Friday Night Lights yields lessons in building community in Charlotte, N.C.

communities / Article

Image courtesy of No Barriers Project.

Chisun Rees is a graduate student at Parsons The New School for Design, which is piloting an Urban Prototyping Lab funded by Knight Foundation to help make cities better places to live.

The No Barriers Project, just announced as a winner of the 2015 Knight Cities Challenge, held its highly anticipated Friday Night Lights event at Anita Stroud Park in Charlotte last week. The project identifies physical barriers between diverse communities that may act as real and symbolic divides, and encourages communities to work together to connect, create and celebrate within that space.

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"Knight Cities Challenge winner connects people rebuilding Detroit" by Julie Edgar, 04/02/15 "Knight Cities Challenge awards $5 million for ideas to make cities more successful" -- press release, 3/31/2015

Winners list on KnightCities.org

Anita Stroud Park is located in the north end of Charlotte. It hugs a winding creek and flanks Double Oaks Road, a major thoroughfare between the neighborhoods of Brightwalk, Genesis Park, and Park at Oaklawn. Massive boulders and orange street dividers physically divide the neighborhoods, and the park also acts as a barrier—both a physical and symbolic one. Friday Night Lights was a pilot that sought to bring the neighborhoods together through play and conversation.

It all began in January with a Knight Foundation-sponsored workshop in New York run by the design firm IDEO. Earlier this year Knight announced funding for Parsons The New School of Design to pilot an Urban Prototyping Lab that would work with residents from Charlotte and Detroit.

During the workshop, city of Charlotte employees (Sarah Hazel, Alysia Osborne and Eugene Bradley) and graduate students from Parsons (Aran Baker, James Clotfelter, Laura Dusi, Rachael Fried, Bernardo Loureiro, and me) developed the idea with representatives from IDEO (Lawrence Abrahamson, Eleanor Morgan and Njoki Gitahi). Planning continued throughout February and March, and it all came together last week.

Image courtesy of No Barriers Project.

We invited neighbors to gather in the park (connect), transform the existing space through glowing modular blocks and games (create) and enjoy catered food and music together (celebrate). For three hours before and after sunset, residents of all ages interacted with the various components of the event. A camera attached to a 5-foot-wide red balloon hovered above to broadcast the event to a screen in the park (thanks to Adam Griffith from the University of North Carolina and Public Lab, a multiple winner of the Knight News Challenge). The various forms of light, from a set of luminous building blocks to glowing foam props and finger lights, attracted residents to come and reclaim their shared space at night. The 36 custom modular blocks (built by Mighty Mallet in Brooklyn) were moved, arranged into games, rearranged, stacked into forts, propped up as benches and tables, and drawn on by residents of all ages. The contagiousness of play made itself evident as one activity led to another.

The residents not only had the opportunity to leave their personal mark through these activities, but they were also encouraged to leave feedback on the event, their perceptions of the park, the neighborhoods, and the challenges and possibilities in overcoming barriers. The No Barriers Project is proud to have had the opportunity to engage with the city of Charlotte in such a unique way and to test an idea that residents embraced. As they made their way home Friday night, many asked when the next event would take place. Now, thanks to the Knight Cities Challenge, that work will continue and the neighbors will have new ways to connect, create and celebrate.

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