The Fun Theory
I keep an eye on advertisements. Every now and again, corporations come up with good ideas that reach beyond the corporate mandate. The IBM Smarter Planet campaign we see in full page ads, for example, shows a new way of thinking.
The best and most incongruous corporate initiative I’ve seen is “The Funtheory” by Volkswagen. It’s incredibly cool. VW posts ideas from around the world that it finds “simple” and “fun” – the more fun, the more behavior changes.
What if we could make doing the right thing more fun? And what if it were creative, helped our daily lives and maybe even improved something as simple as pedestrian safety? It is possible.
My favourite “funtheory” is the staircase retrofit in Stockholm, a wonderful city with a pedestrian scale, although expensive. Have a look at this video and note the simple investment in turning a public escalator into a fitness machine shows how human behavior can change.
And along the same lines…
A recent idea cropped up in New York that takes advantage of technology change. Remember phone booths? They don’t exist anymore, at least with a phone in them. Who needs a phone booth when everyone on the planet uses a cell phone? (Recently, when I was shooting video of my walk to the grocery store for a recent post, I passed a phone booth in a gas station parking lot just three feet from Georgia Avenue. No phone in it, just the booth.)
A Columbia University architecture student has come up with a novel idea to create public interaction through books. He has devised a bookshelf that fits into the existing shape of the abandoned phone booths. He then stocked the shelves with books, available for the taking. The idea is that people can borrow books and replace them with ones they no longer want. Of the two installed, one is working great while the other had the shelves stolen.
Remember the artificial turf in downtown Silver Spring? The Turf, as it became known, was really a great urban space. It generated tremendous creativity, excitement, camaraderie and exercise. Installed as a transition before the space could be programmed as the entrance to the Civic Center, it had absolutely no design and no trees so it was cheap and inexpensive to maintain. And it became the best used open space in the county.
Not long after moving here, I stood on the walkway overlooking the Turf one evening and took in everything that was happening. The soccer players, the families having picnics well into the evening, small children trying to run away from their parents, teenagers meeting, it was a mosaic of the future of Montgomery County.
The Turf is a great idea of how something can become something completely unexpected. Another terrific example of this is one of the country’s best sculpture gardens. In St. Louis, we had a one-mile swath cut right through the downtown — a barren wasteland at the time – during the City Beautiful movement. Working with Mayor Slay, we partnered with a local nonprofit foundation whose mandate included bringing sculpture into the public realm. Thirty million dollars later (not including the art), in the heart of the city, the group pulled off the most amazing transformation of an unused green space. None of us could have imagined it. And best of all, it came at no cost to the city, even for maintenance.
The City Garden has become the place where everyone in the city comes to play. Stop by on a hot summer night and watch the children running through the fountains, swimming in the waterfalls. (Yes, swimming. Mayor Slay told me someone called to complain and ask what he was going to do about it and he responded, “Nothing.” In fact, the foundation hired lifeguards).
While some bemoan what they say is the “artificial” character of Ellsworth, nobody can deny it has become the most diverse place in the county and, possibly, the region.
Can our region become more fun? Can we step out of the governmental, rigidly designed infrastructure, programmed and efficient design to allow people to explore our public spaces? It happened in Silver Spring. I think it can happen again if we continue to look for new opportunities.