Martin Hülder asks: How can you tell that a metropolis is prepared for the future?
Candy Chang answers: Dostoevsky said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” We don’t need to go that far. You can tell a lot about a city by its public spaces. Our sidewalks, squares, parks, and civic buildings are for everyone, yet take a quick look at the messages on display in our public spaces, and it seems like we only care about sexy beers and fruity shampoos. In an environment where taping a flyer to a lamppost is illegal but businesses can shout about products on an increasing number of surfaces, we need to consider how our public spaces can be better designed so they’re not just reserved for the highest bidder. With more ways to share with one another, our public spaces can help us build better cities and become our best selves during our brief and tender lives on this planet.
To be prepared for the future, a city needs public spaces that help residents share more with one another. Cities provide a resource that we often take for granted: people. The more that residents can share, the more we can make meaningful connections and live in places that reflect our needs as a community and as individuals.
How can we share more local knowledge? Many residents wonder how much their neighbors are paying in rent. To help demystify the topic, I invited my neighbors to anonymously share their housing costs by covering a Brooklyn storefront window with Post-it notes stamped with fill-in-the-blank forms. By the end of the week, the window turned into a useful collection of information created by and relevant to the community.
How can we share more resources? To ease the worry of knocking on a neighbor’s door at a bad time, I made a doorknob hanger. One side says “Please disturb!” and the other side says “Can I borrow?” with space to write things and ways you prefer to be contacted–with a knock at the specific times that are good for you, by phone, or by e-mail. It’s like an invitation, a validated request, or a low-tech status update for your door, so we can lend, borrow, and meet more neighbors at everyone’s convenience.
How can we share more ideas for our communities? To give us an easy way to voice what businesses and services we want, I posted grids of fill-in-the-blank stickers on vacant storefronts around New Orleans, so anyone walking by could fill one out. The stickers are vinyl and can be easily removed without damaging property. It’s a low-barrier tool to provide civic input onsite. The project has led to an online tool, Neighborland, that helps us all join forces, build on ideas together, and take the next steps.
How can we share more of our memories to gain a better understanding of our landscape? To bring attention to an abandoned building in Fairbanks, I covered it with a four-story sign that said, “Looking for Love Again”, and installed chalkboards at street level to invite residents to share their memories of the building and their hopes for its future. By sharing the stories behind our buildings, perhaps we can better understand the impact that buildings have had on our lives and how they can become meaningful again.
And how can we share more of our hopes and fears to gain a better understanding of ourselves? With help from new and old friends, I turned the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard where residents can reflect and remember what is important to them. It’s a question that changed me after I lost someone I loved very much. The wall helped me to understand my neighbors in new and enlightening ways, to restore perspective in my daily life, and to remember I am not alone.
The health of our cities begins with the health of our neighborhoods. We don’t bump into every neighbor, so a lot of wisdom never gets passed on. But we do share the same public spaces. By having more ways to share our hopes, fears, and stories in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us lead better lives.