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Reclaiming the Commons


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The Alley Project, Detroit

The Alley Project, Detroit

From pedestrian plazas to pop-up-parklets…cities are looking to create spaces for people to gather, interact and create.  But are some people being left out of this new urban renaissance? This week:  from Detroit, to Montreal, to Istanbul, people are reclaiming the commons.  How do we create public spaces that are embracing and inclusive?


  • Susan Silberberg, MIT lecturer in Urban Design and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning,  Founder and Managing Director of CivicMoxie, LLC
  • Jane Jacobs, urban planning expert
  • Shannon Franssen, coordinator at Solidarité St-Henri
  • Fred Burrill, housing rights advocate
  • Erik Howard, The Alley Project founder
  • Freddy Diaz, Mary Luevanos, Detroit artists
  • Hugo Camarena, Alley Project neighbor
  • Neil Brenner, Harvard Graduate School of Design Professor of Urban Theory
  • Roberto Bedoya, Tucson Pima Arts Council executive director

Host, Producer: Catherine Komp

Editor: Andrew Stelzer

Contributing producers: Laura Herberg, Carla Green, Dylan Brogan, Caroline Lewis

Better Blocks Across America

Below is a map of current and future Better Block community placemaking projects across the country. Click here to add your project to the map.

Place, Capitalism and the Rights to the City


Show Transcript

# Part 1 – Intro – Istanbul protests

Do you remember the protests that spread across Turkey back in 2013? Millions of people took part in thousands of anti-government demonstrations that lasted for months, and are still resonating. While grievances were diverse, the original motivation for the first group of people who gathered in Istanbul’s Gezi Park was public space.

Protester: “I have to keep on staying, that’s my duty. It’s my history, it’s my park, it’s my city.”

Before the police crackdown, the occupation of Gezi Park and Taksim Square grew in size and scope. People of different ages, religions, cultures and political backgrounds joined the effort to save a public park from being turned into a commercial development.

Whether used to hang out, stage a protest, hold an event or meet new people, public spaces play a vital role in communities. While many neighborhoods lack these communal gathering places, a growing movement is trying to change that, redesigning street corners, neglected alleys and vacant lots. This is Catherine Komp. This week on Making Contact, we explore how communities are reclaiming and remaking public spaces, and how the process is just as important as the end result.

# Part 2 – Vox Pop – Why does public space matter?

When you walk out your doorstep what you do see? Traffic, cracked or missing sidewalks, overgrown lots? Or perhaps fenced-in yards and privately-owned shopping complexes? Are there places to gather and meet your neighbors, places you don’t need to spend any money? We went to a big city, New York, and a smaller one, Madison, Wisconsin to find out what public spaces people use and why they matter.

Outro: Those voices were recorded by Dylan Brogan at a farmers market in Madison, Wisconsin and Caroline Lewis in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

# Part 3 – History of Placemaking & Tactical Urbanism

Throughout history, communities have developed shared, physical spaces, from the agoras in Ancient Greece to public squares in major cities across Europe and Latin America. In the United States, early city planners built town commons in colonial New England. And Savannah, Georgia’s 18th Century Oglethorpe Plan created a public square every eight city blocks. But many other cities and towns based on grid systems lacked central common spaces. And another big change started happening in the 20th Century, explains Susan Silberberg, a lecturer in Urban Design & Planning at MIT, who spoke to Making Contact via Skype.

Susan Silberberg: “We became enamoured with the automobile, with the whole idea of the efficient city, of how to move people and cars around quickly, and urban renewal, suburbanization, all that served to really fracture the relationship between people and places.”

Without public spaces for people to meet, engage and share resources, the fabric of communities begins to unravel. Isolation at work, school or in the home means less opportunities for civic discourse, collaboration and action. And this can result in decreased social capital, the networks and relationships that make a community stronger, more resilient. But resistance to these top-down approaches was emerging:

Jane Jacobs: “The first thing in a way that I began to look at, in a systematic way, was how this quality called urbanism works.”

Jane Jacobs shortly after the 1961 publication of her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jacobs: “And I began to see that to make it work properly and wherever it did work properly there seemed to be an awful lot of diversity, many different kinds of  enterprises, many different kinds of people, in a small geographical area, mutually supporting and supplementing each other.”

In this archival recording from the The NEH Preservation Project, Jacobs described her rejection of top-down approaches to urban planning. She saw cities as living ecosystems, which required community networks and solutions driven by the people who lived in neighborhoods.

Jacobs: “Really if anything was ever going to get changed it was going to have to be changed by citizens…”

The work of Jacobs other urban sociologists sparked a discussion of places, why they matter and how they can be improved, leading to the concept of placemaking.

Silberberg: “Local communities really lost their local democratic political voice and current placemaking is beginning to give that voice back to communities. It’s saying you are the experts in what you need in your public spaces and your public realm and you get to decide and that’s very, very empowering for people and for communities.”

In the last few decades, the idea that cities and towns should have inviting, multi-purpose spaces designed for and by the community has caught on. There are sizable grants for placemaking projects, full-time placemaking jobs, and Pratt Institute’s new  Master’s Degree in Placemaking. Silberberg examined dozens of placemaking projects for her 2013 MIT report: Places in the Making: How placemaking builds places and communities. One of them, the Streets Alive program in Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota, turns over three miles of streets connecting the two cities to pedestrians, runners, cyclists, dancers and skaters.

Silberberg: “And what has happened, it has certainly raised awareness about healthy living, but what it’s also done in a fairly conservative community, is to raise awareness about what life could be like with less dependence on the automobile and that is a wonderful offshoot of this healthy living festival.”

The MIT report also looked at Detroit’s Eastern Market, Corona Square in Queens, New York, Guerrero Park in San Francisco, and the Portland, Oregon based City Repair, one of the leaders in the modern placemaking movement. That group started in 1996 when neighbors took over an intersection, painted it with bright colors and used it as a public square. Since then, they’ve helped create hundreds of community-driven public spaces. A newer group is Better Block, which began in 2010 with a small project reimagining a blighted street in Dallas, Texas. Four years later, they’ve facilitated placemaking in dozens of communities. Better Block uses a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” model of temporary improvements, often referred to as tactical urbanism. That might mean adding tables, seating, landscaping and crosswalks to an area. Or, putting a pop-up shop in a vacant storefronts. Each community decides what it wants to do with only one condition: they need to borrow  as many of the physical materials as possible.

Silberberg: “And in the process of doing that within the community, people meet residents, they meet people they hadn’t seen before and build social capital, make connections. So that whole process of coming together to actually do something, not just to talk about it. But in the case of The Better Block example, coming together hammer and nails, borrowing materials, calling your neighbor, really builds social capital within the community.”

Outro: Susan Silberberg is lead author of the MIT report Places in the Making: How placemaking builds places and communities. You can find a link to that on our website, Radioproject dot org.

# Part 4 – Detroit’s The Alley Project

Reappropriation of urban spaces often happens on the grassroots level, where residents don’t wait for permission to reinvent places. Think of the massive Occupy movement and its use of public spaces to hold consensus-based meetings, or flash mobs that erupt in stores and lobbies, sometimes as an act of protest, others as an expression of art. Across the country, there are examples of ground-up approaches to reclaiming urban space. Laura Herberg takes us to one of these places, where residents of a southwest Detroit neighborhood came together for The Alley Project.

Outro: That piece on The Alley Project in Detroit was recorded and produced by Laura Herberg. To see photos and learn more, go to Radioproject dot org.

# Break

# Part 5 – Montreal’s St. Henri Neighborhood

Opportunities to reclaim urban spaces are often most common in neighborhoods that have been neglected. Abandoned lots hold promise for landscaping, benches and garden plots; vacant buildings could transform into creative and collaborative spaces or mixed-income housing. The Montreal neighborhood of St. Henri is filled with empty spaces and potential for change. But as St. Henri has become an “up and coming” neighborhood, there’s been a rise in tensions between longtime residents and newcomers. Carla Green has more.

Carla Green: St. Henri, a neighborhood in Montreal, is wedged between a towering highway on one side and the Lachine canal on the other.  The lower-working class neighborhood has been one of the poorest in the city, but like other former industrial areas, St. Henri is transforming.

Marc Olivier Rainville: “We used to take walks, my son and me, along the canal. We still do, but we have to find our way between the condos. And the condos are blocking the view.”

Marc Olivier Rainville has lived in St. Henri for almost 20 years. He took me for a walk around the neighborhood to see how things have changed.

Rainville: “I think it’s one of these fancy shops where they sell… let’s see what they sell. Cooking equipment!”

In the spring of 2013, Rainville went on a walking tour of St. Henri’s empty spaces, or as the tour guides called them, the neighborhood’s “no man’s land.”  For the tour, artists made installations in abandoned lots and alleyways; in one, a beach volleyball court. In another, just underneath a hulking overpass of the highway: a pristine white living room set. As one of the tour organizers explained, St. Henri’s industrial past and infrastructure inspired them to re-imagine and reclaim its abandoned spaces.

Tour Guide: “The installations in these spaces is also an opportunity to show that we can move into them, that we can create new forms of reappropriation there.”

But now, all these lots are empty again, some fenced off. That burst of creative re-imagining didn’t lead to more permanent benefits for the St. Henri community. Another empty lot in St. Henri was also recently a center of activity. In June 2013, about a hundred people occupied a lot on the main avenue in protest of condo development. Shannon Franssen works with the housing rights group Solidarity St. Henri.

Shannon Franssen: “There’s a sense in the neighborhood that the neighborhood no longer belongs to people who have been here a really long time, because they can’t afford to stay. So I think that the occupation really was very successful because it gave a way for people to express that feeling; an outlet for it.”

While activists are focused on increasing social housing so long-time residents aren’t forced out of St. Henri, a new project from the mayor’s office aims to improve the neighborhood’s greenspace. Inspired by the Dutch concept of a woonerf, or “living street,” the project transformed a large barren, concrete alleyway that was being used for traffic and parking. Now, it’s a landscaped park with grassy, pedestrian pathways, where car speeds are restricted to 12 mph. I took a walk with the Mayor, Benoit Dorais, along the woonerf. In a series of consultations, St. Henri residents weighed in on what they wanted to see in the new public space. Dorais explained the process.

Benoit Dorais: “We had a series of workshops, not just regular public consultations where we present a project and ask people’s opinions, we had people work on the woonerf with the workshops: there were post-its and arrows and drawings. We invited residents from all of the streets nearby to come design their woonerf.”

Many residents are benefitting from the green space the woonerf provides, but not everyone in the neighborhood was on board with the project, which cost nearly $2 million, though about $700,000 came from provincial grants.

Franssen: “You tell  people, we’re gonna build a greenspace with this area that’s, right now, just concrete, I mean, it sounds good.”

Franssen, one of the critics, isn’t necessarily against the idea of the woonerf. But she argues that developing that particular kind of green space in that particular spot is part of a larger trend in St. Henri.

Franssen: “For folks who live that area, to see this very fancy, very slick million-dollar park development, like ‘what the hell, what is that doing here?’”

Activists want to see St. Henri improve, but not at the expense of long-time, lower-income residents who are at risk of being pushed out of their own community. Housing rights advocate Fred Burrill says that sometimes artists or creative people see neighborhoods like St. Henri as a kind of a playground.

Fred Burrill: “There are lots of creative uses to be put into public space, but I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between artistic populations, even if they are of lower income, and the way that they imagine the space, and the economic and material struggles of the people who have lived and worked here for a long time.”

Burrill says that newly-arrived artists and their creative projects, like the “no man’s land” tour, can have a place in St. Henri. But they have to make an effort to integrate those projects into the community.

Burrill: “For sure, I think that at the end of the day we would like to see a neighborhood where that creative energy became part of the struggle as opposed to just being about itself, you know? As opposed to being about the production of interesting things. Because interesting things are good, but also, you know, eating three times a day is good.”

The disconnect that Burrill is talking about isn’t an easy one to address. But some are confident that St. Henri residents will be able to handle whatever’s thrown at them, even gentrification or, as Franssen calls it the “colonization” of St. Henri.

Franssen: “There’s really this very, very beautiful tradition of mobilization in the neighborhood, and that these battles that might be unwinnable somewhere else, the neighborhood and the people who live here, and the people who work here, have really developed a way to confront those issues head-on and make change. And make real change here.”

# Part 6 – Solutions to placemaking’s vulnerabilities

Gentrification, privatization, marginalization – all have resulted from so-called urban renewal projects, perhaps most famously in New York City under Robert Moses and later, Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. This is a risk of placemaking argues Neil Brenner, Professor of Urban Theory at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Neil Brenner: “In a capitalist system, the power to produce place is effectively monopolized by the owners of property, the owners of the means of production, the system that controls the ways in which places are produced. So if you democratize that, if you open up the power to produce place to popular participation, radically democratic participation, you open up the possibility of producing a radically different world.”

Brenner, who spoke at the 2013 Creative Time summit in New York, advised the audience of creative placemakers to be aware of certain outcomes: that places can become enclaves, they can be destroyed, they can be co-opted by dominant forms of power and be appropriated for profit. Brenner says placemaking has potential to foster democracy and social justice, but collective action is needed to address its vulnerabilities.

A potential solution is for placemakers to look beyond physical places, like art centers and parklets, which can be driven by a “build it and they will come” mentality. Think about who’s been traditionally marginalized in your community, be aware of the politics of belonging and dis-belonging in civil society. That was the focus an essay written by Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council.

Roberto Bedoya: “A favorite song of mine is ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered . . . ,’ the Ella Fitzgerald version that is warm, radiant, where you feel each word in pure tones. Ella sings about love — a blind love and the escape from that bewitchment. This is the song that plays for me in the background when I think about the practices of Creative Placemaking.”

“Creative Placemaking practices,” writes Bedoya, “must understand history, critical racial theory, and politics alongside the spatial planning and economic development theories that dominate the discourse.” He encourages artists, developers, NGOs and government agencies to reflect upon “how race, class, poverty, and discrimination shape place — through a politics of belonging or dis-belonging.”

Bedoya: “In my county there’s the Tohono O’odham Nation and I am very mindful of the fact that, wait a second, these reservations were created in an act of placemaking at some part in the history of America. So this notion of placemaking has this long history of designing and framing spaces and sometimes it’s also entangled with acts of dis-belonging. So I just wanted to bring that forward and not be complicit and this is why I love the song by Ella so much, there’s a lot of blind love out there, we all get swoony about something and that’s a beautiful thing, but sometimes you just need to sort of like (say), ‘Okay, let’s have a little reality check here.’”

In Bedoya’s own work in Arizona, the Tucson Pima Arts Council has supported dozens of civic engagement projects for their People, Land, Arts, Culture, and Engagement or PLACE initiative. One program, called Finding Voice, invites refugee students to use art, photography and writing to address community issues. A year-long interactive art project called  Painting by Numbers highlighted women enduring life in detention centers, many of operated by for-profit corporations.

Bedoya: “Another example was a project in south Tucson that dealt with the fact that, often in poor neighborhoods become sites in which you dump toxic waste. So this neighborhood dealt with this history of land contamination and water contamination and it also sort of became a prompt to talk about  the indigenous legacy here in the southwest of water harvesting. You know, water harvesting is not something new, it’s been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

And in the Beyond Groceries project, a “Rolling History Bus Tour” brought food, music, dance and multimedia storytelling into neighborhoods where there used to be Chinese groceries.

Bedoya: “It’s trying to validate the fact that one of the essence of placemaking is to understand cultural memories, cultural histories, social relationships and to underscore the role of imagination in the lives of our community.

For communities that want to embark on placemaking that brings together diverse people and addresses belonging and dis-belonging, Bedoya has some advice.

Bedoya: “Get a big table and learn how to listen and spend time and understanding learning that through dialogue and deliberations you can find a path that is very embracing and inclusive.”




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