intentional kid friendly spaces, while at the same time alleviating the currently burdensome permitting processes and defensive design tactics used to control the currently derelict spaces. This article is meant to make evident the need for policy changes in the current management of parks within the state of California.
Photos by Ryan Smolar and Denise Reynoso
PlacemakingUS, in partnership with CNU Southwest Chapter and The CityBuilding Express (CBX), is excited to announce a grand tour for New Urbanists and placemakers from Washington DC to Charlotte, showcasing 300 years of exemplary developments.
The tour will take place from May 28-30, offering attendees a unique opportunity to explore different development types, architectural styles, policy frameworks, New Urbanist and placemaking strategies, and social issues impacting our cities and towns. From adaptive reuse to sustainable development, attendees will visit a range of communities and developments, from college campuses to mixed-use developments, brownfields, and greenfields.
Here are five reasons why placemakers won't want to miss this journey:
1. Learn from local experts and leading practitioners who will share their knowledge and insights about each project as we journey 700 miles of roadway.
2. Explore a diverse range of development types and their unique challenges, gaining a comprehensive understanding of how policy, design, place and past intersect in three states and the federal district.
3. Appreciate the wide range of architectural styles and designs that define our urban landscapes, from Neoclassical to Modern, Gothic to Colonial, and Landscape Design and Transportation Design to New Urbanist.
4. Dive into social issues that affect our communities, such as equity/justice, climate change, systemic racism, and democracy/inclusion, and learn about different strategies that have been used to implement new practices and approaches.
5. Network with community leaders, policymakers, architects, planners, and developers from across the country, building valuable connections and exchanging ideas and best practices.
Participation in the tour costs range from $795 for single occupancy and $595 for double occupancy including two nights of hotel accommodations, three lunches, bus transportation, snacks, and shwag. Learn more at citybuildingexchange.com.
Story by Ryan Smolar
In her classic tome, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs eloquently advocated for the importance of sidewalks when she wrote, "Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life must grow."
More recently, The Social Life Project, has also recognized the importance of sidewalks, identifying them as one of their critical 11 strategies for creating lively and connected places that promote commerce and community.
During my recent travels to various countries, I had the opportunity to experience and document the state of sidewalks and their impact on street life and sense of place. While I did see some positive examples, overall, I was struck by the inadequate and often unsafe conditions that can stifle street life, not only by reducing walkability, but also by causing fatalities due to the neglect of pedestrian needs. In this article, I will compare, contrast and learn from the world beneath my feet.
Crossing the street in India is a colorful experience whether you're in Mumbai, Mangalore or Bangalore.
During Placemaking Week India, I visited multiple cities and rural areas, and Ethan Kent of PlacemakingX, cleverly observed that a national campaign for sidewalks would greatly benefit the entire country. Indian placemakers repeatedly highlighted the dangers of road traffic and the attitude that if a pedestrian is injured or killed on the roadways, it is considered their own fault. This issue hit close to home when I learned that one of the event producers of Placemaking Week India, Prahtima Manohar, had lost her own cousin in a roadway accident. Despite the often chaotic nature of Indian streets, one positive aspect is the presence of street-side markets offering fresh fruits, vegetables, and beautiful flower arrangements, as well as the mandala art often found on the ground around temples, which helps create special spaces despite the dangers.
If sidewalk obstructions were an Olympic sport, Manila would bring home the gold.
I never met a street tree I didn't like. Until I met these ones.
Cars rule the roads in Manila where new streets lock pedestrians out and force them into underground corridors.
What goes down must come up. Pedestrians and cyclists are forced into subterranean hallways in Makata.
These slums have eschewed sidewalks in favor of shared streets that are incredibly social, lively places.
The sidewalks in Manila exist, but they are so bad, that they seem like a cruel joke at the expense of the ambling citizens of one of the most populous cities of the world. The footpaths are often narrow strips that are comically interrupted by overgrown trees, redundant electric poles, piles of dirt, and the occasional side hustle.
Street level crossings in the business district are gated off, forcing pedestrians to use elevated crossings or subterranean tunnels in favor of highway speed vehicular prioritization. Philippine placemakers told us that when they advocate for politicians to prioritize walking and biking infrastructure, they often hear the argument that this type of infrastructure is unnecessary because it takes too long to get around on foot. However, as the placemakers point out, this transportation method would be quicker if it were properly prioritized, creating a vicious cycle of circular logic.
Despite the lack of comfortable sidewalks, Manila does invest in floating walkways and ones buried beneath the earth, which may move people around but on monotonous paths that do not contribute to ground-floor vibrancy.
On the other hand, when you venture out of the urban core into a neighborhood like Punta Santa Ana, you find that the lack of sidewalks leads people to spread out into all parts of the street, creating an almost closed-off street party feel with people doing karaoke and greeting friends and strangers alike with warm affectations. Drivers move slowly and will honk at you to warn of their presence, and it's just a fun and lively place to be where anything seems possible.
These cramped and narrow sidewalks in Singapore are a claustrophobic's nightmare (i.e. Me!).
Of all the neighborhoods in Singapore, Little India demands more attention to create more comfortable public spaces.
On the plus side: Singapore's covered sidewalks are a joy in sun and rain. Their many park pathways are pure bliss.
Haji Lane is delectably right-sized: a pedestrian street dual-lined with restaurants, bars and cafes is a daily street party.
Singapore is a wonderful place to walk around, especially in the classic neighborhoods like Tajong Pagar, Chinatown, and Little India, but one issue is the sidewalks are not wide enough to handle the amount of foot traffic. Many of them are covered with colonnade overhangs, an elegantly functional remnant of heritage shophouse architecture, but which makes your walk interrupted by uneven surfaces, as you may have to step down or up unexpectedly, or encounter awkward ramps.
In Little India, people use the sidewalks more than any place in the city: people are sitting everywhere, meeting with friends, taking their shoes off and contemplating the jam between their toes, it's like they're at a beach resort sitting on cabanas, but without any accommodations except for their own square inch of pavement from which to perch.
This sidewalk scuffle seems particularly egregious seeing as Singapore is one of the best case studies for vehicular congestion pricing. Because their nation adopted forward-thinking urban design principles before car ownership had taken hold, they were able to curtail car dominance through a hefty registration fee that prohibits most from driving in favor of other forms of transportation.
This creates the unique and bizarre pedestrian experience of you looking out to a multi-lane road and seeing virtually no car traffic, but then looking at the tiny strip of sidewalk and seeing bodies bumper to bumper and absolutely frustrated.
On the flip side, Singapore also does some really wonderful things with sidewalks that should be recognized. I love their covered walkways which make it easier to go the distance in both rain and extreme sunny conditions. These seem to congregate around transportation as well which make them a good use of resources.
Also, Singapore has created awesome walkways along the Singapore river. A walk along its banks will lead you to multiple commercial and heritage adaptive reutilizations of their historic river quays, and further upstream you find yourself in recreational forests that seamlessly act as permeable rain catchment systems to sustain the city's water supply.
Finally, a refreshing change of pace. The streets in the center of London are a storybook amusement to walk along. You might encounter a vibrant pedestrian square like the fabled Covent Garden area, which is an entire area purged of cars by attractive, antique pushcarts teeming with horticultural displays.
The walk along the banks of the Thames Riverfront is an uninterrupted delight (minus the detour you have to take behind the MI-6 spy headquarters), with deja-vu views of some of the world's most familiar buildings. Architecturally distinct bridges criss-cross the meandering waterway, well-utilized public spaces filled with pop-up markets and temporary art installations buttress your path, and there's even a punctual ferry service powered by Uber to use when your feet start to ache. Unfortunately, this area is quite expensive, luxury-driven and still owned by royal families and the literal aristocracy, but there's something to glean here from the sound proportions and giddy feelings of all the paserrbys.
San Juan, Costa Rica
Placemakers working to implement the World Health Organization's Age-friendly Cities Framework in San Juan, Costa Rica's capital, shared their concerns about the status of their sidewalks. According to locals, the policy in place means that each property owner is responsible for maintaining the section of sidewalk in front of their property. While one could optimistically hope this would lead to creative solutions and a pride of ownership, it instead results in a patchwork of inconsistent materials, grades, and conditions, making walking a challenging and uncomfortable experience for many, particularly for the elderly community.
Japan is known for its excellent food, trains, and courteous culture, but when it comes to sidewalks, they are falling short these days. During my visit, I noticed a significant increase in the use of bicycles since I was here just before the pandemic. This is great to see, however, Japanese bicyclists are encouraged to ride on the sidewalks, which can make walking a chaotic and dangerous experience. As you're walking down the sidewalk, bicyclists unexpectedly appear, weaving in and out of pedestrians, leaving them spinning in their wake. At night, their bright lights shine in your face, making it difficult to see. It's obvious that Japan is at a critical juncture where the demand for cycling illustrates that it is ready to become a cycling culture like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but ridership will likely not grow without addressing this backwards approach to placing cyclists and pedestrians at odds.
Lessons from the Road
I hope you enjoyed this brief trip around the world. I think it illustrates the universal role sidewalks play in the livability and vitality of a city and how regions can be strong in some aspects of delivering great sidewalks, and weak in others. Here's a few tips from the observations made through this journey:
In conclusion, the importance of sidewalks in cities cannot be overstated. From the bustling streets of India to the patchwork sidewalks of San Juan, it is clear that sidewalks play a vital role in the livability and connectness of a community. Adequate size, maintenance and consistency, comfort, and accessibility are all key factors in creating safe and enjoyable sidewalks for everyone. Furthermore, incorporating unique features such as street level crossings, sidewalk marketplaces, and shared roadways can enhance the overall experience and create a sense of community. I'll see you on the sidewalk.
Story and Photos by Ryan Smolar.
The Khmer Rouge genocide caused a mass refugee exodus out of Cambodia that made Long Beach, California home to the largest number of Cambodian people outside of their home country. This underserved diaspora living in central Long Beach is emerging into a thriving neighborhood and business community despite having to fight for access to resources and for environmental, political, linguistic, and economic inclusion.
At the heart of the district is The MAYE Center, a unique culture and healing center housed in a 100-year old carpenter-style bungalow on a very busy commercial corridor, making it a sort of open house for trauma-informed community health and healing. Before COVID-19, this sanctuary provided a social space, yoga and meditation, on-site farm and gardens, meal-sharing, and even acted as a small business incubator.
Since COVID-19, many of the in-house activities have been curtailed and the MAYE Center has received funding to provide healthy meals for free to neighbors, which they provide partially in the form of gift cards to local businesses to help keep the fragile ecosystem of community markets and restaurants intact.
An unexpected lifeline came in the Spring of 2020 as California’s counties and cities began relaxing policies towards outdoor dining and allowing for parking spaces, streets and pedestrian right-of-ways to be converted into safe, outdoor public spaces.
In Long Beach, the Open Streets Initiative was launched “to temporarily transform public areas, including sidewalks, on-street parking, parking lots, plazas, and promenades, into safe spaces for physically distanced activity.” Like many similar programs across the state, this successful strategy began benefitting downtown and shorefront business districts, while other parts of town were slow to build outdoor spaces or even consider the benefits such an approach could provide local businesses, community organizations, or those they serve.
Long Beach Fresh, the city’s food policy council and CAFPC member, brought in Placemaking US, an organization whose “United Streets of America ‘’ program was working to help equalize access to new outdoor opportunities for non-profit organizations, BIPOC led initiatives, and independent small businesses.
The MAYE Center jumped at the opportunity to work on a “healthy flex zone parklet” area along the side of their property which was co-designed with them as a multi-purpose space for food distributions, community meetings and performances as well as a passive space for community gathering and even napping in hammocks.
The concepts delivered by architect, Tina Govan, and the MAYE’s agricultural designer, David Hedden, were permitted by the City of Long Beach and the project launched as a Cambodian “Marklet” with a micro-enterprise Cambodian BBQ, juice press, and a street clothing company popping up in addition to free food being donated to the community.
This food and place-based project continues to pop-up when local guidelines allow and it is a finalist for several forms of funding to be completed as a more permanent extension of the MAYE Center’s mission to “to help those in our community to cultivate self-healing, resiliency, and wellness through proven, culturally sensitive, and environmentally healthy means” in the community which it serves.
After our experience in Long Beach, we argue for the continued openness of authorities to allow for alternative uses of the streets as pioneered by outdoor dining in the pandemic. However, equitable opportunities need to be made accessible for community uses like allowing the MAYE Center to inexpensively and effectively create a flexible outdoor environment.
These spaces increase purposeful engagement with the neighborhood and create a healthy “third space” for the community to gather, connect, and build resilience.
We believe the 2020 roll-out of the relaxation of the public-right-of-way has been unequally skewed towards restaurants, especially those in privileged areas with walkable streets and business improvement districts. We hope future legislation and programs will acknowledge the necessary funding, technical assistance, community outreach, and equity of access for a diversity of neighborhoods, local marketplaces, micro-enterprises and vendors, nonprofits, and disadvantaged businesses.
Food Policy Councils like Long Beach Fresh and Placemakers at Placemaking US are ready to help.
This story was originally published in the 2020 California Food Policy Report.
Story by Ryan Smolar. Photos by Brian Feinzimer.
Flint Placemaking Week took place September 2021 and brought placemakers from 25 states across the country to meet community leaders, explore issues and grow in our placemaking practice together.
Tuesday - Sep 21
Mural Walking Tour
As placemakers arrived from all over the country, our first introduction to Flint was a Mural Walking Tour of Carriage Town and Downtown hosted by Director of Placemaking for What's Up Downtown Flint, Kady Yellow. Kady explained the differences of street art, graffiti and murals and showcased the stories behind some of Flint's earliest murals, an outdoor art collection worth more than $1 million according to Kady's own research.
Orientation to Flint
We next planned to host our Orientation to Flint outside at the Riverbank Park Amphitheater, but the weather had other plans and we stuffed into the Mott Room at the Hilton Garden Inn to hear about Flint's history as the birthplace of the automobile industry, demographics that revealed the low-income and formal education achievements in Flint, and an introduction to the Flint Water crisis by local water entrepreneur Alex Love, the Neighborhood Engagement Hub's Carma Lewis, The Porch Project's Meghan Heyza and place advocate and urbanist Cade Surface.
Opening Party - Cohort Gathering
Following Orientation, our groups divided into cohorts based on their expertise and interest and headed off to dinner at Cork on Saginaw. It was a lively venue for discourse and initiating warm connections, especially with the urging of Tetia Lee for all to enjoy a Tequila shot and for Kady Yellow's gracious offering of a champagne flute to all upon arrival. Groups sat by interests including: Downtown Management, Connecting Neighborhoods, Healthy Placemaking, Creative Placemaking, Makers of the New Economy, and Streets for People.
Wednesday - Sep 22
Opening Morning at GM Factory #1
We opened Placemaking Week officially at the iconic birthplace of General Motors. The Mayor of Flint welcomed us along with Placemaking Poet, Frankie McIntosh. Kady Yellow of What's Up Downtown Flint introduced us to her placemaking journey and showed the resident-lead work she has been supporting. Ryan Smolar of Placemaking US and Amy Stelly of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance in New Orleans utilized the historic venue to talk about the relationship between cars and automobile infrastructure and livability, sociability and interconnectedness of our neighborhoods. Moses Timlin, from the Genesee County Land Bank showed us the healthy placemaking he'd been a part of in the Carriage Town neighborhood we were in and Leslie Mattie-Rich of Westwood Works in Cincinnati showed us how she built back up her own neighborhood with programming and ultimately redesigning their central square. Sherryl Muriente shared insights from her international career participating in innovative practices like archaeology of place and urban acupuncture.
Healthy Placemaking Luncheon and Makers and the New Economy
Due to the rain, we had to pivot two afternoon engagements into an impromptu venue: a maker space right down the street from GM Factory #1 which is cheekily called Factory 2. This venue ended up being apropos, because it showed-off a juxtaposition in thinking from organizing big capital (like at GM in the 20th century) to fostering community capital and social capital as a basis for local industry. The Healthy Placemaking panel explored the expansive relationship between place and health, and the ways placemakers are building opportunities for places and people to be healthier from physical activity to mental health, safety from violence and access to economic and education opportunity.
"The number one determinant of health is your zip code," stated Hanna Love, a researcher at the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at the Brookings Institute. Meghan Heyza of the Porch Project shared how she does participatory research with populations, not on them, but with them, by building long-time relationships with people whose health outcomes she is hoping to improve. Molly Baskin graduated from a crowdfunding placemaking program that helped her launch outdoor step exercise classes at Downtown Flint's iconic Brush Park. She shared how her public-facing Curvy Girl Fitness classes expand the idea of what healthy looks like by showing-off many body types on their journey for health with an enticing collective energy.
The Makers and the New Economy session was supposed to take place as a walking tour pointing out sites relevant to our discussion, but we had to hang back at Factory 2 due to extreme weather outside. Tony Vu, a local food entrepreneur pivoted us from the Healthy Placemaking session into the Makers and the New Economy session because his story straddled the fence between the two topics.
Tony has a kitchen stall at the Flint Farmers Market and he has a food trailer. With this lightweight infrastructure, he makes his permits and facilities and industry know-how available to up-and-coming food purveyors. Through a pipeline system Tony has designed, he helps home chefs and budding roadside entrepreneurs to take steps towards opening their own food businesses. While Tony has hacked together his current setup under the name The Flint Social Club, he has big plans to build out an entire food hall on the Flint River which was just awarded $375,000 from the State of Michigan.
The adjacency of these sessions was great because as the Healthy Placemaking was wrapping up, the points were centering around personal responsibility and access to education and jobs. As the economy session kicked-off, the importance of supporting local entrepreneurship was further explored.
Jane Jacobs' idea of "import replacement:" replacing what is bought from afar with local makers and products was discussed as well as the importance of event-driven "market-making." Barriers to entry like the obstruction of permits, fees and paperwork were lamented for keeping so many from creating more. After the session, Jaime Izurieta, an urban planner focused on economics and small business culture wrote a paper, "Fred and Barney Walk into a Bar," on his experience in Flint and the idea for a local currency, Flintcoin to take shape and keep money circulating in the local economy. One attendee shared how his local pedicab company has run on a "pay what you will" model, which has allowed his business to grow to four times the size of his stiff-priced competitor.
Connecting Neighborhoods - Bus Ride Part 1
When reaching out to local Flint neighborhood leaders and placemakers, they made it clear that they were very interested in having us come see and support their work. Jane Richardson met us in the rain along with her neighbors who have heroically lead the creation of the MLK Peace Garden along Martin Luther King Avenue on the former site of 10 vacated house lots which were demolished after years of abandonment by the Genesee County Land Bank, the country's first "land bank" and owner of over 20% of the property in Flint, Michigan.
Connecting Neighborhoods - PlaceIt Exercise with James Rojas
Famed Latino Urbanist James Rojas demonstrated his PlaceIt planning game for the 1st Ward: In the Beginning group in an effort to show how many more people can be brought into the act of building their city from a place of positivity and joy. With a colorful assortment of toys, participants were asked to build their favorite childhood memory and share them with the group. After this warm-up exercise, teams were asked to work together to build a place for Flint. The PlaceIt activity at the Hasselbring Senior Center elicited several good ideas including a mobile downtown that could be brought into the neighborhoods to help bridge the Downtown-Neighborhood divide. As Carma Lewis from the Neighborhood Engagement Hub put it: "I actually see objects and green spaces through a new lens." Jennifer Johnson from Michigan United also said she would use the tool in future engagements. See James' full gallery of photos from the activity.
Connecting Neighborhoods - Bus Ride Part 2
On the ride back to downtown, we detoured down Caniff Street where Meghan Heyza has helped build over a dozen porches for neighbors as social spaces that help reintegrate the neighborhood. Meghan built so many relationships and porches as part of her Porch Project on these blocks, that several partners came together to host a Porchfest with multiple placemaker production partners placing bands on the porches while visitors watched from couches placed in the street.
Exploring Flint for an Evening
We couldn't get enough of Flint's interesting nightlife on Wednesday night. We started off at Blacksone's where Eclipse Band set the night on fire. Esteemed members of Flint's emerging hip hop scene like Jeff Skigh and the creative talent surrounding him stopped in to meet with the placemakers before all headed off to Flint Hard Cider Co for karaoke and cider made from local orchards.
Thursday - Sep 23
Group Check-in and Placemaking Network Chat
We started off the morning with Kady Yellow asking all about their "top moment" so far. Answers varied from the Opening Session at GM #1 when we actively defined "What is Placemaking?" to Kady's welcome Mural Walking Tour and meeting the ladies of the MLK Peace Garden in the rain. Afterwards, Ethan Kent, leader of the global PlacemakingX networks gave a history of his participation in the placemaking movement and the current strategy to network placemakers to continue to innovate and popularize the ideas behind civic lead place development and management. Ryan Smolar of PlacemakingUS also spoke briefly regarding the Roadtrip to the Recovery in which he visited over 100 placemakers embedded in 60 cities to talk about their work and to encourage them to seek support from American Rescue Plan Act local funding. He explained how Flint Placemaking Week was constructed to build stronger connections between each of us to be able to help forward the field of placemaking across the US and beyond through our connection with the entire PlacemakingX family.
Downtown Management Luncheon
Flint's downtown is re-emerging as the city's central creative core of activity. We invited Flint's new Downtown Development Authority Executive Director, Kiaira May, to connect Flint's downtown-focused departments and players with visiting experts from across Michigan and beyond. Visiting downtown leaders shared how inspired they were by the Flint community's participation and self-direction and reinforced that the chief job of those in downtown power positions is to build relationships, gather resources and support access of downtown as an equitable community asset. Cathleen Edgerly of Downtown Lansing Inc has invited all the Downtown of Michigan present to keep in touch and form a network to support each others' efforts.
The Creative Placemaking cohort did not disappoint. They entered the room with high energy and rock anthem accompaniment and the spirit came alive in Comma Bookstore and Social Hub, one of the nation's few black woman-owned independent bookstores. Practitioners like Patrick Fisher of Erie Arts & Culture showcased how the arts can be a major leader in equity, in housing and in all fields of social life. Jerin Sage, the local creative mind behind Flint Drop Fest shared his alloted time with fellow community placemakers who he met way back at an early urban garden project they did together under the collective name, Peace Mob. Famed Flint Public Art Project maestro Joe Schipani showed-up and was able to coordinate some artist exchange with fellow mural project leader Tetia Lee from Lafayette, Indiana and we were serenaded by poems by both Frankie McIntosh and Nic Custer.
Streets for People
Our Streets for People cohort worked with the community including Tony Vu of Flint Social Club, Jamelle Glover of In the Beginning: 1st Ward Project and Greg Fiedler of the Greater Flint Arts Council on ideas for revitalizing the area around 1st Ave and Saginaw. The group settled on a vision for closing 1st Ave between Saginaw and Garland to create a Food Truck Park. Greg Raisman from Portland Bureau of Transportation offered 1 year of technical assistance to complete the project. Krista Nightengale, Executive Director of The Better Block and Kirk Rea, the Executive Director of City Repair all provided incredible support for this amazing engagement. Amy Stelly of the Claiborne Ave Alliance in New Orleans provided stories and videos from Second Line Sunday in New Orleans to show what Streets for People means in the most vivid of ways.
Closing Party - The Three Floor Discoteca
Kady Yellow engaged the local creative community and small businesses to throw a stellar farewell for all of the placemakers. A "3-Floor Discoteca" was what she called it and it was a stacked house of charcuterie and jazz and poetry in Cafe Rhema's speakeasy space on the ground floor, a drum circle and psychedelic space on the second floor photographer's studio and a DJ-bump and grind popup night club on the third floor for those who dared to enter. Locals and visitors got another chance to learn about each other's work and side hustles, like Sherry Muriente's interesting guerilla art project, Dudali.
Friday - Sep 24
Closing Tours - Off to Detroit
Unfortunately, our Friday morning kayaking tour of the Flint River had to be cancelled due to the rains during the week. Instead, a Flint art gallery tour and a side trip to Detroit were offered. Several placemakers piled into two cars heading down from Vehicle City to Motor City and took a tour of Downtown Detroit's famous public spaces like Campus Martius and emerging spaces like Capitol Park and with longtime placemanager Bob Greggory.
Join us September 21-24, 2021 for an in-person, national placemaking convergence in Flint, Michigan!
We’re hosting a movable feast of ideas, actions and energy to catalyze discussion and action around the city’s evolution from automobile-dominated to people-centric.
What’s Up Downtown Flint is welcoming placemakers from across the country for an in-depth exploration of how the community is reuniting and growing around art, music, and culture and evolving both its social and urban fabric through the powerful efforts of the creative, Flintstone spirit.
PlacemakingUS is bringing together 25 placemaking leaders from across the nation to elevate Flint’s ground game, share techniques and learn from this unique city’s history and future.
Join us for a PLACEMAKING WEEK filled with workshops, discussions, idea-sharing around the following themes:
- Connecting Neighborhoods
- Makers and the Local Economy
- Creative Placemaking
- Streets for People
- Healthy Cities
- Downtown Management
During the PlacemakingUS “Roadtrip for the Recovery,” we visited 60+ cities across the US and Flint proved to be one of the most exciting places experiencing a creative renaissance. We’re excited to bring placemakers here to be a part of Flint’s fundamental shift from an auto-oriented community planned by General Motors to one that is made by and for its people.
At the same time all of this positivity ignites, Flint has been unfairly castigated as the poster child for modern metropolis problems including deindustrialization, depopulation, crime, racial segregation, and inequality. This US placemaking convergence will flex Flint’s placemaking muscles to help propel the local scene forward while we strengthen our national bonds and get re-inspired from this assembly.
Join us in Flint this Fall
TICKETS: Tickets are on-sale now at PlacemakingUS.org/FlintPW. General Admission tickets are $250 and there is a “Pay What You Will” option available so that price is not a stumbling block for participation.
COVID NOTICE: Attendees and participants are highly recommended to be vaccinated. Genesee County currently recommends wearing a mask when in-doors.
ACCOMMODATIONS: We invite guests to book their stay at the Hilton Garden Inn in the newly renovated historic Genesee County Savings Bank building. Inquire with them about our room block rate.
GETTING HERE: Flint is in Mid Michigan and is served by the Flint Bishop regional airport (which connects to flights from Chicago, Charlotte and Tampa) and is about 1-hour drive from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Uber/Lyft costs around $100 each way for this route. Let us know when you plan to arrive and we’ll try to pair you with another placemaker for rideshare.
Event produced by What’s Up Downtown Flint in collaboration with PlacemakingUS and PlacemakingX.
Flint knows how to host: a welcome pop-up by Kady Yellow et al when we arrived on the "Roadtrip for the Recovery"
Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada -- I couldn't imagine a more illusive place to start a national roadtrip in which my aim is to focus placemakers on the $350 billion jackpot local governments have struck with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
As I ponied up to Las Vegas Boulevard, a designated All-American Road renowned for its world-famous glitz-and-glamour, I found the place not shuttered, but propped backed up and completely booming: American's liveliest Main Street was back, packed with crowds consuming foot-long frozen drinks under kleig lights infinitely up-lighting the dark desert sky. The hustle-and-bustle was a jarring awakening from my self-isolated slumber. Was COVID over? Was it all a dream? Was I just hallucinating off the vape smoke lingering in the air? In the distance, I could see the skylines of New York, the Eiffel Tower and a Great Pyramid -- all on the same street. And there were people there from everywhere too, except maybe Las Vegas itself. I was drowning in a shopping-frenzied fantasy land, detached from reality, and I remember saying something like, "what a beautifully tragic analogy for the American mindset of the recovery: checked-out with their checkbooks out!"
Considering the assembled, I bet that the best use of my time while visiting this national spectacle of sin, was to spread our message wide and far by talking with visitors who'd been drawn to the the Boulevard's bright lights from cities and towns across the US. Starting outside the Mirage Hotel's famous Volcano fountain show, right where Vegas' red-hot growth of the last 30 years ignited, I collided with a couple from a small, suburban town near Kansas City. They were on their honeymoon: an "around the world" trip where they'd be visiting Paris, Venice and Bellagio, Italy without leaving "the Strip."
As I shared the American Rescue Plan Act with them, the facts were quick to sink in, and they didn't have to take a leap into the deep end to tell me that they'd like to see funds used to fix their local community pool, a beloved gem that's been shut down since 2018 due to COVID and a pesky leak (read, potential capital improvement project mayhaps?).
Outside Sigrfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, I met two women from the Pacific Northwest and I schooled them on ARPA funds that will be coming down the pike. One of them was a teacher from Bellingham, Seattle who wanted to see funds go towards creating learning opportunities for children. Her friend from Bend, Oregon was concerend with housing for the homeless. I asked them both to pledge that they would write a letter to their electeds and they pinky sweared.
Later at the hotel, a Latino family was swimming in the kidney-shaped pool. I dove right in and started chatting with them about their experience with the pandemic and thoughts on recovery. They were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The patriarch, Ivan, owned an auto repair shop there, but he was curious about moving to California after I told him it's where I'm from. He cited liking his rapid commute in Albuquerque, but he was curious to live somewhere with a higher quality of life and more things to do. I asked him what he thought his city needed with ARPA funds in mind, and he painted the picture of an Albuquerque where anyone could get job training leading to gainful appointment.
I went to bed that night excited that I'd had great dicussions with people from so many corners of America in one nigh, but I realized I hadn't met anyone on the Strip from Vegas proper.
I spent some additional time the next day connecting with the locals, some contacts I had in the community -- an immigration lawyer, an architect and an artist/professor.
The immigration lawyer and I met in a wealthy suburb of Vegas at a lifestyle center that was a manufactured replication of Tivoli, a town in Italy. He explained that the American immigration courts had recently re-opened and were already jam-packed and crazy just like before. It was discouraging to hear a system that wasn't working great before went right back to business as usual. I wondered, "Is there still an opportunity to pivot systems like immigration and placemaking or was COVID just a long burp in the middle of bad meal?"
My architect friend couldn't meet-up. His tias were in town for his cousin's quincinera and they were at the park enjoying time together after the long year apart. Pity, I would have loved to debate the merits and foibles of fabrications like Tivoli Village and heard about his latest project, the world's largest guitar-shaped building.
I met instead with an artist who works with the university arts department and has had work publically displayed in funkily-rehabilitated arts district. She did not know about the ARPA funds and said the local arts community was small and well-connected to each other, but was lacking some key institutional players like an art museum or contemporary collector base. She said the Desert Art Collective, a grassroots group doing things outside the city might have some interesting ideas. Something we'd hear a lot of down the road: that the creatives are fleeing traditional venues in favor of the fringes where the costs and permission thresholds were much lower than in capital-driven cities.
The next morning I went to see the work of Meow Wolf, the urber-hip artist-lead, fantasy environment-builders of immersive Instagram-worthy experiences. Their Vegas location is called Omega Mart which utilizes the common metaphor of the supermarket to illustrate society's individualistic love of consumerism and the tendency of corporations, like Omega Mart's fictitious Dramcrop parent company, to overreach into our lives such that we're helpless but to find salvation in a box, a bottle or a purchase.
The Zap! Pow! shopping-as-savior, morality tale splattered on the walls in five dimensions at Meow Wolf was apparent enough to hit anyone over the head, except maybe some of the visitors in attendance, many of whom seemed more wide-eyed and lost in its "trippy" spectacle than absorbing its warning.
On this roadtrip, I'm expecting to see more from the recovery than what I saw in Vegas: everyone eager to return to business as usual, appetites bigger than ever for escape and hedonism, even if it is knowingly served up fresh by an evil corporation like Dramcorp, who steals your sould and sells it back to you in cheesy puff form according to Meow Wolf lore.
But at these prices, who can resist?
Current Riders: Ryan Smolar, Steven Homestead
Listening to: Viva Las Vegas, Elvis
Lo! We've packed our bags, loaded-up the placemobile and left Southern California for a three month roadtrip across America. Along the way, we're connecting with placemakers in 50+ cities and talking with everday folk to promote that 'people and places' play a part in our country's pandemic recovery.
Our motto is Carpe Loci, to "seize the place" in this rare moment when the status quo has been temporarilyy disrupted by COVID at the same time that $350 billion dollars has become available for community restoration.
This windfall of federal cash has breached the dam in Washington DC and is flowing fast and fierce to our states, counties and cities. While a lot of this money is going directly to help people and businesses with immediate assistance and to replenish depleted local government accounts, there is a large amount left in the till which needs more community involvement if it's end results are to live up to the White House's ideals for this money to "build back better" as opposed to "business as usual."
PlacemakingUS recognizes this moment and we are spreading the message far and wide across the land: we want the American Recovery to celebrate the old placemaker adage that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
What would it look like if every human could help co-create their environment to make their world a better place?
Our strategy is to learn and spread how placemakers across the country are tackling problems and finding solutions. We're starting to call this their placemaker superpowers, that niche where they have natural proclivities, exhaustive experience and a passion to help others. On our recovery roadtrip, we hope to connect with you to learn about your superpowers and help spread your secrets to success across the country.
What's your placemaking superpower?
We want to look forward to visiting your town as much as we are excited to visit:
We hope we will connect with you along the way and create a meaningful interaction that helps imbue locals to get the people and places they love prioritized in their town's take on the American Rescue Plan. Keep checking here and on Instagram and our Facebook Group to see what we're learning and.
Current Riders: Ryan Smolar, Steven Homestead
Listening to: On the Road Again, Canned Heat
We're visiting 50 cities to meet with local placemakers and communities.
As the United States emerges from the pandemic, PlacemakingUS is checking in on cities and towns across the land to help ensure that people and places remain at the heart of the American recovery. We're going on a national whistle-stop tour to make sure placemakers are well-equipped and networked in their locales to utilize this incredible moment. We're taking this massive trip to diffuse innovation and promote the creation of authentic places and to help ensure post-pandemic urbanism has something for everyone, because it is created by everyone.
Summer 2021 Tour Dates*
PlacemakingUS is inviting everyone to participate in the fun of this roadtrip. If we're coming to your town, please get in touch so we can connect. We've listed a bunch of ways to get involved with the trip on our Summer Recovery Roadtrip headquarters page. You can drive along with us, host a meetup with us or even help sponsor the trip. Please help us hook in with your community in a meaningful way.