Cities and designers are discovering that public spaces can be more interesting, functional, and serve green goals. This is why organizers of SXSW Eco 2013, a sustainability conference in Austin, Texas, October 7-9, produced the first Place by Design public space competition. This is the first year of the competition, and it drew 79 entries that are now whittled down to 15 finalists, including everything from pop-up parks to phone apps, smart sidewalks, a floating farm and water filtration system, and bamboo gardens suspended over highways. Julie Yost, project manager for SXSW, explains to gb&d why “tactical urbanism” is getting so much buzz.
gb&d: Is there a way to describe the global, far-reaching goals of the Place by Design competition?
Julie Yost: This competition is a showcase of ideas, intended to inspire all of us on the reimagining of public space. Many of the entries came from outside the sphere of traditional designers, but some larger design firms are also represented. The idea of tactical urbanism is clearly an emerging trend.
gb&d: And how does the competition define “tactical urbanism”?
Yost: Each project concept encouraged people to interact in a different way in the public space. Some program ideas were small and temporary while others were larger and permanent.
gb&d: From your own perspective, were there submissions that really surprised you?
Yost: Some of them were very technical and therefore something I wouldn’t have thought of. For example, “The Looper,” which is a greenhouse on a floating barge that pulls water from the river and returns it in a cleaner state. Also, “It’s in the BOX!,” what the designer calls ‘interactivist’ architecture, is interesting in how it creates adaptable public space in abandoned sections of Detroit. I also liked “Designed to Move,” an organization that promotes increased physical activity through urban design and revamped transportation policies.
gb&d: Are engagement, access, interactivity, and perhaps service and function (versus passive observation and contemplation) the new measure of success in public art? The Vietnam Memorial in Washington comes to mind for me.
Yost: The Vietnam Memorial was designed to create interactivity, not in a museum but in a setting that belongs to everybody. Tactical urbanism takes that to heart. A lot of the entries engage people with fun, by being playful, and making people smile.
gb&d: Is that what makes it sustainable, when it’s enjoyable?
Yost: When people enjoy places they are more engaged in them. They then are encouraged to take care of them, too.
gb&d: To what degree were project costs and budgets considered?
Yost: Budget was not part of the criteria—keeping in mind entries could be conceptual, not developed. We were interested in seeing and showing what could be done on a shoestring, which some participants proved possible.
gb&d: Similarly, achieving municipal permission seems central to this task. Yes?
Yost: We did learn that many projects hinged on municipal boards. Others, however, are guerilla projects, where no permissions had to be sought. Where it comes to overcoming hurdles and challenges, we definitely like to see what lessons were learned. Several of our jurors work in this space and are familiar with the task.
gb&d: How would you characterize the mood or general impressions of the jury after they received and reviewed the entries?
Yost: No one was disappointed with what they saw, and everyone was impressed by the quality of submissions. Each demonstrated the possibilities of tactical urbanism and most were replicable.
gb&d: How important is it to find a winner in this exercise?
Yost: This is not about finding the “best.” It’s more about starting the conversation, to identify previously unknown concepts, and to highlight the possibilities for the use of public space. [First choices will be selected in three categories: Transformative Design, Community Impact, and Global Potential.]
gb&d: How will the work be presented at SXSW Eco?
Yost: We decided to create a digital presentation of all the work with eight touchscreen displays. There also will be a “connect and discover” event, a meet-up of designers, the jurors and SXSW Eco attendees. During the Wednesday lunch, we will do a walking tour of installations in Austin, including the Butler Trail Restroom series around Lady Bird Lake. A post-event digital presentation is also in the works with cosponsor Autodesk.
See all of the Place by Design finalists here, or go to SXSW Eco from October 7-9.