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Design Contest to Re-Imagine Public Space in Chicago

chicago skylineBy Marisa Novara

"Try and leave this world a little better than you found it." This message, coined by Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell, undergirds many efforts by ordinary residents to transform their communities every day. In an effort to learn more about the many ways people are making the world a little better than they found it, the  Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) recently held the Space in Between contest, which showcased more than 40 ways to transform an eyesore into a community asset.

Another source of these ideas that MPC has come to look forward to every year is the annual ACTIVATE! Design Competition, a partnership with Chicago Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) as part of their innovative Make Way for People initiative, and Architecture for Humanity–Chicago. The contest challenges entrants to design objects that can activate a vacant site, is universally accessible, and fosters multi-generational community interaction. The fourth annual competition is currently underway, focusing on four areas across the city: Old Town, Pilsen, Woodlawn and East Garfield Park. The ACTIVATE! competition has no fees, and entries can be submitted by anyone: professional designers, art students, even passerby or casual observers. Participants are not limited to Chicago residents, and are open to anyone with ideas for creative contributions.

Winning project designs are showcased for one year, with a possibility to become a permanent addition to the Chicago landscape. Previous winners have been featured in Landscape World, CS Magazine, Chicago Ideas Week, and the Venice Biennale. Businesses can participate in ACTIVATE! by way of sponsorship, production, or promotional support.

Katherine Darnstadt, Founder and Principal Designer of LATENT DESIGN and an ACTIVATE! partner, said her favorite part of the process is working directly with the communities and seeing the broad array of designs that come in from all over the world. This project shows how public space interactions are not isolated. "It's been very interesting…during the jury process you get a very strong debate – entries rise to the top because there is something very visceral and honest about them," said Darnsdadt.

Although the ACTIVATE! competition sites are all located in Chicago, the impact reaches far beyond. Darnsdadt hopes that this year's entrants reflect the geographically diverse interest in great places. After the contest, a toolkit will be created to show how this model can be implemented in any region – local or international.
We look forward to following this project, and seeing the entry submissions. Entries are due March 15, 2013. For more information on ACTIVATE! visit the competition website at and follow along on Twitter @AFHChicago #WhatDoYouSee #ACTIVATE.

 MPC Research Assistant Christina Scordia authored this post.