Blog: Courtney Piotrowski

New urbanists are salting cities with temporary-to-permanent gathering places. Courtney Piotrowski, a founder of Detroit landscape architecture firm livingLab, drills chair bombing and other gorilla placement tactics into our heads.

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.