Six lessons from people shaping tomorrow’s cities – Knight Foundation

Six lessons from people shaping tomorrow’s cities

Coming up with a big idea to improve your city is one thing. Digging into the gnarly details of launching and scaling that project it is quite a different story.

That’s why Knight Foundation brought together the winners from all three years of the Knight Cities Challenge last week, to network, learn and exchange ideas for making their cities more successful.

The week began with a celebration of the latest winning projects at Miami’s Lyric Theater. Then, over the next few days, they dug into lessons from past winners – talking about how Macon, Georgia, for example, was able to launch a pilot project to increase its bike lanes tenfold, while Philadelphia made its once vacant pools the summer hot spot. And how in Boulder, Colorado the city was able to solve two challenges in one shot – by having homeless people who needed workforce training learn to turn diseased tree branches into works of art. (These benches and butterflies are beautiful, and they quickly sell out.)

Meanwhile, experts in the field of civic innovation shared their advice with the crowd on the best ways to create even more vibrant cities. Here are some of the insights they shared:

You’re human. If you want your project to succeed, write and talk like one: 

It may be one of George Orwell’s least celebrated works, but his “Politics and the English Language” has six rules to live by for anyone trying to communicate and persuade.

Designers and architects ignore them routinely, talking in language only each other understand, Leslie Koch, former president of the Trust for Governor’s Island, told the group. Doing so further places them in “professional ghettoes,” using language that is only meaningful to a select few and which no one else can permeate, said Koch, who led the island’s redevelopment into a shared public space. Instead, she urged the crowd to read Orwell’s six rules, and communicate in simple language to get more people involved in their work.

If you work in government, start with yes

While at the trust, Koch spent a lot of time ingrained in the culture of government workers. One of the challenges in local government, she said, is that there is no reward for risk. Government employees, are much better off saying “we’ll take that under consideration,” than jumping feet first into a groundbreaking project, she said. If you’re someone on the outside trying to get things done, respect that and try to work through it. If you’re on the inside? Try saying “yes.”

Radical change is still possible: 

If you have a good idea, one that will result in deep and equitable impact for your community, don’t underestimate its ability to succeed, said Anuj Gupta, a former Knight Cities Challenge winner who now heads Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. He shared a personal story. Previously, he led a local community development corporation, which owned a blighted brownfield in Northwest Philadelphia. The easy thing to do would have been to sell the property to the highest bidder, Gupta said. But it happened to be located next to a charter school serving a low-income community. The school’s curriculum focused on environmental issues and was looking for room to expand. Gupta and his organization saw an opportunity to use their property to benefit the community. After three years of obstacles – a freeze on charter school construction among them – the school broke ground in 2013 and the facility opened this year.

“The more that I hear no, and the more that I hear people say it can’t happen, it tells me I’m on the right track. Radical change is still possible. It is critical and you are about to begin a journey to change the world,” Gupta said.

Avoid the stars, and elevate the team

Over the past few years, PlaceLab in Chicago has convened a group of fellows to explore the field of ethical redevelopment, which reimagines public space design and puts equity at the forefront, and examine nine principles that guide it. The term “development” is a loaded one for people working in community, said Knight Cities Challenge winner and speaker James Feagin: It “becomes a dirty word. It’s something that happens to you and it means gentrification. So how do we start to expand that definition and engage people at different points in that conversation?” he said, stressing the importance of including a multitude of voices in reshaping neighborhoods.

Tayyib Smith, another challenge winner, who runs an accelerator in Philadelphia built on the principles of hip hop, said it’s important for people working in community to avoid perpetuating the “star system.” Thought leaders like Theaster Gates, who leads the PlaceLab program, have a star quality that attracts people. He does fantastic work, Smith said, but behind him and others like him is a team of people who are often ignored, Smith said, a practice that can negatively impact a project. “People fall in love with the idea of leadership rather than the leadership,” Smith said. If you instead lift the idea of the network, and collaborate, more people can become engaged and contribute.”

Better Block’s Monica Diodati and a Macon Connects volunteer paint a turning box along the 5+ mile pop-up bike network. Photo courtesy of 8 80 Cities.

If you build it, they will come  – on bike: 

In Macon, the cost of median rent and a car are about the same, and people choose between home and car ownership routinely, said Josh Roberts, of Macon Connects. The group, meanwhile, noticed that residents were eager to bike along the riverfront, but didn’t do the same in downtown because of a lack of trails. So the project team did an experiment: they staged pop-up bike lanes – eight miles of them – over a short period, increasing the rate of biking 2,000 percent. Some 70 percent of people wanted the installations to be permanent, and now the city is embarking on three miles of trails to connect neighborhoods in downtown, Rogers said.

The effort echoes what the organization Better Block, which helped develop Macon’s pop-up bike lanes, said at the conference: Successful pop-up projects make people hungry for permanent change.

Data is awesome. Shared experience is better

Gehl, which dedicates its work to creating people-centered cities, recently worked with the city of Denver to get more people to spend more time downtown. The city launched Meet in the Street, a summer program that included pop-up programming and public spaces. To get downtown stakeholders to buy into the program, they held “walkshops” instead of workshops, getting everyone together to walk the streets and experience what was being planned.

 “It was about, how do we have a shared experience to move it forward?” said Gehl’s Jeff Risom.

And that also sums up what the the Knight Cities summit was about: bringing people together, to move their communities forward.

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