In Miami, Weed Whacking as Protest Art

Tired of asking the government to tend to sidewalk overgrowth, a group of friends took matters into their own hands

Image
Courtesy Grant Stern

A group of friends in Miami have had enough of overgrown weeds on vacant lots and public property – particularly sidewalks – in their neighborhood, chronically neglected by city maintenance crews. Their solution? Spray paint those babies.

Not that they haven’t been artistic about it, on their stealth midnight missions to draw attention to the weeds with bright colors. But spray paint they have. The weeds, not the sidewalk. And judging from the photos, their work actually looks pretty good.

I suppose we can consider this a branch of "tactical" or "pop-up" urbanism, which I’ve written about in other contexts. Or is it more properly a branch of graffiti? I don’t think that Brad Knoefler, a downtown Miami club owner, is likely to care how it’s characterized. He just got tired of having to do the city’s maintenance work for them.

Writing in a blog hosted by Miami’s New Times, Michael Miller quotes Knoefler as estimating he has "spent $100,000 of his own money over the years cleaning up downtown because the city failed to do so."

Miller describes the process:

Using cans of spray paint, they tag the giant weeds with outrageous day-glo shades of yellow, red, blue and orange. They even use cardboard to make sure they don't paint sidewalks or buildings, just weeds that shouldn't be there in the first place.

Knoefler says that people on the street, especially homeless, mostly like the change.  And, according to Miller, he and his fellow bombers intend to keep at it until the city takes care of business.

yarn bombing in Pioneer Square, Seattle (by: Jim Culp, creative commons license)

The model for weed bombing in Miami has been "yarn bombing," a sort of guerilla street art that uses brightly colored yarn to bring ordinary city objects such as bike racks and utility poles to life. The practice, which reached critical mass and became a bit of a meme this year from Melbourne to Seattle to Stockholm, now even has its own book.

In the Washington City Paper, yarn bomber Beth Baldwin told writer Mimi Kirk that "the hallmark of a successful piece of public art is when it makes a person take in the environment in a new way and adds lightness and humor to his or her day."

But the grassroots nature of yarn bombing may be threatened. According to an article by Malia Wollan in The New York Times, several auto manufacturers have hired Magda Sayeg, the Texas-based "mother of yarn bombing" to wrap their cars in yarn for advertising. And, perhaps just as ominously, Wollan quotes a New Yorker who prefers to be called Olek as saying, "I don’t yarn bomb, I make art ... Not everyone’s work deserves to be seen in public."

My guess is that the Miami crew is not terribly concerned with art: they want change. And, if it takes a little humor and spray paint to help make that happen, they have the tools.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog. The above image is courtesy Jim Culp/Creative Commons.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.