Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville calls the city's annual Ideas Festival a "democratized" version of the TED conference. "You don't have to pay ten grand to attend," says Fischer, who moves his office to the festival grounds for the week. The big democratic scene last week was gathered around an interactive model of Louisville — cranked out on the spot by 3D printers, to 1/1000 scale — which attendees shaped and changed as their inner urban planner desired.
The event was a kickoff for Fischer's new planning initiative, Vision Louisville. City officials have expressed their desire to collect the very best ideas for how the city should develop over the next 25 years, "emphasizing growth, authenticity, preservation, sustainability, and quality of place," according to the initiative's website. The million-dollar project is intended to be a highly collaborative effort between the Norwegian planning firm Space Group and Louisville residents.
"We've got to engage not only the people who think about this everyday but somebody who might be thinking about it for the first time," says Fischer. "So-called experts frequently are so close to the problem that they can't see the solution. … I want to hit every perspective we have: from rich to poor, to every color and every ethnicity, to refugees and PhDs — everybody."
The 3D printing for the event was coordinated by the LVL1 hackerspace in Louisville. The LVL1 team, led by Christopher Cprek, prepared digital files of buildings throughout the city with the help of architecture students from the University of Kentucky and some designs found through Google's SketchUp modeling program. Draftsmen were brought in to do on-the-spot rendering at the event itself.
Once a design was ready, Cprek and company exported the files to any of the five 3D printers donated to the city for the event. The printers spat out plastic filament through a hot nozzle on a robotic arm — the result is a little like Lego material — building up each edifice layer by layer. Then the crowds figured out where to place the structure on a big map of the city.
"People can pick them up and do what they want with — if somebody breaks something we'll print another one," said Cprek last week, as the event was taking place. "People have been enthralled with the 3D-printing process."
Vision Louisville was announced in late August. The initial phase, which consists of the conceptual collaboration between the public and Space Group, is expected to take about a year, says Patti Clare, project manager for the initiative. The consultants may propose ideas for public response, based on their own international perspective as well as research being done on Louisville's historical development. Meanwhile the city will collect proposals through community events like Ideas Festival, the Vision Louisville website, and the initiative's Twitter feed.
"The public are very important to what that vision is," says Clare. "Around the country I think planners understand that unless there's a real ownership and love of a vision, it's impossible to implement it and keep it part of the culture of the city."
Clare says the city will be looking for "big ideas" that incorporate concepts of livability, sustainability, and connectivity without compromising Louisville's authenticity. Things like the Louisville Waterfront Park, which opened on a converted scrap yard back in 1999, and the park and parkways system designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the late 19th century. "It's not a regulatory plan," she says, "it's an aspirational plan."
Mayor Fischer is particularly hopeful that the vision will enhance life in the downtown district. The city's central business district was one of the few urban districts to make big population gains, according to an analysis of 2010 Census data done by the Courier-Journal. Fischer cites a number of economic foundations that might serve as the basis for development: a new downtown arena, the bourbon business, and the local food industry. (Zagat just named Louisville one of the world's best "foodie getaways.")
"When you go to a great city you can see that people are intentional about how the city is laid out," says Fischer. "So it's time for us to do that down here, especially in this context of the rapidly changing world we live in right now. There are interesting questions about what a sustainable city looks like 25 years from now, a digital city, a global city. We're jumping into all those topics with great enthusiasm."
Once the idea-generation phase of Vision Louisville is complete, city planners will categorize the best ones as short-, medium-, and long-term projects, says Clare. She expects much of the funding to come through public-private partnerships. The initiative itself is evidence that approach might succeed: only $100,000 of the $1 million vision is public money, with the rest being raised through donations. (A quarter-million has reportedly come in so far, some of it from Matthew Barzun, the finance chair for Barack Obama's reelection campaign.)
After the Ideas Festival, LVL1 plans to give the 3D printers to local libraries and science centers, says Cprek. (The hackerspace has its own.) As for the model structures and map changes produced by attendee suggestions, the city will keep those and add them to the master list of planning ideas, says Clare.
"It's hard to envision how you'd change things and make a space feel and operate differently," she says. "The 3D printers are a really good tool to let people see how space changes and influences how a city works."