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Publisher's Diary: The power of thinking small at UIX

Packed house at the MOCAD for UIXDET

Flying Kite publisher Michelle Freeman reflects on the inaugural Urban Innovation Exchange while attending a conference in Boston.

After day one of the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange in Boston, I've toured the Innovation District, networked with many colleagues from the Philadelphia region, and taken in much of the beauty of the downtown core. Cranes hang high in the air as markers of a continual development boom and the price of real estate continues to skyrocket. 

A little under two weeks ago, I was in Detroit for Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX). This was Issue Media Group's (Flying Kite's parent company) first national conference. UIX focused on small-scale neighborhood transformation projects. Detroit has a charming spirit and grit, and is certainly not as pretty and polished as Boston. 

The juxtaposition of these two cities and two events has me wondering if bigger is better. Is bigger sustainable? Or does small and steady win in neighborhood and urban development? It's probably a healthy mix of both, but I am stuck on the notion that 'the next big thing is a million little things'.  

Transforming alleyways, micro-granting to teachers over soup (this happens in Philadelphia, too), and using a barber shop as a way to break down barriers were just some of the hands-on grassroots projects featured at UIX during a day themed "Art of Place." The concept of placemaking, a growing topic, takes on many different forms, from semi-permanent art installations to pop-up parks, night markets and community interventions through art. 

A lot of these placemaking projects -- many made possible by support from funders like Art Place and NEA -- can be seen as demonstration projects. 

"Not every neighborhood needs a skatepark but neighborhoods can start thinking differently about land use," explained Gina Reichert of Power House Productions. She and her partner Mitch Cope purchased a home years ago in Banglatown (named both after area markets and the large Bangladeshi population) and saw an immediate need to address the crime and vandalism in their neighborhood. In 2008, they opened the doors to Power House, a residential property that became a testing ground for ideas and applied methods in sustainable design, art and building systems. 

Since the opening of this first property, Powerhouse Productions has thoughtfully and strategically turned other vacant spaces in the neighborhood into themed houses such as Sound House, Yellow House and Jar House. Reichert took us to Sound House, where we passed the Treasure Nest Art House (another art house led by Monica Canilao) and what remains of the Juxtapoz Project (from 2010). Some might argue that the type of art being displayed on these (often vacant) residential properties is an acquired taste. "I'd rather talk about how someone might like or dislike the displayed art than talk about what was happening before artists came into the neighborhood," refutes Reichert.

Between tours and presentations, my mind was churning: How could I bring back what I'd learned and apply it to some of the "On the Ground" work Flying Kite has done. I also thought about the Philadelphia region's own incredible placemaking efforts, including the Village of Arts and Humanities, Destination Frankford and Connect the Lots

What draws me to small-scale neighborhood transformation is the discovery. Each project I learn about is like a hidden gem, thriving in under-seen neighborhoods and small communities. 

So, how do we reveal these grassroots neighborhood-level projects? How do we share resources and best practices across neighborhoods in our own cities, regions and nation? Some of the beauty in small-scale transformation is the scalability and accessibility -- it can be adapted in other places with little overhead. Once these 'gems' are uncovered, how do we supply a toolkit for them to be duplicated? 

IRRIGATE, out of Saint Paul, MN, is addressing some of these questions by approaching placemaking with an open source mentality. They are building toolkits and, eventually, will develop a toolkit to build a toolkit all to encourage and aid in creative community engagement and placemaking. 

From Tiny Houses to Tiny Diners and using food as a common denominator for projects like Conflict Kitchen, UIX not only took a look into the Art of Place but also explored the Future of Food and the Maker Movement. You can read about some of the other projects and ideas in this week's issue of Flying Kite

I have a couple days left in Boston to explore and learn about how this city works alongside many Philadelphia area-based colleagues. I'll be in Dudley Square tomorrow afternoon for a glimpse of its rapid development. I'll stroll down the pristine streets lined with history and take in the beautiful architecture of downtown Boston. That said, I can't help rooting for the underdog. Some of the most inventive and innovative projects come out of a lack of resources -- out of working with what you have.

MICHELLE FREEMAN is publisher of Flying Kite Media.
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