An interview with Leemor Chandally of URBAN SPACEship
After URBAN SPACEship, a group for action-oriented urbanists in New York, invited us to come and chat with them late last year, we got to talking about ways to work together. As it turns out, the timing was fortuitous: the group’s creator, Leemor Chandally, was looking for a platform that could help gather some of the ideas that were generated during the group’s monthly meetings, and find a project that members could collaborate on and implement.
What led you to create the URBAN SPACEship group?
I created the group through MeetUp in early 2012. It was shortly after I moved back to New York after living abroad for several years, and it was really a way for me to meet people who are involved in planning, design, and urbanism. It came out of both a need that I personally was looking to fill, and also a need that I saw for a forum where people with these interests could meet and talk.
And what kind of topics has the group discussed at past meetings?
The meetings have ranged in terms of the topics, but for the most part focused on public space and placemaking. The first was at the Project for Public Spaces, and we talked about Placemaking. I had reached out to PPS because I had been following their work for years and they had been an exemplary organization for Placemaking, for me, which didn’t really exist in Tel Aviv, where I was living. At the first meeting, people felt really inspired by seeing all of these projects PPS was working on and their approach to improving public space. It was actually really hard to get people to leave at the end! People were excitedly discussing and sharing ideas of what they could do.
At our second meeting, we talked about Tactical Urbanism with the Street Plans Collaborative’s Mike Lydon. That was the first time we actually had the meeting in a public space; we met at Putnam Plaza in Clinton Hill. The topic of Tactical Urbanism sort of followed up on what we were talking about at PPS with the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach – smaller-scale community-driven projects that have the potential to have a significant impact and lead to long term solutions. After Mike’s presentation, the group moved over to a bar. Again, everyone was just buzzing with ideas, and sharing ideas, and talking about what we wanted to do. We met around 6:30, and we didn’t leave until around 10:30! For me, that was really amazing to see, what can happen when you bring people of various backgrounds and similar interests together. A lot of the members are people with day jobs, and they’re looking for an alternative way to meet people, some kind of platform where they can share ideas and potentially work together.
I’ve really enjoyed the fact that most of the gatherings have been in public space. I’ve seen more ideas being inspired that way. Talking about public space when you’re sitting in it, and experiencing it, naturally brings things out that you wouldn’t get sitting in a closed room. We had an interactive model-building workshop with urban planner James Rojas in Tompkins Square Park to re-imagine the park, and worked in teams to improve it. The end results were so imaginative and creative, having had the immediate surroundings as our source of reference. At another MeetUp at the Highline, where we talked about urban interventions, we had random passersby stop and join us, which was so unexpectedly awesome.
So now you’re taking the next step, and posing this question on Neighborland to take the group from ideas to action. Is it something that you had foreseen, that you would want to take it in this direction?
This was something that I had as a goal from the beginning, and I thought that getting people together, with a different person involved in urban planning each time to come and lead the discussion, was a good start. There were so many great ideas that came up during the meetings for potential collaborative projects, and great connections made betweens the members, though what seemed to be a challenge was to keep that momentum going. So teaming up with Neighborland on this project is the first step of really harnessing that creative energy to head toward something more active, and turn these ideas that people are sharing at events into collaborative projects.
There’s a range of ways for people to get involved in their neighborhoods, from top-down organizations to individual choices and actions. Do you think there are unique benefits or drawbacks to something semi-formal like this, a self-organized group trying to work together on implementing something?
I think that a great benefit of something semi-formal like this is that it creates a platform for this kind of citizen-generated work to take place, and the opportunity for people to connect with others who share similar interests and directly get involved in implementing their own ideas.
On top of that, I think most people don’t want to do it alone. They want to work together. Community-led projects are really gaining momentum, and I think that’s really inspiring because it shows people that, “Hey, those people did it, and I could emulate what they did, or do something similar.”
It hardly seems like a coincidence that the question that you’re asking is about getting more people to connect with each other. Can you talk a bit about why you chose to go in that direction?
First of all, so much life happens in public space. What I enjoy most about living in a city are those chance interactions you have with people when you’re walking down the street, or just hanging out in a park or a square. I think that a lot of innovation comes out of that too. It’s where people exchange ideas and information. A common thread in the different ideas that I’ve heard from the urbanists in the MeetUp group has been the desire to create more social interactions. The question itself also lends itself well to Neighborland. I wanted to ask something that would attract different people from different neighborhoods, with a variety of different ideas. And ultimately, increasing socialization in public space just seems like something that a lot of people are interested in doing. I think we’re all always looking for those connections with other people.
URBAN SPACEship wants to know: How would you encourage social interaction in your neighborhood’s public spaces?
Share your idea today, chat about others that you’re interested in, and then join us in New York on February 20th, when we’ll have a group discussion of the dialog online, choose a project, and create a plan for implementation this March!