creative placemaking

How to Keep Your Citizenry From Going Crazy

The abandoned Henryton State Hospital in Carroll County, Maryland by Flickr user Forsaken Fotos under a CC-by-2.0 license.

One of the things I forgot to write in my post on the individual mental health things one should do to endure a city is to embrace its warts and try to heal them.

However, some warts are so bad, they might as well be cancerous. This is where you come in civic or business leader. It’s in your hands to cure these malignant lumps on your city and make them better. Here’s how:

Stop chasing after companies from other places, especially if that company is already in your metro region but not your jurisdiction.

We always complain that we don’t have millions to spend on another school, but millions magically appear to help companies move offices, sometimes just across the city, district or state line. If you want to support businesses, how about setting up a small business fund or providing low or no interest loans to local makerspaces and business incubators?

Create and recalibrate a law enforcement system geared to rehabilitation.

So many people in jails and prisons really should be in mental health facilities or even just job training programs. Yes, punishment for certain crimes is worthwhile, but think about all the new customers, scholars and homeowners we could have if we made sure this system didn’t hold people back for an unreasonable period of time. Or, if we provided the meals, shelter and sense of belonging on the outside such that people don’t look to these facilities and doing crimes just to have that community.

Stop the infighting between other departments, grantees and other nonprofit or corporate partners.

I know this often comes from limited amounts of capital and budget battles, but we’re all in this together. The people who need these services the most don’t want to hear about whose turn it is to get the extra $500,000 surplus or who’s turn it is to lose it. They don’t worry as much as you do about overhead vs. programming, especially if there’s no evidence of that battle on the service provision level. Going back to Mazlow’s triangle, they are trying to get to the top, starting at the base. You as civic and business leaders help them do that.

Everything doesn’t need to be developed, re-developed or revitalized for it to be successful.

I know this is down to making money or just having a dream of seeing something revamped. At its most purest motivations that is. However, what do we really gain from replacing one neighborhood with another, sometimes on top of the neighborhood that was already there? We are in a time where people want Art Deco, Craftsman, Federal, Mansard, Victorian and other types of architecture that pays a lot of attention to details. They might be ok with well-done mid-century modern, brutalist or “Starchitect” type structures, if it serves a good purpose and doesn’t take away from street life and it’s connected to many transportation modes. Also, we want our homes to be affordable, but not cheap. I shouldn’t worry that my brand new house will burn down because it’s made of wood that’s only a few sheets stronger than paper. Also, we can’t forsake neighborhood service businesses, especially corner stores. I won’t get into details of food production and provision here, but we have to keep looking into how affordable, healthy food can come back to our street corners.

Stop undermining our educational system.

You either get public funding for your school or you don’t. Also, some metro areas have way too many school options. The last I checked 2×2=4 and E=MC^2. Why do we need so many buildings that offer that lesson, especially ones funded with public money. I’m of the idea and I’ve said it before right here, that you can have public schools and private schools. Public schools provide a basic educational service, as well as service all kids regardless of background. Private schools provide supplemental education, especially of the religious variety. Why we can’t get that equation together is beyond me.

Strengthen the services of our safety net.

This gets back to affordable housing, healthcare, food, schooling, transportation and everything else. We all have good times and bad times. Not everyone needs luxury and everyone deserves a bare minimum of life to live. We shouldn’t have teachers and others who work for a living, just barely able to afford homes or living on couches not by choice.

Be ready for change from the ground up, while yet making sure everyone has a seat and a consideration of ideas.

You might be thinking, how can I do this? This isn’t possible. I have to make money. People like shiny new things. Also, you have no right to say all this. You’re barely old enough to be in the field. Wait until you have to balance a limited budget. Wait until you’ve had some family crisis.

Well, to answer that: one, I’m here to provoke new thought. Two, I have had financial and familial challenges. Three, when it comes to writing and planning things, I’ve been doing both professionally since 2005. Yes, as a teen. And I’ll admit I have more to learn, but I’d also like to fix and grow around both the individual and the corporate principles I’ve outlined.

With that said, we can all do better. And yes, there are sacrifices. However, if I can sacrifice, we all can too. I can say my sacrifices are starting to pay off. What can you say to your city when yours do too?

I’m Kristen. I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, Keep up with my weekly adventures  via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.

Placebook: The Little Blue Walking Dot

U.S. Cities that walk the most. Image via Governing and Fast Company.

Hey Hey, it’s Friday! And with that, I’m looking forward to a quiet evening of sewing at home with my mom and a Saturday and Sunday filled with who knows what else? In the meantime, I know at least one day of this weekend I’ll be a part of Greensboro’s blue dot from the map above. But before that, here are some articles to take you through the weekend:

The polar vortex is not keeping folks from riding bike share bikes, at least not in DC. Meanwhile, Downtown Miami will finally see the DecoBike stations that have been operating in Miami Beach.

More affordable housing struggles, also in DC. Evictions are still hurting communities of color and poverty nationwide.

The Project for Public Spaces has great thoughts on how folk art influences placemaking. I saw this first hand while I was on the trip that made me a placeist back in 2012.

The fallacy of having too many municipalities in a small land area, illustrated by Cincinnati and surrounding Hamilton County, Ohio. Meanwhile, Cleveland is touting itself as the next Brooklyn.

It’s always sad when a beautiful building falls into disrepair and is then threatened with demolition, this time in the Bronx. More modern buildings in good shape that have won awards are also not safe from demo in NYC.

The RTP region is growing period. Greensboro has potential growth in HondaJet, a new microbrewery,plus a new ordinance that could allow more microbreweries.

New BART cars in the Bay Area and a slew of new transportation projects in DC.  2.7 million trips were taken on transit in the U.S. in the third quarter of 2013.

Get to know the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas, the first equity-based data-cruncher and map maker in the Southeast that’s user-friendly and free and open to the public.

And finally, a post-mortem on Bridgegate and why calling the police is not always the best step when dealing with mentally ill family and friends.

And because it’s the weekend, sit back and enjoy DC-based short fiction from the Washington City Paper‘s 2nd annual fiction issue.

The Privilege of Urbanism, The Democracy of Placemaking


The one thing I can take from reading this article and reading my words back to myself on what it has been like living as a classical new urbanist over the past year. I cannot think of another way to illustrate how I feel vis-a-vis a young man, only two years younger than me, who’s trying to get his life back on his feet, facing challenges. It also brings me to a hard truth that my design-focused friends and followers will not want to hear.

Design, even new urbanist design, is out of reach or a major stretch for far too many people, including myself.

Prior to speaking with the reporter about the issues and frustrations I have with where I live, prior to the noise ordinance and curfew restrictions, I’d been thinking about a change in living situation.

However, I kept beating myself up with a major what-if: if I leave my apartment and go somewhere cheaper, then many of the theories I’ve put forth on this blog and in other forms would go unproven.

Isn’t that what a theory is though, an idea that hasn’t been proven? Is anything on this blog law?

No, it isn’t, and that’s actually a good thing.

One of the greatest new urbanist writers of our time is actually not quite an urbanist, in the sense that he doesn’t live in an apartment, near transit, by himself or with one or two other people. I would like to think his credibility on the subject is far superior to mine and the marketplace agrees (slowly but surely).

Yet, I still believed for the longest time, that the only way anyone would listen to my words and create a marketplace around them is if I lived the most extreme urbanism I knew how to live.

And it’s urbanism, but it’s not placemaking.

Placemaking does require an address, but it’s not necessarily an address in demand. Place can be made from old-line suburbia, where each neighbor can decide to grow a different vegetable and then teach the community how to clean and cook those vegetables, in order to eat healthier. The streets of that old-line suburbia could become woonerfs, places where cars automatically go slow and people take advantage of the sloping hills and winding curves and dead ends to get in workouts, that shed the pounds earned by sitting in cars commuting to ever further away jobs, or from sitting at home doing a job that no longer requires a specific location. They could carpool to stores. I think my reporter friend said it best in this article, “Even for a staunch new urbanist like myself, the logic is inescapable: If you want two or three bedrooms and you can afford a mortgage of about $100,000, you head for the suburbs.”

While I truly don’t want the center city to yield to the gilded class, I don’t want us to give up on making good places because we don’t live or can’t afford to do so. I also don’t want those of us with massive privilege to forget that it doesn’t take much for anyone to fall on hard times and not all dealing with hard times are lazy and uncommitted.

Whatever happens and whatever I decide to do in the coming months, my goal is to commit myself to a new theory, the democracy of placemaking. To create, to invent, to include, to incorporate, to adapt, to save and to grow. Let me not forget again, what it really means to be a placeist.

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Reconciling Design and Social Justice in the Place

I’m not naive to my role straddling the middle of design and social justice in the Place. What is the Place? I define the Place as the entity that comes up for discussion, dissection, or manipulation by policymakers, planners, residents, and developers. In essence, this concept is summed up in one word: Placemaking.

Place is more than the apartment block, the two-story house, the town center, the farm. If we don’t have people who can use the objects of Place, then we are useless. Even worse are people who can build Place but only for profit.

However, place should be where social justice and design meet.

Witness what’s going on here in Greensboro with public art and creative placemaking. The Greensboro Mural Project has revitalized a parking deck…

stairwell mural

…and brought homeless individuals into creating public art.

IRC mural 2

They chose murals because:

  • “[They build] bridges by painting walls.” This theory believes that beautiful, shared space helps breaks down social/cultural/political/etc. barriers for people to connect. Murals help beautify surroundings of any city.

  • Anyone can be involved in the process who wants to be, regardless of talent, skill or experience.

  • The process engages the community and forms a sense of commitment, creating community ownership.

  • Murals have proven to assist in raising property values without gentrification.

  • Quality murals make art available and free for the community.

  • Murals become landmarks in the community.

  • Murals define the cultural identity of a neighborhood or an entire city.

  • Murals attract more artists, visitors and media coverage for the area.

So you say, hey, that’s just murals and of course murals won’t gentrify, they’re just a painted wall. Well, in Cleveland, a developer is starting to put small amounts of money into flipping homes, yet maintaining both a quality standard and a low price point for rentals.

We must take away all the barriers for people to build, yet give barriers that provide for easy access, basic safety, shared prosperity, and easy growth. When our places die, we need to be able to pick up the pieces ASAP and make something new. We need to let whomever wants to come in do so, but it needs to be a WE effort, not a ME or THEY effort. It’s great that some culture has been preserved in some areas, but what about current events and life. Can we make sure people can continue to live in these new “prettified” areas.

Design is not just for the developer. Social justice is not just for the downtrodden. Place needs both to be.

Images Courtesy: Alyzza May

Reflections on Downtown Greensboro, As The Community Addresses Its Future

On Tuesday April 30, I spent a good bit of time thinking about downtown with a bunch of dignitaries and fellow young leaders. Our civic foundations brought back Richard Flierl of Cooper Carry, The Center for Connective Architecture, who helped the city conduct a downtown plan in 2002. At lunchtime, 100 of my fellow young professionals met to learn about the plan, talk about ideas to improve on it, and be encouraged to do more pop-up(tactical) urbanism.

To say that I love downtown Greensboro is a major understatement. When I was six years old and stuck inside with the chicken pox, all I missed was “seeing the tall buildings downtown.” My dad went and got me a postcard of downtown just so I could see my beloved buildings while under quarantine . What I was marveling at the most were  the  three year old Jefferson-Pilot (Lincoln Financial) and  First Union (now Wells Fargo) towers. The towers gave us a distinctive skyline and showed that we were serious about remaining a gateway city and also a prosperous city.

Yet, there was not much in the way of activity under those buildings. In 1993, when this chicken pox story happened, Elm Street laid mostly vacant, save the Miller Furniture Company and the Greensboro Record Center, which my parents went to often for the latest albums. Woolworths was still operating as a store, but it was not long before it, and the entire chain, shut down in Greensboro. The Junior League had started operating their new Bargain Box on the first floor of the original First Union building (Currently the Self-Help building, where my office is located). However, my current apartment, my favorite watering holes and restaurants, and even the room where we held this seminar did not exist. Downtown would lay fallow for at least three to six more years before major urban plans such as Flierl’s were created.

So where are we now?

Richard Flierl addresses a Who's Who of creative forces in Greensboro on April 30, 2013.

Richard Flierl addresses a Who’s Who of creative forces in Greensboro on April 30, 2013.

In a decent place according to Flierl. Many of the things he suggest we build are in place, namely Center City Park and the downtown ballpark (albiet not in the place he put them). He noted that good progress had been made on the Downtown Greenway , adding residential properties and increasing cultural events. His primary challenges were for the young professionals to continue doing pop-up activities and to the elders to finish what they started, namely the performing arts center.

(An aside: It was great to see where some of the energy and the nucleus of the performing arts center and other ideas came from. It now gives me more context as to why we are pushing so hard for certain things).

At the end of the day, he just wanted us to “get it done.”

So do I.

On the local news, I got a chance to tell a reporter that I feel like we need to work our hardest at becoming a 24 hour city. I want to be able to walk out my door, come down into that beautiful skyline and be able to pick something to do without having to dig into the Facebook invites and event calendars, or stumble on something awesome that I didn’t know was happening and don’t know when it will happen again.

Also, what about our displaced and left out residents?  Community organizer and  friend Wesley Morris challenged the young professional crowd to be  be mindful of who has been displaced by movements that have already happened. An elderly woman at the evening session reminded us that not all seniors are near death and they’d like to have a senior center in the heart of the city. Several adults who appeared to be parents of teenagers called for a downtown skate park.  We need to up the mix of people downtown. Make it accessible to children, teens, seniors and the disabled along with young professionals and wealthy people.

I am reminded of the fish market on the corner of Lee and Friendly, that happened to be surrounded by a dilapidated old bakery, but was bringing business to that corner. Yet, in the redevelopment plan, the market was moved, initially for the ballpark, but later for our yet to be conceived South Elm redevelopment. Why not develop around this market? No this isn’t a sexy businesses, but it’s business none the less. Kaid Benfield said it best in his recent list of smarter smarter growth that we really need to start growing around who’s already here and make sure they get a say and get to stay.

At the end of the day, as I’ve said in other media, downtown is really where I want to be in Greensboro. I walk to work down here, I wake up and can look out upon my beloved skyline (and the trains), and I get to meet regularly with many strong minds willing to do something to make this place a bit better.

I want everybody to be in love with downtown. If we can keep up this energy, I know everyone will be.