Ben Bryant is director of planning and design with Group Melvin Design, a winner of the 2015 Knight Cities Challenge, which seeks the best ideas to make one or more of the 26 Knight communities more successful using talent, opportunity or engagement. Apply at knightcities.org.
Last November, a friend posted a link about the Knight Cities Challenge on Facebook. The application was so simple and straightforward – “What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?” – that I figured there was nothing to lose in giving it a shot. Feeling ambitious one Sunday afternoon, I decided to take a couple of hours out of my day to apply.
With that simple decision, my idea came to life. I had always felt that municipal public pools had untapped potential to become more than just a body of water surrounded by concrete, and thought that by using the “pop-up” park strategy, the city could reimagine pools as not just chlorinated bodies of water, but as vibrant summertime civic spaces. Being a regular guy with no funding or connections, I figured my idea would never be anything more than a figment of an eager imagination. So after filling out the online form and coming up with a name – “The Pop-Up Pool Project” sounded catchy – I hit the send button and promptly forgot about the whole thing.
Eight months later, I’m standing at a podium on the deck of the Francisville neighborhood pool in Philadelphia, surrounded by reporters, friends and neighbors, my family, palm trees, a group of Philadelphia’s most impressive leaders, and a pack of neighborhood kids anxiously waiting to do cannonballs in front of the news cameras. Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, had just finished calling my idea genius, strongly supporting its application not just at our pilot site but at all of Philadelphia’s pools, and as I approached the podium to speak, cameras flashing and all microphones turned towards me, I couldn’t help but marvel at how amazing it was to have made such an impact on my city in such a short time, and that it had all started because I decided to enter the Knight Cities Challenge one Sunday afternoon.
Looking back, what I’m most proud of from this summer is the response from community members. Longtime residents of Francisville loved the fresh look on a familiar public asset, saying that the physical improvements and programming had brought a renewed sense of community to the park, while newer residents who hadn’t grown up at the rec center discovered a much-loved neighborhood asset just steps away from their front door. And as such, the pool became a place that people of all backgrounds wanted to be, and encouraged lingering, laughing, friendship, and lots of Aqua Zumba.
This year, I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve asked me what it takes to write a successful application. For me, it comes down to this: If you have an idea and the will to make it happen, and you know it would improve your city if given the chance, submit it. This isn’t a time to second-guess yourself or play it safe; this is a time to pick something you’re passionate about, and propose something new and bold to make your city great. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And your city will be all the better for it. I could write more, but time’s ticking – applications are due Oct. 27 at noon ET – so visit knightcities.org and share your idea with the world.
Apply to the Knight Cities Challenge, a $5 million initiative to make the 26 Knight communities more successful. For the latest information on the challenge, be sure to follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter or sign up for our email newsletter. Send questions to [email protected]. And you can peruse the winners of the first Knight Cities Challenge and apply – by noon ET on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015 – at knightcities.org.