The Art of Change

One way innovative cities helped curb homelessness? Parking meters.
June 13, 2014 AT 6:00 PM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

One of the most creative repurposed parking meters is displayed in Chattanooga's City Hall. (Richard Beeland)

Cities can demonstrate their most creative and innovative talents when attempting to resolve the most persistent and discouraging problems. Among these, homelessness remains one of the more frustrating issues facing urban America.

It doesn't take long to learn that homelessness is a multi-faceted problem. It's not just the most-visible "street people,” but also homeless families, children and veterans. It is people with mental illness and those who are simply down on their luck. Add to that the temporarily homeless and the chronically homeless and it becomes even more complicated. 
Over time, cities have devised ways to address the problem with a variety of programs. But since the soup kitchens of the Great Depression and the tent cities of the economic downturn, with handouts and programs offering "a hand up" and shelters advocating "housing first,” cities and charities continue to wrestle with the immensity of the issue. 
To avoid getting lost in this complexity, let's consider a small but visible part of the problem: people panhandling downtown. One of the more creative ideas to address this issue was devised some years ago by Baltimore when it found itself with complaints about downtown panhandlers, a lack of money for homeless programs and a surplus of old parking meters. The idea of placing old parking meters throughout downtowns and encouraging people to contribute their pocket change instead of giving it to panhandlers practically went viral. Soon, "panhandling" parking meters were popping up across America.
In Chattanooga, our creative community took that idea and developed a new one: using old meters as street art. A competition among local artists produced numerous examples of colorful, highly decorative artwork based on retired parking meters. One of the works was so creative -- a colorful replica of a stylized “Chattanooga Choo Choo” locomotive with a parking meter rising out of the stack -- that it remains on display in the ground floor of Chattanooga City Hall.
Due to the creative energy generated by "The Art of Change,” as it came to be known, public interest and participation in the program increased and the community had to decide how to use the money. Taking the innovation a step further, other creative souls suggested earmarking the funds for homeless transportation, specifically to repair donated bicycles and give them to homeless individuals that needed a simple, no-cost way to get around. That is what was done and it worked well.
This is a great example of a chain of innovation as cities work to address common problems. In this case, the depressing and intractable problem of homelessness was addressed using diverse and seemingly unrelated ideas in colorful and creative ways.  The result was success. 
Note: I wish I could say that all lived happily ever after, but after many months on the street, the parking meters of "The Art of Change" succumbed to an unrelenting problem with theft and vandalism. Although the project may have ended, the spirit of inspiration and innovation remains to spark the next great idea.
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.