Places We Make Together
Katie Mays, MFA CD '13 explores global and local tactical interventions.
“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
-Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities”
I like cities. Having grown up in a very small town, I moved to Chicago as soon as I was able to venture out on my own. When I think of my work, my collaborations, and my interests, I see evidence of the way cities force us to be together. I’ve enrolled in the Collaborative Design program at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) because I believe in an intersection of design and social justice, and because I believe that we have the duty to explore our own talents and interests in the service of others.
Hearing that the Design with the Other 90%: CITIES exhibit was coming to Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC), I was excited to have the opportunity closely examine the projects, to visit multiple times, and to let the projects slowly seep into understanding. Upon reflecting on the exhibition’s vast array of change-making projects, I am drawn to the work by the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in Kibera, Kenya. Kibera is estimated to be the largest informal settlement in sub-Saharan Africa. The settlement is two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park, consists of thirteen villages, and is home to approximately one million people. (1) The extremely high housing density in the settlement means that useable open spaces are rare. There is no formal trash collection, and only one toilet per 250 people. Most families live on $1 per day.
These conditions are not unique to Kibera: one in seven people worldwide lives in a slum or refugee camp. To improve the conditions in Kibera, KDI’s community-driven, interdisciplinary team found opportunity in unoccupied and wasted space to address issues such as sanitation, environmental hazards, and income generation. KDI worked to clean up a flood-prone dumping site and to convert it to much-needed public space. The new Productive Public Space (PPS) is open to all residents and houses a public park, playground, rainwater-fed water tap, and a new bridge that shortens commute time.
The Kibera PPS reminds me of the shared needs we experience – eating, resting, gathering, exercise, and play – and how creating physical space helps communicate the importance of those needs in a visible and understandable way.
I find myself asking more questions than I am answering: What steps can we take to end oppressions made visible through the built environment? My work explores tactical urbanism — small-scale actions that serve a larger purpose. (2) In my research, I’ve discovered that a latent need, addressed through a temporary solution, has the potential to shift opinion, understanding, and attitudes towards our cities. Typical bureaucratic development policies shape urban spaces through monumental and visionary plans, often with only token public involvement. But through claiming agency of our own, we might find effective alternatives. We can make the city a place where we want to live, and should be able to expect the structures of our urban environment to support our needs.
Food carts are an obvious Portland example of tactical urbanism. An empty lot or underutilized parking lot is repurposed and reactivated as a food cart pod, bringing new life to underdeveloped spaces. What’s more, without a brick-and-mortar investment, opening a food cart presents a lower risk to entrepreneurs. This approach to urbanism is good for development within cities, but can it be applied to solving wicked problems within an urban environment? One possible solution I’ve found is My Street Grocery. Operating on a similar concept as food carts, this mobile grocery store brings healthy, affordable, and fresh produce and groceries to food deserts in the Portland area. Without the overhead of a storefront, the grocers can pass along the savings to customers and can offer a convenient, affordable, healthy source of food security.
A tangible outcome of examples like these might be data that proves the feasibility of more permanent solutions. Perhaps, for example, a mobile grocery can be linked to health improvements within a neighborhood. If so, temporary solutions such as My Street Grocery and the Kibera PPS could fill the gap between unmet needs and more bureaucratically obstructed permanent solutions. Tactical urbanist acts are successful when they are rendered obsolete – a “planned obsolescence” that occurs because the systems of our society evolve to inclusively meet the needs of all people. Meeting needs that today are latent, but tomorrow are demanded by a community.
My awareness of privilege is in full force as I attempt to make a connection between the projects in Kibera and the work I am trying to do in Portland. Placemaking is important, but can we really claim a commonality among the people of Portland and the people of Kibera through public space? The CITIES exhibit is designed to make us feel closer to each other, to identify the bridges between worlds apart, the unifying power of creating your own solutions, and the optimism that things can change. This intention, powerful as it is, sometimes feels overshadowed by the realities of oppression and injustice.
Design is but one small piece of a movement trying to change the world.
2 The Street Plans Collaborative. Tactical Urbanism: Short Term Action, Long Term Change.