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Placemaking on Glass Street: A Case Study in Place-Based Revitalization

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Adapted from The Art Advantage: Creative Placemaking Strategies for Your City, presented at
National League of Cities 2015 Congress of Cities, Nashville TN

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Placemaking on Glass Street: A Case Study in Place-Based Revitalization

  1. 1. PLACEMAKING ON GLASS STREET: A Case Study in Place-Based Revitalization* BY: MALLORY B.E. BACHES, THE CIVIC HUB *adapted from The Art Advantage: Creative Placemaking Strategies for Your City National League of Cities 2015 Congress of Cities, Nashville TN
  2. 2. Everyone has the right to live in a great place. More importantly, everyone has the right to contribute to making the place where they already live great. FRED KENT, PROJECT FOR PUBLIC SPACES
  3. 3. 3 William Holly Whyte published his findings on pedestrian experiences with New York City plazas in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980. In the years since, the placemaking movement has risen on the foundations of Whyte’s groundbreaking work, along with that of his fellow place pioneers including Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) and Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City). Today placemaking is no longer the preoccupation of a few designers and community developers, but instead is central to dialogue on the future of urban design, in forums as significant as the United Nations and the White House and the Brookings Institute. Placemaking is regarded as a practice that works, both by practitioners as well as members of the public who have participated in placemaking or have simply enjoyed the results. The Project for Public Spaces defines placemaking as: the art of creating public ‘places of the soul,’ that uplift and help us connect to each other.1 Placemaking describes not only a design product that responds to the needs of the community but also a design process that engages a community, to determine those needs, and empowers a community, to respond to those needs in built and activated form. Although the idea was revolutionary when first explored forty years ago, urban design has since evolved to an ever- more participatory practice. Whether called placemaking, public interest design, design for social impact, or community design, neighbors are gaining, either by invitation or by force, a level of agency over the design of their neighborhoods and cities are better for it when they do. The collaboration of citizens in improving the health, wealth, form, and overall vision for the future of their communities transcends demographics; in fact, some of the most successful placemaking interventions are in communities extremely short on resources: the revitalization of Eastern Market in Detroit, the creation of the StreetsAlive! festival in Fargo, or the establishment of Hope Community in the struggling Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. When communities band together around the resources that they do have, things like culture and history and shared accountability, the social capital that results can, as Robert Putnam suggests, “help mitigate the insidious effects of socioeconomic disadvantage,”2 that their community might otherwise face. 1 “What Is Placemaking?” Placemaking Chicago, http://www.placemak- ingchicago.com/about/ 2 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of Ameri- can Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 319.
  4. 4. 4 GLASS STREET As cities turn to placemaking for “lighter, quicker, cheaper” solutions to the challenges facing their neighborhoods, there are commonly referenced precedents of success. The Chattanooga Story is one of the most well-known, in bottom-up city building. Despite its lengthy history of industrial success, by 1970 Chattanooga was economically depressed, the downtown was dead, and Walter Cronkite had described Chattanooga as “the dirtiest city in America” on the national evening news. The admonition struck a nerve in the city. Civic investment was sparked when the Chattanooga Venture came together in the early 1980s. The group was comprised of influential citizens and led by the late great Mai Bell Hurley, a true urban visionary. Ms. Hurley passed away in September 2015 after more than three decades ushering the success of Chattanooga’s downtown revitalization. She was known for repeating the phrase, “Be hopeful and be helpful,” with regards to city-building, words that locals continue to live by in pursuit of the city’s collective vision. As part of their revitalization strategy, the Chattanooga Venture created the landmark Vision 2000 forums, a series of six major civic events each with its own community-building theme. The forums brought Chattanoogans from all walks of life together in downtown Chattanooga, something that was previously unheard of, to consider what was great about the city and what could make it greater. Since the forums and the visioning that followed, the City of Chattanooga has worked hard to be the downtown success story that we know, but like many cities that have seen similar revitalization, success has stopped short of many neighborhoods beyond its downtown. One of those neighborhoods is East Chattanooga, and running through it is Glass Street. Glass Street is a historic two lane main street corridor lined with 1920s storefronts. The street sees 11,000 cars per day and is the most direct route connecting Downtown Chattanooga to the Enterprise South employment campus, Chattanooga’s two centers of economic growth. Glass Street is also home to a small nonprofit called Glass House Collective, with a community development strategy centered around a specific type of placemaking: creative placemaking. CREATIVE PLACEMAKING: strategically shap[ing] the physical and social character of a neighborhood…around arts and cultural activities…[that animate] public and private spaces, [rejuvenate] structures and streetscapes, [improve] local business viability and public safety, and [bring] diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired. National Endowment for the Arts
  5. 5. 5 Glass House Collective sees the potential in Glass Street and in surrounding East Chattanooga, but its leaders are also conscious that the conditions of the corridor today reflect decades of disinvestment. 64% of the residents in East Chattanooga live below the poverty level, and the area is known for high-crime and gang activity. In spite of its challenges, the founders of Glass House – Katherine Currin, Garth Brown, and Teal Thibaud -- trusted that they could make a difference, when they set up shop on Glass Street in 2012. With old-fashioned elbow grease, they renovated a storefront, activating a beautiful building that had previously been vacant. They started conversations with residents about the potential needs of the neighborhood, brought more feet to the street, and created relationships with their Glass Street neighbors. Their hope was simple: to spark positive change along the corridor while adding to the vibrancy of their city as a whole. From 2012-2014, with the financial support and guiding structure of an ArtPlace America creative placemaking grant, they helped define and implement a vision led by citizens, artists, and partners, to make Glass Street cleaner and more inviting. The community-informed plan that resulted became a blueprint for action that was truly supported from within the community. Through in-kind service donation, a technical streetscape plan based on the input meetings was completed, and the city of Chattanooga adopted this plan in 2012. As a result of Glass House Collective’s early work on Glass Street, today six historic buildings have been purchased, renovated and stabilized, five facades of which have been vastly improved or entirely renovated. In addition, a unified Glass Street brand has been created with local artists, and the streetscape has been transformed. Street banners have been installed; two neglected green spaces have been transformed into usable pocket parks; three high- aesthetic, large-scale, community-based murals grace Glass Street’s major gateways; three brand- new public art bus shelters have been installed; and four blocks of new ADA accessible sidewalks featuring sixteen traffic-calming tree wells, eighteen street lights, and five functional art benches have been installed. Although the list of achievements sounds like a lot of large-scale wins, a major part of Glass House Collective’s initial workplan focused on the small moves that collectively ended up making a big impact while these larger investments were underway.
  6. 6. 6 Glass House worked with artists and residents to build temporary tree planters and install them along the street. They hosted a Better Block community engagement street party. They commissioned an artist to erect a sculpture of four hundred borrowed ladders from in and around the community, in order to animate a vacant lot which is now home to a pocket park; this temporary animation continued momentum until the pocket park could be designed and created. After initially focusing heavily on public infrastructure, Glass House expanded their scope to invest in an artist residency. With their support, three artists set up studios along Glass Street in 2014, aiming to share their skills with the neighborhood. One of the three artists, Rondell Crier, has secured his own funding and continues to be a strong positive force in the community and still operates a studio on Glass Street today. Glass House also supported the creation of the Good Neighbor Network. An initiative of eight active community residents, they came together to set priority areas for themselves and get to work. The momentum they started encouraged new community leadership that has become contagious throughout the neighborhood. Glass House adopted their priority areas and continues to work alongside this group today. However, by the end of 2014, Glass House Collective’s initial workplan had been achieved: the street was cleaner and more inviting.
  7. 7. 7 THE NEXT BIG THING Glass House Collective chose to help define the next phase of their commitment on Glass Street by launching a two-day intensive urbanism workshop called The Next Big Thing in April 2015. The workshop brought over one hundred respected professionals together with East Chattanooga residents to define Glass House’s new workplan. With donated services, some small stipends, and a list of local sponsors donating everything from coffee to AV equipment, the effort truly embodied a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” workshop model to match the team’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper” design brief. Glass House was able to bring three expert mentors to the team: Maurice Cox, Planning Director for the City of Detroit; Mike Lydon, urban designer and author of the book Tactical Urbanism; and Stroud Watson, the design father of Chattanooga’s urban comeback and the Design Studio which he founded nearly forty years ago. The project mentors roamed the workshop space while nine teams comprised of diverse disciplines and local knowledge were led by expert team facilitators. Teams were asked to consider how improved urbanism could have a positive impact on the needs of the neighborhood: business viability, quality public spaces, access to services, improved housing options, increased public safety, and opportunities for the community to engage and contribute. The result were dozens of creative, realistic, and scalable urban revitalization tactics for improving residential, commercial, and public space within a five minute walk of Glass Street. Designs specifically addressed implementation within one month, one year, and three year time frames. While not all proposals that were generated will be implemented exactly as designed, Glass House Collective is working directly with the neighborhood to adapt the designs, ultimately using a bunch of little things to create ‘the next big thing’ on Glass Street. What’s more, Glass House is bringing the workshop ideas to the people quite literally. A custom bicycle cart built by artist-in-residence Rondell Crier is designed to carry maps and drawings, chairs, and surveys to the doorsteps of residents, so every member of the community can help prioritize the ideas in person with Glass House Collective staff and volunteers. Teams worked within a specific set of balanced values: PLACE ­­« — » PEOPLE Designs were to value the places – both figure and ground -- that give form to the community, while always valuing the people that give life to the community. MOVEMENT ­­« — » ACCESS Designs needed to address the movement to, from, and through the community, while being sure to address the equity of access into, out of, and within the community. INVESTMENT ­­« — » CHARACTER Designs were to encourage investment in the community and by the community, but were to do so by encouraging activation of the existing culture and assets of the community.
  8. 8. 8 LESSONS LEARNED As a case study in creative placemaking, the revitalization work that Glass House Collective is leading can offer key insights relevant to those leading revitalization in communities similar to Glass Street and East Chattanooga. ACCOUNTABILITY Every community needs an organization like Glass House Collective; they are the workhorses for what would otherwise just be “good ideas.” They are the face of accountability for healthy change on Glass Street, and they are on the street every day, a testament to their civic investment that the community can see and connect with. With a very small group of people, they do the daily work of ‘turning the aircraft carrier’ that is their neighborhood’s challenges. COMMUNICATING PLACE Creative placemaking is not a luxury and it is not a ‘band aid for broken arms,’ it is a communication device for the Glass Street community. The work is meaningful, not just because it is an investment in place but, if done authentically, it is also a reflection of the place. Particularly in communities that are transitioning or vulnerable or evolving, creative placemaking uses art to communicate the assets that the community already has: its people, its culture, its history, its social capital. AUTHENTIC ENGAGEMENT Community engagement is central to creative placemaking; to create an authentic expression of place, you must know and love the place, warts and all. That work can be hard, time consuming, and even uncomfortable. Yet with accountability comes the autonomy of trust. As example of the effect of this authenticity on Glass Street, it is important to note that the three founders, Katherine Currin, Garth Brown, and Teal Thibaud, all happen to be blond haired and blue eyed, in contrast to the predominantly African-American community of their surrounding neighborhood. Early in their work, it was not uncommon for the three to be referred to as “trust fund babies,” by those who were not convinced of the group’s commitment to the neighborhood. Yet after three years of investment in the community, Glass House Collective’s current Executive Director Teal Thibaud has been asked to join the local NAACP chapter, a testament to the trust that has been nurtured between the leaders of the community and the leadership at Glass House.
  9. 9. 9 HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE Urban design begets creative placemaking begets urban design. There is both ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ to great places, and both need investment. Urban design is the ‘hardware,’ it is the zoning changes and the streetscape plans and the public hearings and the park masterplans. Creative placemaking is the ‘software,’ it is the community events and the public art installations and the artists in residence and the citizen leadership. If a community only has exceptional hardware, it is simply a stage-set, not a real place. If a community only has exceptional software, the physical environment will always be a barrier to its success. Great places must have both. UNFINISHED BUSINESS Authentic place is not the result of a “project” that is drafted, rendered impeccably, and then completed as designed. Placemaking takes a more holistic, adaptive approach. As cities now commonly turn to the practice of budgeting for outcomes, it is important to remember that outcomes are difficult to predict when working in communities that are challenged. The community-based work being done by Glass House Collective is responsive; their strategy must be nimble, to react to the ever- changing needs of their community.
  10. 10. 10 OUTCOMES FROM INVESTMENT Glass Street and the work of Glass House Collective display a wealth of examples of the common good that can come from citizen-led community revitalization. Based on The Next Big Thing urbanism workshop, Glass House now has a workplan that they will follow for the next three years. Beyond that time frame, the organization is unsure of next steps. It is important to remember that in the life of a challenged community, three years is a lifetime of potential changes, and so to try to predict now what the needs of Glass Street will be in three years is nearly impossible. What is possible is to plan little things that can have a big impact. Taken less than three years apart, the two images above show the physical outcome of creative placemaking. The first image shows the Alabama Furniture Building on Glass Street, as it was when the current owners chose to purchase it and begin restoring it, inspired by the work Glass House Collective was already doing in the neighborhood. The second image shows that same space in April 2015, during The Next Big Thing urbanism workshop. The building was broken, but the owners slowly worked to stabilize it and then start to repair it, and the result was transformative. It happened in less than three years. 2012 2015
  11. 11. 11 In addition to the ongoing renovations to the Alabama Furniture Building as well as Glass House Collective’s original headquarters, their programs have resulted in the investment of more than $70,000 toward streetscaping, over $228,000 toward city sidewalk and lighting improvement, $90,000 toward three new city bus shelters, $73,000 toward redevelopment of vacant properties into public space, and nearly $42,000 toward facade improvement grants. Individual artists received grant money totaling nearly $350,000 for creative placemaking initiatives, and over $36,000 in grant money supported placemaking events in the community. Thanks to the placemaking programs that Glass House has developed with the community, Glass Street has seen eight buildings renovated with private investment amounting to $1,132,000. Additionally, three new community development and improvement organizations have taken root in the Glass Street neighborhood, fifteen new community leaders are working to effect positive change in their community, and neighbors have dedicated nearly one thousand volunteer hours toward improving their neighborhood. Glass Street hosted seventy-six public events over three years, and ninety-four pieces of positive press brought news of the civic investment happening on Glass Street to the greater Chattanooga audience as a result. Fueled by the empowerment of the programming Glass House Collective has established and the dedication their team has displayed, Glass Street is seeing incremental renewal that is authentic to the existing community and is being carried out by the community itself. Glass House Collective’s work speaks for what their community already knew: that with love, dedication, collaboration, and hard work, the neighborhood can be a vital part of the Chattanooga Story. It also documents the returns that the investment of placemaking can provide, on a street that is a vital part of the history of its city. Glass House Collective will have met their mission when Glass Street is part of the larger conversation about the future of Chattanooga: when organizations much larger than theirs stand up for the well being of the Glass Street community, when city agencies invest in the needs and concerns of the Glass Street community, and when all Chattanooga citizens care about Glass Street as if it was their own, aware that its success is a critical part of everyone’s shared love for Chattanooga. Placemaking has proven a meaningful spark toward this mission, one that challenged neighborhoods throughout the country share and one that responds to the right of every citizen to make the place where they already live great.

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