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Honoring Chicagoland's Placemakers: the 2012 Space in Between contest

“Any community is made up of millions of acts, positive and negative, which at a distance become the whole we perceive. Each of us contributes to the whole. Each of us makes or breaks the city in small ways every day as we lead our lives.” – Peter Kageyama, For the Love of Cities

On Nov. 1 the Metropolitan Planning Council honored a cadre of incredible Placemakers who rebuild their cities in small ways every day. Each group that entered MPC’s Space in Between contest had transformed a space that was vacant or abandoned into a community assetwhether for an afternoon or for years. The idea that spurred the contest was simple: That everyday people could put vacant spaces to use rather than passively waiting for “professionals” to redevelop them. We noted that not only could we do this, but that in fact many people already were doing it, both around the country and here in Chicago (see Putting vacant space to use, in the meantime.) Imagining there must be countless more examples, we launched a contest asking all area placemakers to tell us about their projects.

We hoped for 20 entries – after all, the time and energy invested in these projects is immense. Much to our delight, a total of 46 placemakers from Milwaukee to northwest Indiana sent in their pictures, their videos and their stories about how they took a vacant space and filled it—not with bricks and mortar, but with people. With ideas. With art. With things that grow and feed and nurture us.

Shuttered retail was transformed into art galleries and bookstores. Vacant land became a canvas for community art, tales of motherhood, and rites of passage for young women. Performances were staged in abandoned rail yards and long-vacant lots. And scores of community gardens grew not only vegetables, but a sense of community.

When the contest and awards event were over, though, I found I still had questions for these vanguards. I recently asked several of them how they felt about their work after going through this contest and meeting other placemakers like themselves.

“It occurs to me now that the creation of special places isn't always as intentional - or rather, as thought out - as it seems in retrospect,” one participant noted. “I see now that what we and other projects have done is create space, but that act of creation was born out of a series of small steps. And those steps have resulted in a whole that is greater than any of us could have thought. The value of those small steps—decisions and actions made by neighbors working together with attention to the needs of their communityimbue space with a value that creates importance.”

Richard Florida, of “creative class” fame, agrees. He states in a recent interview: “’If you believe in mega projects, move to China. That’s where all the big, industrial mega projects have gone. Economic development today (in the U.S. and Canada) is about literally hundreds and thousands of little things that you do slowly and cumulatively at the neighborhood and community level.”

Another participant noted, “Previously, we worked on claiming the vacant lots because it was what needed to be done to improve our block, but now we realize that…(we are) part of a movement.” These local placemakers are indeed part of something bigger, something with a variety of names: DIY urbanism, tactical urbanism, and the “let’s not build a stadium” strategy, powered by individuals that Kageyama calls co-creators, urban sherpas, and a community’s “secret sauce.”

So here’s one more salute to all of Chicagoland’s secret saucemakers/placemakers/lovers of community; after all, as Kageyama points out, “This small group of people in love with their communities are often the difference between communities that thrive and those that wilt and die.”

MPC launched the 2012 Space in Between contest to learn more about how creative people around the region are taking back long-since forgotten spaces. Have we ever learned, and you can too.

Learn more about contest winners here.

Check out contest coverage by the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, and ABC-7.

Winners of the 2012 Space in Between contest (not pictured: Metcalfe Park Community Action Team)

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