Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
This year’s list of 144 finalists includes a bike-powered hot tub, a drive-in theater for African history, and a marketplace for immigrant cuisine.
Residents of St. Paul, Minnesota, could very well see a mobile fleet of bike-powered hot tubs to cure the winter blues. Meanwhile, bus riders in southwest Detroit might find themselves waiting for their next ride at a “stoplet,” a bus stop decked out to have “the feel of an intimate city park.” And folks in Philadelphia, don’t resist when the enticing smell of food draws you to a marketplace for immigrant cuisine in Mifflin Square Park.
These are just a handful of the 144 finalists for the Knight Foundation’s third, and possibly last, Knight Cities Challenges. The foundation wanted the best ideas from urban thinkers across the U.S. for fostering community engagement, making use of public space, revitalizing neighborhoods—anything that would improve life in cities. The fleet of hot tubs, or “hot pots,” for example, is a public health project aimed at maintaining the residents’ well-being during the bleak winters of the upper midwest. Alongside programs to connect neighbors through workshops and outdoor events, the project could be a low-cost remedy to Seasonal Affective Disorder.
In a little over a month, the foundation received more than 4,500 applications. That’s fewer than the 6,000 applications submitted last year, but it’s still more than the judges expected, says George Abbott, special assistant to the vice president for community and national initiatives at Knight. More importantly, it drew new participants. Of the hundred-some finalists, Abbott says he recognizes only 10 or 15 of the names. “So there is still that high engagement, and it's great to see we're still managing to reach new people and organizations,” he says, adding that for the first time, the list includes at least one finalist from each of the 26 communities that Knight invests in.
From here, the finalists will flesh out the details, laying out their budget proposals, for example, and soliciting letters of support. It’s easy to get lost in all that, but Abbott tells applicants to stay true to their original vision. “What we've seen in the past is that finalists will be like, ‘Great, this is a validation of my idea, let me go and expand it 10 times,’ but in the process they lose what made their original application special,” he tells CityLab. “Of course people will make changes as they develop the details, but don't lose the spirit of that first application.”
Perhaps fired up by 2016’s contentious campaign season, many of the finalists’ proposals this time around involve promoting civic engagement at the local level. In Charlotte, North Carolina, one group has proposed a weekly podcast and roundtable to help politicians and Millennials better engage in local issues. Over in Milledgeville, Georgia, someone hopes to encourage locals to respond to pressing issues using a mobile voting booth. And in Tallahassee, Florida, there’s a plan to inject technology into the community by creating an online platform for tracking public meetings and legislation.
Another finalist hopes to better educate their community about their history and the notion of equity: a drive-in theater promoting African art and history, an artist-designed miniature golf course that takes people through a city’s past, and interactive data map and exhibition illustrating the consequences of redlining. Still others aim at fostering a better relationship between a city and its various ethnic and socioeconomic populations, with a “Friendship Center” in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to help immigrants and refugees learn English and develop business skills, and an initiative to help design better street visibility for African businesses in St. Paul.
“There is a renewed commitment to bring together communities across different backgrounds, and supporting equity, diversity and inclusion,” Abbott says. “All the applications were due before the election, so we can't ascribe these ideas to the results of the election, but it affects the way that we look at them and the potential for what they could do.”
Learn about all 144 finalists on the Knight Cities Challenge page.