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“Old Place New Tricks” Contest Pushes Neighborhood Placemaking

A video promoting the contest, featuring MPC's Kara Riggio.

The Metropolitan Planning Council has been holding placemaking contests since 2008, but this year they’re going to actually train community members in strategies to enliven underused lots, plazas and corners in their neighborhoods. The Old Place New Tricks Challenge will also reward the most successful placemakers with one of three $1,000 prizes, to be used for more ambitious projects in the future.

MPC’s Kara Riggio, who’s organizing the challenge, defines placemaking as “a people-centered approach to managing public spaces,” with the emphasis on activities, rather than just physical design. In 2012, the nonprofit’s Space in Between contest led to projects like a ropes course in a Roseland lot, designed to be neutral territory in an area with crime issues, and a Logan Square community garden that grows produce for local food pantries. Last year, Activate Union Station enlivened the somewhat staid train depot with a temporary lawn with games and hammocks in its Great Hall, and a giant, walk-through blob installation in an outdoor plaza.

Riggio said the motto for the 2014 program is “lighter, quicker, cheaper,” which MPC adopted from New York City’s Project for Public Spaces. Instead of doing a lot of fundraising for a big project, participants are encouraged to start with something simple like a hopscotch tournament, checkers and chess tables, or a potluck picnic. “If it doesn’t work, you really didn’t risk anything, you just do things differently next time,” Riggio said. “It doesn’t have to be about a massive overhaul, but it can serve as a testing ground for what’s possible at the site.”

“This year’s contest is in response to a meeting we had last winter with community groups, who said they really wanted to do placemaking but didn’t know where to start,” she added. To shepherd participants through the process, MPC will be holding a free “Placemaking 101” training Tuesday, July 8, at their offices, 140 South Dearborn, Suite 1400.

The ropes course that was created as part of the Space in Between contest. Photo: Demoiselle 2 Femme

The training will cover the basics of placemaking, and teach attendees how to do a community audit -- a tour of an underperforming public space with other residents to brainstorm ideas for new uses. “We’re emphasizing that a successful project shouldn’t just involve the one person who decided to make it happen, but everybody in the neighborhood who wants to be involved,” Riggio said.

After the training, participants will design and stage a placemaking intervention, lasting a day or a full weekend, from August 15 to 17. These happenings could include live music, arts and crafts, face painting, hula hooping, or “just plain hanging out” on outdoor furniture, according to the MPC’s promotional video.

MPC will reimburse the first five entrants up to $100 for materials, but for the most part these initial placemaking actions will be unfunded. “We want to show how things can come together on no budget,” Riggio said. “Placemaking can be something as simple as bringing lawn chairs out of the basement for a knitting circle, or holding a ‘chalkbombing’ event [where kids draw on sidewalks or plazas.]”

For a chance to win one of the cash prizes, donated by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, contestants will document their project on a free webpage on the site, provided by EveryBlock. The public can also vote on the site for their favorite project, and a panel of three “placemaking experts” will choose the winners.

“These initial projects will show that placemaking doesn’t have to be about a massive overhaul to a site,” Riggio said. “But they can serve as a testing ground for what’s possible. Once you give something a try, it’s much easier to move forward and do something bigger from there.”

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