Candy Chang, a daring young urban planner, artist, and graphic designer, said “small interventions” in the public realm can lead to bigger, smarter ones, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Increasingly well-known for her informational public art projects around the U.S., Chang walked the crowd through her latest works, which aim to improve community self-organization and empowerment, and create a feeling of a shared experience in neighborhoods that are “giant hotels of passing neighbors,” urban places with little civic realm. Chang’s work may also provide the model for 21st century community visioning; her amazing web sites may offer a new way forward for gauging demand for planning initiatives.
While many designers aim to “transform cities through art and design,” Chang, a TED Fellow, may actually be doing it. Chang said her role model was gardener / architect Joseph Paxton, who was the first person in England to grow giant lily pads, the biggest flowering plants in the world. Amazed by the support structures — the veins — of the lily pad leaves, Paxton would actually put his young daughter on top of them to test how much weight they could hold. “He then somehow borrowed 5 or 6 other people’s kids and also put them on the pads,” discovering that these highly flexible structures can hold incredible amounts of weight. His discovery then pushed him into making experimental greenhouse structures, which translated into the famous Crystal Palace in the London Expo of 1851. For his discovery of the inherent powers of ribbing structures, he won a knighthood.
Chang said Paxton’s sense of curiosity, his love of learning, helped him break down barriers. Disciplines, as we have defined them today, didn’t seem to matter. In the same vein, Chang is also trying to break down barriers between design professions, studying architecture, graphic design, and urban planning to create a new hybrid approach to solve the complex problems facing communities.
For her, many local urban communities lack information about how their own communities are run and decisions are made, so, in turn, their communities often don’t reflect their needs and desires. Chang believes that “local communication tools are an infrastructure system” as important as water, energy, or transportation. Communications infrastructure is about providing access to information and building platforms for sharing information that everyone can use. With these tools, “more residents can self-organize, and more communities can have places that reflect their values.”
Studying at Columbia University and later working as a graphic designer at The New York Times, Chang was stunned by the colorful, informal nature of the public realm in New York City. Lamp posts are bulletin boards. Fliers – for lost dogs, band performances, job opportunities – are informal information sharing systems, which she studied for her thesis project. Chang was also interested in how these physical manifestations of informal information sharing work together with online forums. She made the point that “it’s hard to reach an entire neighborhood online” so you do need some sort of physical connection.
One of Chang’s first projects was “Post-It Notes for Neighbors,” which enabled residents to detail the amount they spend for their apartments in neighborhoods throughout New York City. Another early project for GOOD magazine created a cut-out “Can I Borrow?” tag to hang on neighbor’s doors, which enables neighbors to communicate with each other without bothering each other at inconvenient times. In New Orleans, where she lives, she covered vacant storefronts in rows of vinyl “I Wish This Was” stickers and markers, which enable residents to outline their dreams for the space. Systematically documenting these wishful notes, she finds what’s actually in demand in neighborhoods, from fresh produce and farmers’s markets, to restaurants and liquor stores. She’s now been playing with the “I Wish This Was” concept, using a wide range of media, including digital billboards in a central plaza in Minneapolis.
A more ambitious web-based project financed by Tulane University and the Rockefeller Foundation called Neighborland.com enables residents to “self-organize around shared ideas.” Users can add their own ideas for the neighborhood or simply select “Me, too,” building steam for initiatives. She said apps like these are critical because too often in public planning meetings, a “few voices drown out everyone else” or the same 10 people show up. In New Orleans, Neighborland initiatives have led to spontaneous night markets in vacant lots and other bottom-up happenings.
A wonderful project in Fairbanks, Alaska, helped the community reimagine the future for its tallest building, which has also been abandoned for the past 10 years. The Polaris building got a new sign, “Looking for Love Again, which is a beacon of love” on a derelict space. Residents were invited to use chalk to write in their memories of the place and their hopes. She said the project shows how “meaningful cities are in our lives, and the value of introspection in public places.”
Her most famous project maybe the walls asking residents to say what they want to do “Before I Die.” In New Orleans, the first wall received hundreds of responses in just a day. Now there are 50 walls around the country. “Before I Die” was inspired by the death of one of Chang’s loved ones. The death set her on a journey to think about the nature of death and enabled her to “not caught get up with the little things in life.” “Thinking about death clarifies life.” The walls, she said, now reflect “the hopes and dreams of communities.”
Another new project in Las Vegas plays with that city’s tagline, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Her “Confessions,” inspired by Catholic confessionals and Japanese Shinto prayer markers, which are usually hung in trees, asks residents and visitors to make their private secrets public. She said this project helps build a “safe place in the community,” yet is still a mix of “catharsis and voyeurism.”
Returning to Paxton, Chang said there’s great value in “serendipidity,” and following small ideas so they become huge, world-changing ones. With wisdom beyond her years, she said: “the world becomes far more rewarding when you look beyond what you are searching for.”
Image credit: ASLA 2012 Residential Design Honor Award. Urban Spring, San Francisco. Bionic / Bionic.