COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Power of a Ping Pong Table

May 2, 2012
Jan 7, 2018

In a post yesterday at Design Observer, Alexandra Lange voiced concern over the growing phenomenon of "Kickstarter urbanism." Lange contrasts a recent Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource the construction of a prototype skylight, to be used in the proposed "Low Line" underground park on Manhattan's Lower East Side, with a campaign to bring a ping pong table to nearby Gulick Park. The Low Line team raised $155,186--103% of its target--from 3,300 individual backers; the Gulick Park ping pong table only pulled in $2,145 from 19 people, meaning that it went completely unfunded since Kickstarter campaigns must hit their target in order for any money to change hands.

‍Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper activities can help determine how a space can be best used in the future / Photo: 1hr photo via Flickr

That means the Low Line's campaign was so successful that the extra funds alone could have financed ping pong table outright, with plenty of extra cash left over (which the Friends of Gulick Park promised on their campaign site would "go to maintenance of the table and a supply of extra paddles and balls.") As Lange points out:

If you are part of the physical community, you would be able to see the fruits of your donation [for the ping pong table] within months. [A donation to the Low Line campaign] is seed money for seed money. If the designers build a better skylight, then they might be able to attract more backers, then they might be able to make a deal with the city, and then they might be able to create whatever it is...The timeline for urban projects, the real-life approvals and the massive construction costs, are ill-suited for the Kickstarter approach.

But the success of major, long-term public space projects and immediate, short-term improvements doesn't have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, using Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategies to enliven a public space in the short term can be an extraordinarily effective way to build community support for bigger projects. LQC improvements are a great way to test out different uses for a space and get people to see the potential for change. There's a huge difference between saying "We're going to build a park on that lot over there," versus setting out some potted trees, folding chairs and tables, and organizing a few street games for local kids. It's showing versus telling--and it's much easier to build a movement by doing the former.

‍One of the eye-catching renderings that propelled the Low Line's Kickstarter campaign to success / Photo: Delancey Underground

In the case of the Low Line, doing LQC interventions on the site (an abandoned trolley terminal under Delancey Street) would be difficult, if not impossible. Dazzling renderings helped get the prototype funded by the design-savvy Kickstarter crowd, but once that work is complete and it comes time to build on-the-ground community support, locals will start asking serious questions about how they'll actually be able to use the park. At that point, beautiful images fall back into the role of telling; to show members of the community how the park might improve their lives, the project's organizers would do well to take a more hands-on approach.

Low Line co-founder Dan Barasch has been quoted as saying that "Some of the best design is to create a beautiful space and then allow the uses to come after it’s built." While we are big proponents of creating flexible public spaces, we also believe that thinking about how a space will be used before the design process begins is essential to creating a great Place. In addition to getting people excited about a project by inviting them to participate, LQC interventions have the added benefit of allowing designers to see how the local community uses its public spaces in a low-impact way that requires little capital. If something doesn't work, it's infinitely easier to revise a design on paper than to go in and try to undo a defunct idea that's already been cast in concrete.

‍The proposed site of the Low Line is to the left in blue; Gulick Park is to the right, in pink. The two sites are less than a quarter-mile apart. / Photo: Google Maps

This brings us to the power of the ping pong table. Gulick Park is one of the closest existing public spaces to the Low Line's proposed site, making it an ideal "staging area" to test out various potential uses to see what residents want to be able to do. While the Friends of Gulick Park's original Kickstarter campaign was for a permanent table, why not partner with the Low Line team to bring in a few inexpensive, impermanent tables? Test out the use, and see if it gets people excited.

Extending that idea, a series of LQC experiments--a farmer's market, a pop-up cafe, a tai chi class, an over-sized chess set--would provide the FoGP with a much larger base of potential donors for future crowdsourcing campaigns to fund permanent improvements. Beyond that, these experiments could inform the design of the nearby Low Line and build a broad, engaged base of community support that will be invaluable when it comes time to start navigating the city bureaucracy to turn a trolley terminal into a public space. The end result would be a network of high-quality public spaces for the neighborhood.

"Kickstarter urbanism" is something that can effect change at multiple levels, but it's important to take the long view, even on smaller projects. This week's episode of the 99% Invisible radio show looks at how "bigness," in architecture and urban design, only "pays off when it it uplifts people, gives them a sense of grandeur and purpose." People want to be a part of big projects that inspire them, and crowdfunding can help them feel like they have ownership in major initiatives in their city. But let's not forget: sometimes the best way to go big is to start small.


For more examples of crowdfunding sites for urbanists, check out Nate Berg's response to Lange's article at The Atlantic Cities blog.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space