I got goose bumps watching giant paper mache creatures come to life, limited only by their creator’s imagination. It was the 8th annual Festifools, an event that takes place on the first Sunday of April to celebrate April Fool’s Day.  For one hour, these majestic puppets marched to the beat of music up and down Main Street, often stopping to interact with the throngs of spectators.  Although it is a well-orchestrated event requiring hundreds of hours of preparation, the beauty of it is that it has the look and feel of a random, spontaneous, “let’s get together” street party that brings out people of all ages.

Festifools photo 1Mark Tucker, a University of Michigan art teacher to mostly non-art majors, was searching for a novel way to bring his students together with community members to create something unique and exciting for his “Art in Public Spaces” course.  The result was the Street Theather Art (START) project.  Through his work with a neighborhood theater group, he got the idea to create a student puppet-making workshop assisted by community volunteers which would culminate at the semester’s end with a public parade in downtown Ann Arbor.  With the whole concept not really clear in his head, and not knowing if they could even really deliver, his encouraging talks with the business community and the city spurred him on – and Festifools was born.  Because of its enormous popularity, a second event was added:  FoolMoon, a nighttime luminary festival that takes place on the Friday night before the Festifools parade.

Tucker saw the importance of actively encouraging students to work with the community and used his students to bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way creating an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Festifools - clownsCultural Economic Development is one of the 8 assets that the League has identified to help create desirable and unique places to live.  It’s an event like Festifools that not only brings people together, but contributes to the long-term economic health of a community and region.

The League had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the studio where the puppets are made as well as participate in one of the several workshops held downtown that invites the community to come in and make their own luminary.  We had a chance to hear all about this creative experience from Tucker himself and we will be telling his story in more detail in the future.  For now, check out the video and get a flavor of what these majestic puppets have to offer.  I promise that you’ll get goose bumps too!

As I travel around to different cities and places, my camera is always ready to capture that “aha” moment.  You probably have things in your own back yard, but don’t see them because you walk by them every day.  But slow down your pace sometime, become more mindful and ask yourself what are the things that put a smile on your face or think about why you choose to walk on a certain side of the street.   You might be amazed what you discover.  It could be as simple as flower plantings, a pocket park, or a sign that makes you feel welcomed.  It is these things that cultivate the emotional attachment that we feel for a place or our hometown.

ann-arbor-kerry-town Ann Arbor, Michigan The KerryTown area is one of my favorite spots in Ann Arbor, and its courtyard, in my humble opinion, is one of the best gathering places in the city.  Adding to its cozy feel and vibrancy, is a new vegan restaurant called The Lunch Room (which just made the leap from one of Mark’s Carts to brick and mortar), which has placed a few tables outside, along with some very nice “hanging” plants that actually look like they are framed.  Again, it’s a simple idea, but a powerful statement that adds to the overall “place” of the courtyard.
minneapolis-alley Minneapolis, Minnesota – This restaurant managed to eke out an intimate little space between two buildings which only measures about 10 feet, creating a cozy outdoor restaurant experience.
zurich-umbrellas Zurich, Switzerland   As you approach this venue (Gerolds Garten), you might feel a bit like Mary Poppins with the “floating” umbrellas overhead as they seemingly guide you along with child-like glee.
marquette-dog-hitching-post Marquette, Michigan – I love seeing dog bowls outside of stores and restaurants – and I don’t even have a dog!  However, Marquette went a step further to provide a dog hitching post outside the restaurant L’Attitude Cafe and Bistro.  To me, this speaks volumes about a community’s welcoming and open spirit.
Valet parking in Vancouver Vancouver, BC – Talk about a bike friendly city!  This sign says it all.
bryant-park-sign New York City – Signage can say a lot about a community.  Here’s a sign at Bryant Park which lets you know the rules without trying to take away the experience.
piano-paul-revere-park Boston, Massachusetts -  Nothing like an invitation to sit down and play the piano in Paul Revere park!  (Although I play the piano, I was not tempted to play!)

 

IMG_0434When I think of great transit, I think of European cities.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have a few good examples in our own country, but the best examples seem to be overseas, countries that have been investing less in cars and more in all forms of transit for decades.   One can hardly take a small country like Switzerland, enveloped in a mountainous landscape, with a population less than Michigan (8 million people) and 4 official languages, and compare it to parts of our own vast country, much less Michigan, right?  Wrong!  In a truly global world where cultural and fashion trends no longer take months or years to ignite, the world is at our fingertips for inspiration, ideas, and innovation.  Good ideas can be reimagined and fitted to fill our own communities’ unique needs.

I have been visiting Switzerland since my sister moved there over 40 years ago.  With a whole collection of nieces, nephews-in law and great-nieces now, my visits always bring an outpouring of new sites, sounds, and experiences.

I recently returned from just one of those visits.  Although it was 15 days of vacation, “work” was never far behind.  As part of the staff at the Michigan Municipal League  that has worked on place-based projects for several years now, I bring a heightened awareness to places.  Whether I’m experiencing some place new, or retracing the old, I always walk away with new perspectives.

IMG_0468Switzerland has an amazing interconnected, integrated transit system that connects all modes of transportation.  I spent several days in the Engadine, an area located in the southeastern part of Switzerland. From Winterthur, (located northeast of Zurich, 18 minutes by train) it took 2 buses and 3 trains to get me to the small village of Soglio, using only one ticket!  The experience was flawless.  I had one minute between buses and slightly more between trains, bringing me to my destination at the anticipated moment of arrival.* No one should expect anything less in the home of the world renown watch makers!

Zurich – City Transport Plan 2025
As the largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is ranked as having one of the highest qualities of life in the world and although it has a growing creative economy, it is probably best known as a financial center.  It is a beautiful, picturesque city of 390,000 people, (1.68 in the metropolitan area), hosting about 16 million day visitors per year.

Many train stations in Switzerland provide double deck parking for bicycles.

Many train stations in Switzerland provide double deck parking for bicycles.

What is already considered one of the best multi-modal systems in the world, Zurich continues to challenge itself to meet the needs of its ever changing transport needs. The Urban Transport Plan 2025 (Stadtverkehr 2025) was launched to promote a non-motorized transport environment that promotes efficient use of urban resources through public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle traffic.  One of the central components is a Bicycle Master Plan.  Some of the key targets include: doubling the number of bicycle trips by 2025; safety for both the bike riders and the drivers; and increasing the use of bicycles as a means of transit to include all age groups.  This will be achieved through a variety of actions including: improved bike infrastructure, i.e. a network of continuous bike routes; a communication plan to raise awareness; and motivate all ages to use a bike through training programs.   (In September, there will be a “multi mobile weekend” with info stands set up.)

Velokafi picture in ZurichA creative approach to promoting the overall Bicycle Masterplan is a pilot project that took place in April at the Rathaus Café, a popular destination in Zurich.  The project is called the Bicycle Café or (Velokafi) which rolled in two docking stations, (cost is about $5,300 per station) designed to allow for  the front wheel of the bike and raised platforms to rest the feet on either side. One can enjoy breakfast and coffee without getting off the bike!  (Think drive-in restaurant, only for bicycles!)Although this was only temporary, more pilot stations will be introduced in other locations in the fall.  I was able to make contact with the Evelyne Richiger, Project Manager of Communication for the City of  Zurich, who oversees this project.  She considers the pilot project a great success because it brought a huge awareness of cycling to the city, inviting extensive media coverage in Switzerland and abroad.  The project was  promoted through Facebook and blogs and received requests from Japan, the U.S., Poland, Holland, and Germany, to name a IMG_0399few.  The downside to the initial project was rainy weather which discouraged bicyclists, and a lack of comfort in the “saddle”, according to the journalists.   Also, rules for outdoor areas of restaurants are strict in Zurich.  For a one person bike station, you have to take away at least one table (for 4 people).   Because of this, there has been some hesitancy on behalf of other cafes to participate.  However, Cafe Odeon has volunteered to be the next pilot project that will take place on September 21 and 22.

An idea for some of our cities?  Absolutely!  I will stay abreast of the development of this project and keep you informed of its progress.

 

*I’ve often told this story, but it is a great illustration of this country’s disinvestment in our rail transit systems.  My niece visiting from Switzerland, was in Chicago with her companion who had never been to this country before.  They were traveling by train to Ann Arbor, when it broke down in Kalamazoo.  Having to complete the journey by bus, I picked up two very tired travelers several hours later.  I was in the dubious position of apologizing for this embarrassing mishap!

 

IMG_2461Pop-up placemaking is all about light, quick, cheap and often temporary ways to energize and activate a public space. It can take many forms, and a coworker and I saw a perfect example today in Ann Arbor: the Sonic Lunch.

It was an absolutely pristine, beautiful summer day, when getting out in the sun and fresh air for a few minutes can completely wash away those midday office blahs.  At first only a few dozen people lingered around the shaded benches of the small downtown park. But soon, hundreds were clustered there, lured in by the sound of acoustic guitars and melodic vocals drifting across the breeze beneath the trees.

There were families pushing baby strollers, retirees in shorts and sun visors, students in t-shirts and sandals, office workers in khakis and button-down cotton shirts. And every one of them was smiling.IMG_2462

If this isn’t what pop-up placemaking is all about, I don’t know what is.

Sonic Lunch started in 2008, sponsored by the Bank of Ann Arbor. It’s a free summer outdoor concert series in the park at the corner of Liberty and Division in downtown Ann Arbor (a few blocks to the east of Main).

The free concerts typically run from noon to 1:30 pm every Thursday from early June to late August. The live bands run the gamut from alt-indie to Motown. Today’s music was Family of the Year, a popular indie band hailing from Los Angeles.

The pop-up project was the result of a collaboration between the Bank of Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Radio-107.7 fm. The station’s morning DJ Martin Bandyke hosts the concerts and promotes them on-air.

Besides providing a great sense of spontaneous community and cultural enrichment, the event is an economic boost to the downtown area. Each week, a different local restaurant is onsite selling Sonic Lunch, while other restaurants might offer special discounts for those who want to pick up something to carry in to the park.

Perich Advertising & Design, a local advertising agency, contributes the annual design of Sonic Lunch posters, banners, t-shirts, and stickers to help keep the event self-supporting and able to bring in both national and international acts of a caliber one might not expect to find at a free outdoor concert.IMG_2534

By the time we left, it felt as if lunch hour had been a tiny little summer vacation wedged into the middle of our day. And it made me feel lucky to work in Ann Arbor, where something like a Sonic Lunch is a regular part of the cultural landscape.

One small afterthought: I believe the park is also the same spot that hosted Occupy Wall Street last year, so obviously Ann Arbor’s city leaders are open to creative ideas on the use of public spaces. Kudos all around!