Helping Build Cities for and by People

This post was originally published on the Knight Foundation website. 

By Chad Rochkind

Chad Rochkind is the founder of Human Scale Studio, an Emerging City Champion and a Knight Cities Challenge winner. Below he writes about his experience with the Emerging City Champions program, which is accepting applications for its 2018 class until April 2, 2018.

I still believe in hope.

I still believe that there are openings for good people to build a better future despite the daily outrages and absurdities that have become the norm of American life in 2018.

I believe tackling these issues requires us to bring truth and humanity into the room wherever we go.

I believe we need to be brave, have grit and muster the resources we need to build the kind of bright future that people don’t even know is possible.

I believe that when people come together under the banner of a common purpose, it is like oxygen for the human spirit and people gravitate toward it.

I believe all of this because I was in the first class of the Emerging City Champions program.

Emerging City Champions changed the entire trajectory of my life while enabling me to create lasting transformation in my city. With $5,000 and training from some of the world’s greatest urban thinkers and doers, I sparked a movement that led the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan to completely rethink how the main street of Detroit’s oldest neighborhood functions.

It started with a small parklet. Armed with $5,000 from the program, I was able to work with a café owner, a local architect and a brilliant team of fabricators to create a beautiful public asset inside of a parking space. By creating an area that prioritized people rather than cars, we demonstrated that people-powered places were possible. People had never even thought of such a thing! We used the installation as an opportunity to engage the community around the kind of street they wanted to see in the future. Inside the café, we provided urban engagement tools, such as visual comparison surveys and plans that displayed different views of the street. It became clear that no one wanted a 9-lane state highway running through the heart of the neighborhood.

People were blown away by the parklet and the engagement surrounding it. It made them feel like we could change this huge chasm in the heart of our neighborhood if we worked together.

Open Streets Detroit, 2016

Open Streets Detroit, 2016

The Michigan Department of Transportation arrived to demolish the parklet 10 days after it was installed, but the idea had already pushed people to change their mindset. Leveraging that experience, I scaled up the concept and went on to win the Knight Cities Challenge, which supported 12 more installations in Detroit and deeper training for residents who wanted to be part of transforming their neighborhoods. These, combined with the introduction of Open Streets Detroit, a program that closes the streets to car traffic, let the city and state know that the people were clamoring for change.

Less than two years after the initial parklet was built, one of the longest protected bike lanes in America was installed in Detroit. It reduced the lanes devoted to car traffic and opened up the possibility for pedestrian friendly infrastructure such as café seating and wider walking spaces.

In an era where people are fearful of change and suspicious of each other, one way to make a difference is to create a window into the world that you want. Emerging City Champions opened up that avenue for me by allowing me to test an idea, so that people could see first-hand how a small fix could make a big difference. At the same time, working alongside the community, I was able to better understand what works and what doesn’t, and adjust and scale accordingly.

This vision for inclusive urban development is exactly what the world needs at this moment in our history. And we need more people to take the baton and run with it in cities around the country.

Apply. Join the movement. Be the change.

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