Is Madison a broken city?
That's a question city officials and neighborhood leaders will discuss next week, when Madison will get a tutorial in a public art project that's been pioneered in Portland, Ore.
"The City Repair Project engages community members in solving their own problems," says Mark Lakeman, the project's co-founder. "It gets people off their couches and engages them in the public process."
An innovative model for fostering communication and connection among city dwellers, the project grew out of a 1996 effort to transform a residential intersection in Portland into a neighborhood public square. Citizens covered the street with colorful designs and installed inviting structures, like artful benches and community bulletin boards.
Although similar programs now exist coast-to-coast, Portland remains a leader in this vibrant movement to revitalize urban spaces. Portland's City Repair initiatives include the Depave Project, which turns paved areas into greenspaces; Dignity Village, a self-governing community for Portland's homeless population; and the T-Horse, a truck that dispenses free tea to citizens who gather under its 20-foot "wings."
"These projects expose you on a fundamental level to the idea that the world can be different," says Lakeman. "The excitement is infectious."
There may be other benefits. According to a 2003 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, crime around one of Portland's renovated intersections decreased by approximately 10%, while residents' physical and mental health measurably increased.
Next week, from July 17 to 19, Madison will get a taste of the City Repair Project through a series of forums outside the new Goodman Atwood Community Center and at the Wisconsin Youth and Family Center. Lakeman will meet with local leaders and run two workshops for the general public on the use of public art to build stronger, safer and more connected neighborhoods. (For details, see www.ariesrisingproductions.com.)
Ald. Brenda Konkel praises the City Repair blueprint. "Anything we can do to keep the funky, eclectic Madison vibe alive" is worth pursuing, she says. "One of the great things about Madison is that we're not afraid of trying new things." But Konkel feels it's important to ward against excessive government involvement in such ventures.
Organizers of the Revitalizing Our Neighborhoods event are aware of at least two failed "intersection interventions" proposed by citizen groups. Both involved painting the streets with a variety of colors to create a sense of place. In one case, the Plan Commission rejected the idea; in the other, the citizen group felt there were too many restrictions and never followed through.
Lakeman's visit will kick off two fresh local City Repair attempts. One is on the city's southwest side near Elver Park; the other is in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood. Both will use a series of potlucks to bring citizens together to develop a shared vision for transforming sterile concrete landscapes into colorful, friendly environments.
Dace Zeps, president of the Worthington Neighborhood Association, says her east-side community is excited to begin this one- to two-year process. Zeps believes in the potential of public art to unite her diverse neighborhood: "Any mechanism that fosters conversation is a fantastic model to examine."