Knight Cities Challenge finalists tout pop-ups, toolkits

Miami's 'Underline' park below an elevated rail corridor was a winner in the last Knight Cities Challenge. In this year's challenge, another 144 ideas from 26 U.S. cities are finalists to win a share of $5 million in prize money. (Friends of the Underline)

Sometimes the best urban innovation ideas are the simplest ones.

The 144 finalists selected for the third annual Knight Cities Challenge generally favor solutions that are low-cost and agile, allowing city leaders to easily engage with a particular demographic or neighborhood.

Pop-ups of all kinds are popular. Other recurrent themes involve creative repurposing of public space and easy-to-use toolkits for citizens.

The finalists, announced today, were selected from among more than 4,500 applicants. The winners, to be announced later this year, will share a US$5 million in prize money to execute the ideas.

Sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the contest strives to make the 26 U. S. communities where the philanthropy invests better places to live and work.

Boulder, Colorado, proposes pop-ups in the form of tiny parks, or “parklets,” and bike racks with seating areas. Detroit envisions temporary city planning offices in neighborhood locations to help people connect with municipal staffers about design ideas.

Other pop-ups would feature everything from a Latin-American themed plaza to playgrounds, swimming events and arts installations.

Several cities aim to retain and engage young adults, or welcome them back home from a stay somewhere else.

Detroit would send teenagers “citizenship kits” when they turn 18 to educate them about voting responsibilities. Long Beach, California, would teach underserved youth urban farming skills. A “Welcome to Wichita” program in Kansas would assist young professionals returning to the city.

Casual dining also figures prominently in the proposals. Charlotte, North Carolina, wants to offer food trucks and entertainment at early-voting polling places to increase citizen participation in elections. Separately, the city would use shared meals to foster dialogue among residents.

San Jose, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, each would use food trucks to help bring people together in public spaces.

A few cities recommend ways to bridge isolated communities divided by barriers such as highways. Akron, Ohio, would replace an obtrusive freeway with green, public space. Wichita wants to use murals to connect disparate communities intersected by an industrial zone.

Among the other highlights:

  • To strengthen community bonds with police officers, Philadelphia would add places for residents to gather and children to play outside of police stations.
  • Bradenton, Florida, would train locals on how to run for political office.
  • Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, would reimagine the Statehouse as a “front porch” with public seating, events and shared public workspace.
  • Milledgeville, Georgia, proposes a mobile voting booth to better engage the community about local issues and referenda.
  • Tallahassee, Florida, proposes “tactical urban toolkits” that would serve as quick resources for improving neighborhoods.

The three-year, US$15 million commitment by the Knight Foundation was announced in the fall of 2014. The foundation named a total of 69 winning ideas during the first two years of the challenge. Read about the 2016 finalists here.

In the latest round, applicants were encouraged to propose solutions that would help their respective cities boost talent, economic opportunity or civic engagement.

A few proposals are designed to be adopted by multiple cities. A “Creative Cities Lab” would explore ways to make communities more equitable. The workshops would feature appearances by decision makers, entrepreneurs, activists and innovators. To promote public engagement, cities would launch online platforms that would provide updates about public meetings and legislation.

For a round-up of all 144 proposals, click here.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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