Place Lab recently sat down with Ethical Redevelopment Salon member Hunter Franks to discuss the Ethical Redevelopment Principle 'Place Over Time,' and the role of public voice and imagination in community development.
Hunter Franks is the founder and Artistic Director of the League of Creative Interventionists. His participatory projects create shared spaces and experiences that break down social barriers and catalyze connections between people and communities. His projects include a 500-person meal on a freeway, a storytelling exchange to connect disparate neighborhoods, a public display of first love stories, and a vacant warehouse turned community hub.
In 2014, Franks was named one of GOOD Magazine's GOOD 100 and his Neighborhood Postcard Project was named one of "12 Bright Ideas for Better Cities" by the Los Angeles Times. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and featured in Fast Company, the Guardian, and Atlantic Citylab. In 2011 he walked from Los Angeles to New Mexico - an experience that fueled his desire to connect with strangers and tell the stories of underrepresented places.
What is your approach to urban practice?
The only way to solve our challenges is to start talking to each other instead of about each other. My work creates shared moments of introspection and empathy and is an invitation for people to recognize the power of each other for their stories. I create platforms that allow people to recognize that they can create the city and world that they want to live in. My work began in 2013 with youth in the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco, who wanted to change the perception of their neighborhood, often stereotyped as a dangerous place. I developed the Neighborhood Postcard Project, and worked with them to collect personal, positive stories of the neighborhood and then mail those postcards to random people in different neighborhoods in San Francisco. The project serves as a simple way to invite people to reimagine how they think about their city, both socially, and physically. I open-sourced the project and it has since been carried out all over the world.
What have you been working on lately?
After several years of doing this work, I carried out my largest project to date called 500 Plates in Akron, Ohio with support from the Knight Foundation. A year-long initiative, the project sought to engage every neighborhood in the city to reimagine their relationships with each other and also share ideas for a soon-to-be inoperative freeway. We began by identifying one resident in each neighborhood to serve as a neighborhood ambassador. We interviewed these folks and collected their favorite household recipe, which we then printed onto custom stoneware plates and used at a giant community meal for 500 people in the middle of the freeway.
Attendees were encouraged to write and draw their ideas on a table runner and were guided by volunteer table hosts to discuss their personal stories as well as the challenges and opportunities of their neighborhoods, public space, and the future of their city. Ideas for the space were collected and shared with the City of Akron to help inform the development of the space. I'm currently continuing my work in Akron, Ohio to create resident-led activations of underused spaces in the Summit Lake neighborhood, including the transformation of a vacant building into a community art and culture space.
“The city is a space where the powerless can make history. Becoming present, visible, to each other can alter the character of powerlessness.” - Saskia Sassen
How can we see cities, and make spaces that allow for communities to assert themselves and express power?
Cities and particularly public spaces are valuable platforms for self-mobilization. The city can serve as a vehicle for the unexpected and spontaneous. When we harness these moments and create intentionality around them, they we are able to align our desires for how the city functions and also recognize a new potential to create spaces that serve people. We often only assert ourselves and express power when we face conflict or crisis. I think if we are able to create simple, low barriers to involvement that are rooted in authenticity then folks will maintain a more consistent mindset of agency and power.
There is often false dichotomy of choice that exists in stigmatized places - "you have to escape to achieve success and that if you stay, you will become a victim of circumstance.” How can interventions in place and space alter this dynamic?
I believe that this starts small and simple. Someone who has never attended a town hall meeting on the architectural permitting plans for a new building is not going to be propelled to suddenly do so out of the blue. That person must be met where they are; on their porch, at the community center gym, or walking down the street. This process begins by asking them what they want. That alone can be a revolutionary act. Then those folks need to be invited to actually help create that thing they want to see. Invite people to build things together with their hands. Help people see how simple it can be to positively change their environment and create investment. Once someone sees that others care about a place, they themselves will be more compelled to do the same.
How can practitioners extend pop-up, temporary strategies—common in tactical urbanism—to shape longer-term investments in places?
These are difficult questions that involve a large ecosystem. I do think that short-term projects can deeply inform longer-term investments but this is only successful when the developer is open to this which ultimately requires a deeper intent than profit. If profit continues to drive community development, then we will continue to be left with cities that continue to separate people and breed fear. We have seen how the trends of past generations have left us with severely physically and economically isolated neighborhoods. I do believe that temporary strategies can allow us to test ideas and see what will and will not work in the long-term while allowing us to change that approach in the future.
How do we cultivate a spirit of a place so that it holds meaning and authenticity?
I think that strategies need to be personal, they need to consist of building relationships and capturing stories and history of a place to ensure that it maintains meaning. We have to make these things visible and celebrated. Otherwise, they will be washed away and forgotten in the rush to profit.
(For more about the Neighborhood Postcard Project, take a look at this short video of the project being carried out in Detroit.)