Friday, August 7, 2015

Hacking City Spaces: A Third Place On The Fourth Floor

Today’s post is about hacking city spaces to improve the third places we have in NE Wisconsin and to create new ones.

If you’re not familiar with third places, check out the Wikipedia entry, which says they’re “...the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home ("first place") and the workplace ("second place").” Or you can read The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg and his follow-up book Celebrating the Third Place.

NE Wisconsin would benefit from having more third places. We’d also benefit from better promoting those places and connecting the people who would effectively use third places to improve our communities. Some of those people are civic hackers...

Third places are relevant to civic hacking in two ways. First, creating, improving, promoting and connecting third places is a way to hack city buildings or physical space to make the community better for its residents. Second, they're relevant by virtue of being ideal gathering spots for civic hacker meetups and other civic hacking activities.

Presenting a few thoughts about third places in this post was prompted by a recent viewing of “Building a Civic Tech Ecosystem: Open Data and the Chattanooga Public Library,” the YouTube video below (you can also read the presentation on Medium).

The term ‘flexible beta space’ seems to perfectly capture the essence of a civic hacking playground and coalescing point. The first time I heard the term was when I watched the above video about the Chattanooga Fourth Floor. Flexible beta space is intended for trying new ideas in public, a concept described many years ago by the founder of Milwaukee’s Bucketworks as a physical wiki. In his blog post about the Chattanooga Fourth Floor, Nate Hill says,
“ Chattanooga, TN...the fourth floor of the downtown public a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts. It is a responsive community platform that features services shaped by the creative and technological needs of the citizens of Chattanooga. The more than 12,000 sq foot space hosts equipment, expertise, programs, events, and meetings that work within this scope... 
The 4th Floor also functions as the library’s “beta space”, a public space where we prototype new services and solutions before implementing them across the library building and system. This iterative approach to service design allows us to rapid prototype new ideas in a risk-friendly environment. On the 4th Floor, you’ll find library staff solving library service delivery problems right alongside community members using the tools and space to solve their own problems. Those tools include vinyl cutters, laser cutters, 3d printers, and more... 
The 4th Floor is an ongoing experiment...”
We need places in NE Wisconsin like the Chattanooga Fourth Floor. Every civic hacker can visualize participating in one of the community spheres shown on the diagram above, or creating a new sphere that lives in and expands from the third place.

Gangplank is a collaborative coworking and event space which has much in common with Chattanooga’s Fourth Floor. Originally launched in Chandler, AZ, Ganglplank describes itself as,

“...a group of connected individuals and small businesses creating an economy of innovation and creativity. We envision a new economic engine comprised of collaboration and community, in contrast to silos and secrecy. We have the talent. We just need to work together. Different environments need to overlap, to connect and to interact in order to transform our culture...This new economy cannot thrive without engaging the larger business, creative, entrepreneurial, governmental, and technical communities together. We believe that innovation breeds innovation. We will transform our culture into one supportive of the entrepreneurial spirit, of risk taking, of pioneering into the unknown territories as the founders of our municipalities once did. This requires education, entrepreneurship and creative workspaces. 
What makes Gangplank unique is that we are run off social capital. This means that every member of our community contributes to make Gangplank what it is. We do not charge a monetary fee, but rather ask that you give back through time, talent, and relationships. Gangplankers give back both by engaging the person at the desk next to them and by engaging in their city...Gangplankers disrupt the status quo and create better communities…”
Affiliating with Gangplank or leveraging their operating model is one option for creating new third places in NE Wisconsin. I’d be happy to make the initial connection with Gangplank if others in our region feel we need places like that here.

A variant of the Gangplank concept is a hybrid coworking facility proposal I’ve developed which has a major focus on providing working space for the emerging category of 21st century independent and remote workers. This is a physical facility with two sections; (1) a third place public portion of the facility with free-admission and open to community activists, independent thinkers and civic hackers, and (2) a private coworking portion for remote and independent workers who pay a membership fee. The building and infrastructure costs of the hybrid coworking facility public section are funded by a coalition of corporations, government, and other organizations who see high value in the community benefits of the space. As with Gangplank, user contribution to the public portion would be social capital, contributed through “time, talent, and relationships.” Expenses in the private section of the facility, other than building expenses, are covered by remote and independent worker paid memberships. A key component of the hybrid coworking space is an effective program to build community and serendipitous interactions between public space users and the remote and independent workers. A space like this will be an effective economic development tool, regional knowledge hub, and catalyst for community improvement activities.

Yet Another Civic Hack related to flexible beta spaces is the [freespace] concept, ‘a temporary space for lasting change.’ According to their website:
A [freespace] is a gathering place for people to come together, to create, teach, learn, and share the things which they are truly passionate about, and strengthen connections between individuals as well as communities through art, events, and long term projects. 
[freespace] began in June 2013, inspired by the National Day of Civic Hacking when a building was gifted to the community for just $1. The radically low barrier to entry and open door policy lead to a hugely diverse range of people from different cultural, economic, and professional backgrounds connecting and creating projects together such as a free bike share, maker classes for people in homeless shelters, and a community garden.
To date, [freespace] has hosted over 300 free events, seen more than 30 murals, fostered 4 long-term projects within San Francisco, and instigated an immeasurable amount of inspiration, collaboration, and solidarity within the communities it has touched.”
There are unlimited ways to do a [freespace] civic hack in NE Wisconsin. Two of them to get your brain sparking and creating other possibilities are:

  1. Using MODS International shipping containers: -- These containers can be designed for various types of neighborhood or downtown [freespace] hacks. It’s cool that we’ve got a resource like MODS International right here in NE Wisconsin / Appleton. We should utilize their expertise and products for hacks like Mobile Makerspaces, Neighborhood Art Galleries, Youth Creativity Expos, etc.
  2. Empty Building Enhancement (EBE) -- A philanthropic building owner or a consortium of our region’s cities and companies could ‘gift an unused building to the community,’ similar to the original [freespace]. There are many buildings around NE Wisconsin that have been empty for a long time and aren’t going to be leased or sold in the near future. We could even develop a program for community revitalization and beautification of empty buildings as a marketing technique. The community will benefit from having fewer unattractive empty (and slightly unkempt) buildings and will have temporary use of the space for art or other creative endeavors. If we can connect commercial realtors with civic-minded building owners and innovative city governments, a NE Wisconsin [freespace] program could become a national pilot program to show the rest of the US how to turn a region's 20th century liabilities into 21st century assets. A veritable treasure trove of flexible beta spaces…

The Flat Shoals/Bouldercrest neighborhood improvement project, is another flexible beta space intended for trying new ideas in public.
The project is ambitious: a playground, a community garden, a dog park, an outdoor movie screen, a community hearth and a pop-up bar at the corners of Flat Shoals and Bouldercrest roads — all to be built by residents in about a month’s time. 
As far as what that intersection looks like now? “Parking lots without cars,” Matt Garbett, a community outreach consultant, said succinctly...This intersection sports two convenience stores and a barbershop nearby, but other than that, it’s mostly empty buildings and a whole lot of broken asphalt. This improvement project, led and funded through the office of Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, hopes to fix that by having residents build the amenities they want, themselves... 
“By doing it low-cost and temporary, you’re testing it ... as opposed to spending money on structures then that could maybe not be used...That’s why the amenities at this intersection will be built to be temporary, out of mostly found materials...all you really need is to buy is some rope, some paint and some bolts to hold it together and you can build it for 50 bucks,” he says. Then, if the residents do use the playground, the dog park and the rest, it’s up to them to talk with the property owners and the city about replacing each temporary structure with the real thing... 
Marie Dietz-Meyer...says she hopes the new park will do more than improve the intersection's looks. “I feel like a lot of us don’t really intermix with our current neighbors because of, you know, whatever, different backgrounds, and I think [the new park] will be a good place to kind of get together and get to know everybody and maybe see that we’re all the same...”
PopUp City has an inspiring article which I mentioned in “Guerrilla Civic Hacks: Onomatopoeia & Tweeting Potholes, DIY Urbanism.” European civic hackers and the German home improvement company Hornbach collaborated on building creative public spaces, promoiting “DIY urbanism, a way of fixing up your street or neighborhood in the bid to make it a more pleasant place to live.” We could work with Fleet Farm, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware or similar companies to harness the power of neighborhood creativity. At the same time we’re building public flexible beta spaces, we will be building personal relationships and civic engagement.

Hornbach DIY Urbanism
If a person searches online, they’re likely to find truly amazing things being done in other cities and regions to support third place concepts like Chattanooga’s Fourth Floor. There may be a website that lists all those places in our area and the cool things going on at them, but I’m not aware of such a site. Which means, of course, that developing a list of NE Wisconsin’s community third places and building a website to give them more visibility is another civic hack waiting to happen.

The major challenges for an effective third places initiative in NE Wisconsin are:
  1. Third places don’t have an easily-quantifiable payback or business model and need strong community support from civic-minded community leaders (i.e. support that leads to funding).
  2. We don’t have low-cost gigabit fiber Internet connections, an empty library fourth floor, or a mayor strongly supportive of third places (like Chattanooga).
  3. We don’t have strong collaborative high tech business community support for third places such as Gangplank (like Chandler, AZ).
  4. Civic hackers and the TIME community (tech, innovators, makers, entrepreneurs) are not yet strongly supported by the region or by individual cities in the area.
Vibrant, versatile, and sustainable third places which will benefit and improve countless communities across America might be an unachievable utopian dream. But if the right people connect and work together, a new generation of connected and collaborative third places throughout NE Wisconsin is an achievable future.


If anyone interested in third places contacts me, I’ll write another post to clearly define their benefits and to suggest Next Steps to create more third places in NE Wisconsin.


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