There is an important role for unsanctioned city building. Pillow fights, illegal signs, anti-establishment restaurants -- Peter Kageyama argues that the silly, nonsensical, and weird are what make cities not only livable, but loveable. He even advocates for a little rule-breaking to get the job done.
Peter is the author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and the follow up, Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places. He is an internationally sought-after speaker and consultant with expertise in community development and grassroots engagement strategy.
Peter Kageyama’s take on The Private Side of Public Work
When we talk about public work writ large, we are usually talking about things that are altruistic beyond ourselves. But contemplating the private side allows us to talk and think about our own personal desires, interests and tastes. When we interject some of ourselves – our spirit, ideas, and emotions – into the public realm, we make for better, more interesting public projects.
Why the silly, nonsensical, and weird are important for cities
We are very smart about our cities. Planners think carefully before they act. That makes it hard sometimes to let in the unusual or offbeat. Allowing for fun and lovability puts a different lens on city-building. This lens is personal and location-specific. What is interesting, lovable, and fun in Providence is going to be different than what is interesting, lovable, and fun in St. Petersburg Florida. When we apply the lens of fun, we allow for different outcomes. Fun is a legitimate outcome.
Love notes to cities
Like a handwritten note than accompanies a gift, a love note to a city is a small thing that have an outsized impact. Sometimes the note that you take that time to craft can be more important than the gift itself. The same can be true of an urban design or public works project. Sometimes the small, personal gestures within a project can make the biggest impact.
Big donors writing large checks may want to affiliate themselves with a large public works project. But, most of us don’t have those kinds of resources. We need to be involved in little things to help us feel connected to our place. The little things compliment big things. Cities aren’t always best ones to be doing little projects. Projects take time and money and people. When ordinary citizens get involved, they provide a compliment to the hard work being done by official folks.
Don't Fix the Fountain. Turn it Into a Beach!
Gateway Park in Rosslyn, Virginia
These old fountains that have sat empty have been transformed into a playspace with sand and toys. Parents can lounge and kids can play.
Adjacent to the fountain, they installed a bonfire pit. It makes the fire marshalls nervous, but it draws people in.
For details see Rosslyn BID and "Rosslyn's Gateway Park Gets a Sandbox."
Photo Credit: Rosslyn BID
Lighting Beyond "Not Scary"
Everyone is familiar with the Chicago L...and the usual lighting. Not very pretty. Sometimes scary. The Wabash Lights have combined public safety with aesthetics. This project uses programmable LED lights to turn something drab into something that draws people in.
Supported by the Chicago Loop Alliance
Columbus Ohio Moved The River...and Put in Grown up Swings!
Big Things: The Scioto Greenways project by MKSK Studios restored the river and created five new downtown parks.
Little Things: The project included swings instead of the typical benches. It was a fight to get the swings in, according to Peter, but they have been an incredibly popular element of the project.
Photo Credit: MKSK Studios
Other Types of Love Notes...
Murals - We could just paint a blank wall a flat color. A mural takes more work, but it creates a memory. It creates a moment.
Dog Parks - Activate public spaces. Dogs give people a reason to interact and talk to each other. Dogs generate social capital.
Pocket Parks - People sit with their kids and people watch. Small and simple but important.
Who are the co-creators of cities?
Co-creators are the unofficial contributors. They are the ones that aren’t paid to make our cities better, but they are the ones that show up. Cocreators sense of community and creativity manifest in small but amazing projects.
There are people whose job it is to create the content that is the city. Then there are the rest of us – it’s not our job but maybe it’s our passion. We all probably know our community’s version of our co-creator.
Bob Devin Jones is what inspired the co-creator concept for Peter Kagayema. Bob is the creative director of the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg Florida. The Studio@620 is a black box theatre that does so much more than just theatre. Bob is one of those unique people whose sense of creativity and community pours out of him and we are the better for it.
Bob makes the official people nervous because he doesn’t do things exactly the way they would like or the way they think they have to do it. Mayors and councilpeople are operating under great constraints. They are operating within a playbook. Bob is not.
Do you want to create a set of conditions where Bob feels more empowered? Instead of enforcing the exact letter of the law, let’s embrace the spirit of the law. What’s our goal? Improve the city? Get more community engagement? Maybe that requires a more permissive city manager. Sometimes official folks looks the other way. Sometimes official folks actually encourage co-creators with money or recognition to keep up their efforts. Most co-creators do what they do because their sense of community and creativity driver them towards it.
Why rule-breaking is good for cities
Worst case scenario - someone ends up in jail. But, mild rule-breaking with positive intent pushes both sides. A good example of this is the Walk Raleigh project. As an act of "tactical urbanism," Matt Tomasulo hung 27 signs...without the permission of the city...listing the time to various destinations around the city. The goal was to invite people to walk instead of drive, with all of the benefits that come along with it. The project caught the eye of city planners, who recognized the value of the project, which was converted into an official pilot program of the city. The web domain, walkraleigh.org, that Matt had initially secured was eventually redirected to the .gov city website. And, Walk Raleigh is now an official city campaign being scaled out to North Carolina.
See Getting Americans to Walk More Using DIY Guerrilla Wayfinding Signs by Anthony Garcia and Mike Lydon for more detail.
High touch entrepreneurs
Everybody wants to have the net Google or Facebook in their backyard. Everyone is looking for high-tech or high-volume companies. It's easy to overlook high-touch entrepreneurs, but they create enormous value for cities, both qualitatively and economically.
High-touch entrepreneurs create special places that make people feel at home. They create places where we go to gather. High-touch entrepreneurs don't get a lot of love. They aren't creating a lot of direct jobs and they aren't making headlines. But, the restaurant opening up in an unloved neighborhood can help turn things around.
Phil Cooley's Slow's BBQ, for example, was the catalyst for a complete transformation of the Corktown neighborhood in Detroit. When Cooley acquired the building, it didn't even have a roof. People were fleeing the city, and there was zero economic development happening in the Corktown neighborhood. Opening a restaurant went against the grain. The restaurant changed the block and ultimately the neighborhood.
Consulting Cities on how to have more fun
Hint: no reports involved!
Believe it or not, Peter has actually built a consulting firm to help cities have more fun. He does a half-day workshop with around 150 people and inspires them with examples of citizen-led projects. He then turns them loose on the city to let them figure out for themselves what they might want to do in their own neighborhoods.
Peter says that people tend to think that city-making is all about roads and bridges. We need to orient peopl to add fun, surprise and delight. Add a micro-grant into the mix and people will do wonderful things.
Ask what people feel, not what they think
When we say we are going to have a public forum or a hearing or a charrette, people come in with an agenda. When we do a "For the Love of Providence" workshop, there is no room to complain. We are going to talk about the things that you love about your place. Let's talk about the things that we can fix here together, today, as citizens. Let's find a way forward.
Contact Peter - Send him your love notes!
“Do not mistake small for unimportant. In our personal lives, it is often the small things, the tiny acts of love or neglect, which make or break relationships. Our radar is attuned to the big things in our cities and our relationships. We need to re-calibrate that radar to see how important small, hyper-local and fun interventions are to the health and progress of our communities.”
- Peter Kageyama
Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places