Blog: Courtney Piotrowski

Courtney Piotrowski, PLA, ASLA, LEED GA is a founding partner + landscape architect at livingLAB : Detroit's freshest take on landscape architecture and community planning. livingLAB's studio and design practice was founded in 2012 as a woman-owned collaborative design studio based in Downtown Detroit.

Recognized for her unique ability to balance the art of design, the technical aspects of construction and the emotion of planning public spaces and places, Courtney promotes innovation in design, sustainable construction practices and context-sensitive planning in order to create the best possible outcomes for her clients and the communities she works in. Although she often shies away from discussions about her design expertise, Courtney is seen as a leader within the tight-knit landscape architecture and planning community in Michigan.  

A lifelong Michigan resident, Courtney graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in landscape architecture and immediately launched a design-centric career which has included stints at some of Michigan's leading design firms.. While she wishes she could list a paragraph's worth of community service here,  for the moment, Courtney  spends 'free-time' with her urban planner husband Chip Smith, 20-month old daughter Rory and their posse of pets – just as a good mama should.

Courtney Piotrowski - Most Recent Posts:

A Possibilities How-To

Since we opened our doors on January 3rd, livingLAB has struggled to figure out how best to get involved and support our city.  We continue to ask ourselves the same questions:  What is the best use of our talent and resources?  How can we make a marked difference in the public spaces and places throughout Detroit?  What is the appropriate commitment we can make to a non-profit or community group given our responsibility to our clients and our business?  Should we spearhead an effort all our own or seek out the perfect partner?

Detroit might have the highest per-capita numbers of non-profits, private foundations and community organizations in the world.  I could overwhelm you with a list of them here.  If you are at all familiar with Detroit you've at least heard of the most successful of these groups:  The Greening of Detroit, Detroit Community Initiative, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, for example.  There are also smaller organizations – folks like the Detroit Dog Park and our neighbors here in the L.B. King Building, the Youth Development Commission – are off the mainstream media's radar.  How do we support them?  How do we make our mark downtown in a time when so much good is already being done? How can we make sure all of our efforts work together for the good of Detroiters?

It is a hard question to answer.

We've attended meetings with the Detroit Dog Park folks.  We sponsored the Michigan Association of Planning Student Conference here in the city. We've contemplated installing tables and chairs outside our office during the summer months. (Perhaps we will be the first "chairbombers" in Detroit?) We're currently marinating the idea of designing and installing a guerilla wayfinding system in and around our neighborhood. That's our idea of the week right now – but these change quickly. There's a mark to be made and good to be done and we're looking for our best opportunity.

Here's what I do know. No matter what direction we decide to go, we just need to get moving. Get moving toward something positive. Create our own possibilities. That is truly what's great, and overwhelming, about being a small business in Detroit right now.  

Chair Bombs and Guerilla Placemaking

Since we opened the doors at livingLAB I have become the de facto marketing and social media lead.  Although certainly not something I was trained to do, I think I can pull it off in a pinch. What's interesting is it has forced me to delve deeper into the plethora of articles centered on planning and design, and particularly how they are shaping change in Michigan and helping translate design jargon into accessible and interesting reading.

As I read through our Facebook posts and a few of my typical lunchtime blogs today I started putting together a theme; let's call it Guerilla Placemaking.  Some have coined it "Tactical Urbanism" and others call it "Pop-Up Urbanism". Basically, it is a low cost, high-impact approach to placemaking that can begin to transform our cities in a time when communities must do more with less.  By investing in fast, creative, profitable ways to capitalize on local ingenuity we can make small-scale improvements that direct large-scale transformation.

Interestingly, many of the best, most authentic and enduring destinations in our cities, the places that keep you, your neighbors and tourists coming back again and again were born out of a series of incremental, locally-based improvements.  Those of us here in Detroit are seeing the uprising of an entrepreneurial, connected, creative movement of people who demonstrate that this incremental, place-based change is possible despite economic or political obstacles.

All of this makes me think of my first major experience with Guerilla Placemaking: PARK(ing)Day. Three of us here at livingLAB joined together with other businesses, non-profits and the University of Michigan to green Downtown Flint with a series of temporary parks.  We constructed a small park within 2 hours.  We fed nearly 200 homeless folks while we were at it; grilling Koegel hotdogs, giving away Better Made Chips and Vernor's soda.   If you haven't heard of PARK(ing)Day, you need to!  It is an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.  In 2011 alone this event built 975 temporary parks in 35 countries.  

The great news is that these types of events and this type of DIY urbanism don't have to be temporary.  

Take the idea of "chairbombing" as an example – the act of removing salvageable material from an area business or the local dump, and using it to build public seating. Chairs are placed strategically in areas that are either void of social activity, or conversely, those that are rich with life, but lack comfortable places to sit.  I can't think of a better example of public participation than this.

Many of our cities' greatest plans get bogged down because they are too large, too costly, and simply take too long to materialize. Meanwhile, the wasted opportunities for economic development – and public life – continue to add up.  Guerilla Placemaking projects provide a powerful means to translate a community's individual vision into physical reality. Whether they are led by landscape architects and planners, government agencies, community activists or engaged individuals, these innovative approaches to placemaking should be encouraged and powered by Michigan's social capital and ingenuity.

Why not locate livingLab in Detroit?

The first time I was asked 'What made you decide to locate livingLAB in Detroit?'  I have to admit, I was mystified.  Why wouldn't we?  Didn't everyone feel the shift?  A shift from a torrent of media attention focused on a dying Detroit to a story of innovation and opportunity.  We wanted to be a part of the excitement – what other reason would we need?  
Admittedly, if you simply listened to NPR, read Forbes or even the Huffington Post this past month you might wonder why any business chooses to locate in Flint or Detroit.  They ranked as the #1 and #2 Most Dangerous City, respectively, last year.  Do we use diligence each day walking to our offices?   What about while grabbing a sandwich at lunch?  The answer is yes.  I know this is not the answer you want to hear, but for now, it is the honest one.  But here's the thing, we are landscape architects and city planners; we love cities, and this one is growing on us each and every day. And this one has the history and character that is only created over several hundred years.

Our office sits at street level facing the Boll YMCA on Grand River Avenue.  Typically, I would not be an advocate of professional services at the street level, but here in Detroit street life is important.  Connectivity is important – connectivity of spaces, but also connectivity of people and communities.  Being on the ground floor, literally, has allowed us to get to know our neighbors who include our local police officers, the couple that stops home to walk their dogs at lunch, the kids at the YMCA and the lovely older woman who feeds the pigeons.  We know them because they walk by our window.  We have bonded through a pane of glass.

And there's more. Our friendly barista, Lauren, at 1515 Broadway knows where our office is and how we like our coffee.  Charlie, the bartender at Detroit Beer Company knows we have our weekly meeting late afternoon on Tuesdays so we can take advantage of $5 growlers.  At Foran's Grand Trunk Pub they know lobster bisque is on our agenda for Fridays.

So while it's a nice story about how the four of us have gotten to know our neighbors, these new relationships have helped us generate new business leads. And these aren't the "hey, let's do some cold calling" type leads.  These are solid leads that will grow our business and bring benefit to the city.

This is what makes setting up shop in Detroit worth it; the connectivity, the cultural energy, a sense of place and the engagement between people.  These are the elements that are often lost in a 9-to-5 suburban office environment.   These relationships and this connectivity is healthy for us and for the city and it is the single most important reason we're in Detroit.

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