This post, by PlaceMatters blogger Jocelyn Hittle, is the twentieth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.
I hesitate to admit this, but as a once and future singer and dancer, I have often dreamed of walking down the street and having everyone around me—preferably a meter maid, constable (yes, a constable not a policeman), grandmother walking her dog, newspaper delivery boy, and cabbie—begin singing and dancing. If you’ve seen pretty much any musical, you know the scene I’m sketching out here.
Here’s what many of you know already: This. Can. Actually. Happen. Heard of flash mobs? Well, I have, and for me they are a dream come true. Seemingly spontaneous public dance (and sometimes singing) performances, they are lighthearted, unexpected, and then over—everyone in the mob moving on as if nothing had happened. They range from the most amateur to highly sophisticated (T-Mobile’s flash mob advertisement is probably the best known example).
Improv Everywhere, a group started by Charlie Todd, a comedian formerly of the Upright Citizens’ Brigade, is behind some of the most creative flash mobs, and other unexpected public acts of frivolity. Their “no pants subway ride” event has been been livening up New Yorkers’ morning commute for years, and has now been replicated across the country, including here in Denver on our light rail. Check out Todd’s TED talk for more examples.
What I’ve been thinking more about is how to relate this kind of public performance (mostly the kind that includes wearing pants) into the place where it is being held, because place matters (sorry). There are examples of visual arts that use the context of their place, most famously Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I’m interested in how we can similarly tie place to performance. There are a few silly examples of using the context of a performance as part of the performance itself–this pool flash mob, for example–but I’m interested in rooting performance more clearly in the place in which is is happening, linking these performances to planning processes to make the planning process more fun, involve the often overlooked groups of performing artists in a community, highlight a community’s strengths or challenges, and create excitement around a planning process.
Other performing arts options have been incorporated into planning processes–check out Winston-Salem’s video featuring local musicians that encourages people to get involved in the update of their comprehensive plan, for example. The kickoff and wrap-up events of planning processes are also increasingly celebratory and feature live local music and cuisine (e.g., Imagine Austin’s launch of their comp plan, the New River Valley Livability Initiative’s kickoff). On the more innovative end of things is the Sojourn Theater’s work incorporating dance and other performances into their BUILT process, which allows participants to discuss and place various land uses on a “game” board. (On a side note, the BUILT process is being modified for the New River Valley Livability Initiative to fit a more rural context, and in this case is not using the performance art.)
There seem to be more examples of use of visual arts and storytelling in planning processes, including PlaceMatters’ own work on the Philadelphia LANDvisions project, than performing arts. APA has a series of briefing papers on the arts in planning and they really don’t mention performing arts in any substantive way–and I’m interested in gathering more examples. If you know of projects that have used performing arts (dance, music, theater, improv comedy, anything along these lines) please let me know.
I’ll be posting more about this topic outside of this Participation by Design series, particularly in cases where we are able to use performing arts in our current projects and have some lessons learned to share.
Jocelyn Hittle is the Director of PlaceMatters’ Sustainable Solutions Group, where she focuses on designing and implementing planning processes that are informed, equitable, creative, and transparent. She focuses on communicating complex information, involving typically underrepresented groups, and organizing spontaneous dance performances.