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Foundation Funds Fresh Ideas for Urban Living

From "houselets" to "regional play days," the Knight Foundation is giving $5 million to people or organizations around the country with new ideas to improve cities.

Tiny homes in Washington, D.C.
Tiny homes in Washington, D.C. "Houselets" would basically be tiny homes set up in parking lots, corporate campuses or practically anywhere there's underutilized space.
(FlickrCC/Inhabitat Blog)
Once in a while, Alyssa Dodd will take a few minutes with a coworker, stepping away from their computers and heading outside to talk about issues that are important but don't always come up as part of the daily workflow.

That same sort of informal conversation, she believes, could take place between municipal employees and members of the public. "Maybe the challenge here is for us to take 10 [minutes] and connect with people outside the city government," said Dodd, a senior public information specialist with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services in North Carolina. "We do a lot of engagement, but this is a different take on it."

Dodd is about to have the chance to put her idea to the test. She has just received a $74,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The foundation on Tuesday announced the 32 winners of its Knight Cities Challenge, which solicited ideas from anyone -- individuals, businesses, governments and nonprofits -- for making cities work better. The foundation is giving out a total of $5 million to support projects in 12 of the 26 cities where the Knights owned newspapers and the foundation is most active.

"The competition was for ideas that used place to accelerate talent opportunity and engagement," said Carol Coletta, a Knight vice president. "They may not be scaled, they may not be duplicated, but we felt in each case they could teach us something we did not already know."

Tim McCormick is glad to get the money -- in his case, $40,000 -- but he said Knight's blessing alone will be valuable. The Bay Area-based designer is promoting the idea of "houselets" -- small, modular dwellings that can be set up in parking lots, corporate campuses or anywhere there's underutilized or unused space.

"The other San Jose winner is the San Jose Downtown Association, a long-established part of the community, while I'm a newcomer product," McCormick said. "For me, it's a great boost."

Lots of the winners are akin to McCormick -- people or organizations who have come up with a fresh approach to familiar urban conundrums. In the mix are projects that will convert a vacant property into a hostel and culture center run by members of the Bhutanese community in Akron, Ohio; create an umbrella organization to coordinate efforts among park volunteer groups in Macon, Ga.; and bring people out for a "regional play day" one Saturday each season in Minneapolis.

The idea is to get residents to try an activity that maybe they've never experienced before, said Peter Frosch, vice president of Greater MSP, the economic development agency in the Twin Cities.

It will be a lot more fun than everybody in town reading the same book, he said.

The Twin Cities are at the heart of a vibrant region, but officials there still have a sales job to do. Greater MSP hopes that by showcasing people having fun in all kinds of weather -- and sharing their pictures and video on social media and other platforms -- it will convince skeptics not to worry so much about the cold.

Otherwise, given lack of growth among the population of working-age adults in the region, the area could fall 100,000 short of the number of workers it will require in just a few short years, Frosch said.

Greater MSP is receiving a $117,000 grant for its initiative. "If we want different outcomes, we need to experiment with different approaches," Frosch said.

That is clearly the operating principle behind the Knight challenge, which winnowed down its winners from more than 7,000 applicants. Some ideas are variations on familiar themes, while others -- like Dodd's and McCormick's -- are unusual.

"I hear we can convert parking into parklets, why not housing?" McCormick recalled asking one day during a meeting with the San Francisco mayor's office of civic innovation.

The need is great in the pricey Bay Area. He's now devoting himself full-time to the project. McCormick admitted that some people find the idea of living in the amount of space that would normally taken up by a car "strange," but he points out that his cubes can be coupled and configured to offer a variety of total living areas and arrangements.

"There are loads of websites for alternative housing," McCormick said. "For me, it's time to move past thinking and start to do concrete, tangible things."

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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