Meet Emerging City Champions: Ezekiel and Sarah

A year after launching projects to make their cities more engaged, happy and beautiful, we are happy to introduce the K880 Emerging City Champions 2016 in this series of posts highlighting what these young urban innovators have accomplished, what they’ve learned and where they’re going next.

by Emma Jones, Jonathan von Ofenheim

Ezekiel Harris

Detroit, Michigan – Real Talk on Mack

Meet the champ:
Ezekiel Harris cares deeply about making the built environment work for the people that interact with it. As Executive Director of MACC Development, Zeke’s focused on doing projects that confront injustice and lead to positive social and economic change.

How he’s innovating:
Harris spearheaded an event he called Real Talk on Mack, where he hosted a public event at a vacant lot.  

Mack Avenue, he says, was once a bustling locale: “It was very active and had business on top of business on top of business,” says Harris. Mack Avenue today, he says, is a different story: about 50 per cent of the street lies vacant.

A real artist paints a pumpkin at the Real Talk on Mack event.

To address it, Harris had a simple goal: “to allow people to reimagine how these vacant lots can be used.” So the team brought a fire pit, marshmallows, donuts and games to one empty lot on Mack: “We were asking people to come and join us and just hang out,” Harris says.

But the casual event brought more than just snacks to Mack Avenue. “We ended up not only having people eating and hanging out and playing games and little kids painting pumpkins, but we also had an opportunity for people to just kind of share stories of Mack Avenue, and things that impacted them or that they remember.”

“We just had this really, kind of neat time together,” he says.

The event inspired even bigger change, says Harris. Seeing the community demand for a public space, Harris’ organization decided to build a community park beside a building they’re developing on the street.

“We actually think if we create an outdoor space, there is a need, there is a want for this,” he says. “So there was this connection that we ended up making, almost by accident, from throwing this event to thinking maybe we can build this out a little more.”

Sarah Yeung

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Meet the Champ:
Sarah Yeung is the Director of Planning and Senior Project Manager at Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC). She’s also the coordinator of the Neighbourhood Planning & Advocacy program, where she oversees real estate and affordable housing developments. Her major role is to work with the planning committee to engage community members about zoning and development issues, and collaborate with the city on the Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan.

How she’s innovating:
Through her work, Yeung identified an area with an expressway and a pedestrian footbridge. It got a lot of traffic, she says, but notes that it also lacked public space where all people can congregate and relax.

Her solution? To engage a community of primarily Chinese-speaking locals in the busy area, Yeung built an “outdoor living room” over the bridge. In the weekly, Thursday night pop-up, locals could come to the pop-up “living room” to play cultural games like Mahjong, Chinese Chess and Go.

Locals hanging out in Yeung’s outdoor living room

These are games that the community feels very comfortable with, says Yeung, and that she knew would “inspire some personal, face-to-face time.”

The living room is about “providing access for the non-English speaking population, as well as kind of bridge-building and social activities for everybody,” she says, noting that people who dropped in, especially the Mahjong players, would stay through the night. After a solid first year, Yeung feels there’s enough momentum to bring the living room back with the next warm season.

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