Never underestimate the power of places to surprise, delight and draw people in - and help them view their own community in an entirely new light. Creating unexpected and joyful moments/spaces/experiences in a city can re-energize a neighborhood.
The images above are of a treehouse I helped build in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with Forever Young, a company that designs and builds universally accessible treehouses for city parks, schools and camps. When we were working on the project in 2007, people would regularly stroll by the job site in Nay Aug Park, a beautiful but somewhat neglected space lining a gorge just five minutes walk from the heart of Scranton. Many folks would stop and literally gape with surprise at the site of a house materializing in the trees.
The David Wenzel Treehouse in Scranton, Pa.
A father and daughter enjoy the view from the treehouse soon after its opening
"What are you building?" they'd shout out.
"A treehouse!" we'd reply from our perches.
They'd turn and look at each other, then back at us.
"No really. What are you building??"
You can't blame them for being skeptical. Why would anyone want to build a treehouse in a community that has plenty of other more pressing economic, social and architectural needs?
One answer is that the treehouse is now a vibrant new node in a city that's reinvented itself after a long period of decline in the second half of the twentieth century, as big employers and industries left or disappeared. I don't by any stretch mean to imply that one treehouse is responsible for that! A lot of hard, visionary work by city leaders and citizens has gone into Scranton's ongoing economic revitaliation. But a seemingly marginal or frivolous thing - like a public space intended to do nothing but spark joy and wonder - can change the way a person experiences their own community, and enlarge their sense of what can be done and felt there. It can be a healthy (and stealthily productive) thing when people go for a walk in their old neighborhood, turn a corner, and gape - delighted - at what they find.
There are plenty of examples of this when we look around. Some of my favorites include the
Fremont Troll in Seattle, built under a bridge by my friends at Jersey Devil and colleagues; the wild
waste-to-energy plant that doubles as a ski slope that the architectural firm BIG (advocates of 'sustainable hedonism' and the philosophy 'yes is more') has designed to enliven an industrial sector of Copenhagen; the "
Bean" sculpture that has become a magnet and object of fascination for visitors to Millenium Park in Chicago (which was built over what was previously rail yards and parking lots); the Rural Studio's extended work on
Lions Park in Greensboro, Alabama; and of course New York City's
What do these projects have in common? They're all whimsical - but their seeming impracticality is a primary source of their delight, and attraction to people. They generate real psychological, social and economic returns - lifting people up for a moment in their day, bringing people together to interact and recharge, even generating business for surrounding enterprises. And they hit at least four of the Challenge Themes identified already: designing for wellbeing, repurposing spaces, creating connections and fostering local identity.
What resources (money, time, people, technology, etc) will your concept need to be successful?
The main resources are people's time and imagination. Architectural firms and artists and builders could be encouraged to provide at least some of their service pro bono (as with some of the examples above). City officials could identify public spaces that are good candidates for whimsical rejuvenation, and make the land or space or structure available to the winner of a juried Delight Us competition. Much as the Rural Studio leverages its students energy and talent to benefit lower-income communities and clients, a more civic-based model could be developed, a la Community Design Centers, to usher these projects along using locally available talent and resources (from universities, public schools, local businesses, etc).
What steps could you take to implement this idea today?
Start a website where communities can list spaces that could use this kind of sprucing up, and match up designer/builder/artist/whimsifier types with project sites and needs (kind of like Kickstarter). Communities can set up citizen committees to pursue delight-ification projects and partners... but the process should probably be tailored to each individual neighborhood or town.
How can your idea be scaled so that it's implemented in cities around the world?
Powerful places have a way of reaching people through word of mouth - and now via social media great examples of delightful spaces like those mentioned above can reach other communities faster than ever.
My Virtual Team