As ordinary citizens of Knoxville, we want a sense of control over our immediate environment. We want better places for ourselves and our families. We want institutions that are comfortable and sincere. No one wants a lot of government bureaucracy. No one wants a developer's vision of what he can sell to investors. We don't want Portland or New York. We want a city that is Knoxville style—grungy, weedy, full of places that are magical and real.
Placemaking is about empowering people to take ownership of a few tiny corners of their world, and make a destination or an event where before none existed. For example, putting a bench near the sidewalk in front of your house is placemaking. An action like this encourages a sense of community in your neighborhood. It requires opening up your land to other people, and demonstrates a commitment to neighborliness.
A Californian activist named Mike Lanza recently invented the term "playborhoods" for neighborhoods in which people allow their front yards to be used as play-spaces for children and neighbors. It's a trendy term for something a few Knoxvillians have been doing for years. Within a one-block radius in Parkridge, I found three examples of people sharing their land and creating bright spots in the neighborhood.
In a classic example of Lanza's concept, Dennis and Sharon Smith welcome children into their front yard to play on their swings and slides. Their yard is an especially good place, the warm heart of the block, always full of children and life.
On the next street over, Emily Hall bought the grassy lot adjacent to her house to preserve the greenspace for local use. "We aren't planning to build on it, it's just for neighborhood children to play in," Hall says. She also plans to let the people at Bridge Ministry grow food in the lot.
Another neighbor built a skateboard ramp out of scrap wood and allows kids to practice on it on the sidewalk in front of his house."The kids use it more than I do," John Mowbray says, "If you carry a skateboard in this neighborhood, you just get mobbed." He means this in a positive way, as in the kids are really interested in skateboarding. "It's always been a little dream of mine to start a Parkridge skate club," he says. He mentions the skateparks in Fountain City and Tyson Park. But those places are way out of walking distance for a kid in Parkridge.
It is good for children to see adults leading generous, unpretentious lives without a lot of fussiness and fear. These people make Parkridge a special place—a place that encourages kids to play outside, neighbors to chat, friends to walk over and say hey. But in other Knoxville neighborhoods, places like this are rare.
If you are interested in a placemaking experiment of your own, I recommend The Red Swing Project. The RSP website (redswingproject.org) has instructions for a simple, sturdy swing and an appealingly simple idea: Make the swing, paint it an eye-catching red, then hang it in an abandoned lot or neglected corner, transforming the place into a mini-playground.
People and their small, handmade things make a place live. Together, we can make a network of beautiful, living places connecting neighborhoods and people.