Urban planning isn't always glamourous to the communities that need it most. It is difficult to get people to come to meetings, let alone be engaged and have fun. By starting the conversation through in a novel way– like say, through chocolate cake–you can infuse the process with energy.... even a celebratory air.
Yes, the final plans need to be specific/detailed and have a longer (ahem) shelf life. But by starting the place-making process in a delicious and approachable way, we can broaden the reach of the dialogue.
I know I'd rather have my first planning conversations over cake rather than a stuffy board room.
Imagine thirty people standing on the edge of a street in Austin, Texas intently building a six foot long chocolate cake master plan of a largely unknown creek corridor hidden in the midst of their Downtown. Eight of the builders were supposed to be there, the rest, baffled AND excited by the scene before them, had wandered up, simply asking, ‘Can we help?’.
Kids thoughtfully placing green jawbreaker trees along the ‘Creek bed’, adults meticulously painting white icing lines on graham cracker tennis courts, everyone discussing what goes where and hundreds of people lining up, chomping at the bit to exchange their ideas for the Creek’s future for a piece of the fantastic cake master plan. Formerly knowing little about either the under-loved public space right in their very midst or the negligibly attended City planning meetings, participants then drifted off to other events in the neighborhood abounding with stories of a ridiculous cake creek and new ideas for how the space might be used in the future firmly emblazoned on their chests.
It’s been nearly a year now since we made the Waller Creek cake and quite frankly we’re feeling a bit nostalgic. That cake was great. The project was fantastic. The response was better than any of us could have expected.
Contrary to the title of this article, the cake has not tangibly changed Waller Creek. However, what it did do was jump start a sense of possibility, creating a critical buzz, a very visible demonstration of how community engagement in public planning processes in Austin might occur a bit differently. And this couldn’t have been more important because something isn’t working properly when, for instance, you only have three community members show up for a Project For Public Spaces-led Creek design charette. Coupled with earlier guerrilla space-testing activities that we conducted with our friends as the Waller Creek Is For Lovers Action And Adventure Society, the cake began to suggest how public design processes can and should change in order to make great public spaces. And we are quite sure that when properly woven into a larger process and discussion about a particular place, cake can be an excellent tool for changing a place. It is joyfully disarming (in its material and imperfection) allowing people the rare opportunity to approach a planning meeting with an open mind, it is collaborative, messy and dagnabit, it’s mighty tasty.