When you design public space today, you know you are designing for the future. The best work will involve as many people as possible as early as possible and produce community sites that reflect a society’s vitality and creativity. These same principles guiding successful public art and design projects were at the heart of Creating Places 2007, a two-day symposium sponsored by Chicago Public Art Group and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute. More than 100 civic leaders, community development professionals, artists and urban planners gathered together to understand how each other worked on public space issues and approached future opportunities.
On Thursday night, “The Art of Shaping the Urban Landscape” was led by Milenko Mantanovic, renowned visual artist and founding director of the Pomegranate Center, a Washington state based nonprofit devoted to community-generated design and development. For Milenko, the work starts with the notion of connectivity—to ourselves, to one another, to a sense of place, and to the Earth. He showed images from Pomegranate’s community built projects and discussed how successful execution hinges on broad community involvement. According to Matanovic, project leaders must bring a wide variety of partners together at the beginning, replace public hearings with “public listenings,” and actively seek community involvement on the site.
Reinforcing the vitality of early community engagement was Chicago Park District landscape architect and CPAG Board member Christopher Gent, who recounted the story of the 31st Street Skate Park. When the CPD approached the skating community for ideas, they responded with a clay model that guided the development of a beautiful, highly functional project. Skaters took early ownership of this site and, consequently, have been leaders in teaching safe use and proper maintenance of the Park. Screening dozens of images of CPAG projects, Core Artist Olivia Gude emphasized how effective street-level collaboration allows residents to put a unique imprint on a shared space. Sculptor and conceptual artist Laurie Palmer showed artist proposals for an imagined, but not yet constructed public park to honor Jean Baptiste DuSable.
Friday’s conference, “Engaging the Social Imagination,” practiced a culture of playful planning. The morning networking allowed artists and architects, aldermen and community planners to share ideas, and urban planners to discuss proposals with agency heads. Attendees enjoyed the slide show of more than 100 uniquely designed places from around the world.
Milenko Mantanovic delivered the day’s keynote address, urging the crowd to stay mindful of big ideas and to resist the temptation to ignore ideas when they seem to have little to do with a project’s design because they ultimately help us understand a place’s unique qualities.
Attendees took these words to heart as they sorted themselves into four design charrettes, exercises meant to propel the planning process for four sites on Chicago’s Austin, Humboldt Park and West Town, and South Chicago neighborhoods. Charrette participants exchanged ideas, addressed a diverse array of concerns and proposed unique solutions for the various sites.
Over late afternoon dessert and coffee, participants developed a deeper appreciation for public space transformation while acquiring new vocabularies. We thank all presenters and attendees for making this day a pivotal step towards strengthening partnerships across the region and transforming our communities.