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Social Connectedness / 2013

START SEEING UGLY! A social app to reveal and transform blighted parts of Los Angeles

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Materials & Applications

START SEEING UGLY! is proposed as a riveting demonstration of how emerging personal technologies and social media can—and most definitely will—become empowering tools for educating, engaging, connecting and organizing those living in community. The result will be a new twist on social connectedness, collective civic action and community empowerment where smartphones are put to use as instruments of social synergy.

Materials & Applications (M&A), a 501(c)(3) corporation, proposes to create a set of online social outreach tools under its Urban Applications initiative for just such purposes. START SEEING UGLY! will empower anyone with a Smartphone or digital camera to take photos of physical blight in any community in Los Angeles and upload them to a correlated website database that will “pin” the geotagged shots onto a map - creating a hub for social action by community stakeholders. START SEEING UGLY! will both promote and support social connectedness for civic engagement in a breathtaking display of participatory democracy.

M&A, as a group of online media developers, artists, architects, ecologists, urban planning students and other volunteers working in artistic fields, is interested in recruiting ordinary citizens in a sustainable campaign to clean up L.A. streets using processes of co-creation. By moving the participating public—especially young people—through a contiguous series of personal and collective commitments, we feel that we can help to transform our city—and our people—in positive ways for the future. Borrowing from an architectural concept, “urban acupuncture,” in which strategic small scale interventions have radiating effects, we expect to reset the power and energies of local distressed communities, one by one.

Building on prior experience in organizing communities to create public art that galvanizes public interest for environmental solutions, we will identify parcels of land that deteriorate the environmental, social and economic health of neighborhoods. Citizens will be invited to document these parcels and add them to the START SEEING UGLY! website-hosted database and mapping system. M&A will then work with community stakeholders to find solutions that are supported by the collective will and resource bank.

The first step, CONNECTION, is to encourage local citizens to see—really see—the decayed areas that they pass through each day and often ignore. We expect this project and its promotion will pull community stakeholders out of their complacency and into awareness. By having a platform on which to share what they see, participants will have stepped into a first level of personal responsibility for their community.

The second step, ANALYSIS, is for M&A and community partners to analyze the sites identified, using matrices that will track the greatest concentrations of photos and reportings, compare and sort them, amass demographic and land parcel data from city and other databases, and, with community input, prioritize them for action based on public interest and urgency.

The third step, TRANSFORMATION, is for M&A and its volunteers to connect to the sources of power who can investigate and negotiate solutions—City Council, City Planning and Cultural Affairs Departments, other governmental agencies, community organizations, and the private sector. In addition to spurring others to action, M&A will be alert for projects that deal with watershed and other environmental issues that could have a public art component. M&A supports the efficacy of working with community residents to plan and erect monuments to their successes in community engagement.

For example, M&A is now developing a public art element for a project in Sun Valley spearheaded by the Council for Watershed Health (CWH). CWH’s Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project transformed an under-served urban neighborhood into a urban ecosystem. Phase I of the project employed ecological strategies as well as community-engaged design to transform traditional front yards and a residential street into a system for water harvesting and conserving; climate appropriate landscaping; and recapturing stormwater to replenish groundwater supplies in the Los Angeles River Watershed. In Phase II, residents were engaged in the transformation of a blighted alleyway into a new Paseo, a community pathway integrated with stormwater management improvements.

M&A is working with CWH to expand on these efforts by engaging residents, schools and other community stakeholders to explore and interact with the new ecosystem through public art, environmental education, and community engagement. In so doing we are creating a model for building social cohesion and public art around community issues.

Our video is the vision of START SEEING UGLY! as a citywide strategy to promote social connectedness and civic action in Los Angeles.

What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Materials & Applications (M&A), shares and demystifying concepts in art, architecture, and sustainable design in an outdoor courtyard open to the street 24 hours a day. Our projects create collaborative opportunities across disciplines and to explore new projects in public space. Our primary goal is the advancement of public participation in the built environment by inspiring visitors in their surroundings - while they explore the latest ideas in architectural design and theory on an experiential level. We push the application of materials beyond the limits of typical commercial, residential, and traditional gallery-based projects, towards more flourishing environments.

For ten years, M&A has transformed a parking lot in Silver Lake into an internationally-acclaimed center for materials research and artistic expression on an architectural scale exhibiting large-scale installations. M&A projects at this site are designed by artists and architects and built with volunteers from the community - winning three American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards, as well as other design awards and recognitions. M&A produced the inaugural performance for The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time with Judy Chicago - coordinating hands-on workshops for the public alongside the legendary artist to create an environment out of 25 tons of dry ice. The founder, Jenna Didier received the Neutra Spirit award 2010 and the Silver Lake History Collective award in 2011 for a lasting contribution to the cultural fabric of the Silver Lake district.

While M&A has been committed to working with “sustainable” materials and environments long before the term was popular, projects that have specifically sought to bring public attention to environmental and sustainability issues include a pneumatically-operated origami robotic garden by Eddy Sykes and the community-designed Taco Garden which explored sustainable gardening techniques in an aquaponics garden that re-circulated rainwater for growing tilapia and other fish taco ingredients—onions, cilantro and tomatoes.

Via a series of hands-on bilingual workshops commissioned by the Los Angeles Environmental Affairs Department, M&A managed the successful transformation of another blighted parking lot into a rainwater capturing surface with edible perimeter plantings tended by grateful mixed- use building residents and employees. Some benefits were: decreases in stormwater runoff from the parking lot, decreases in heat island effect, increases in social engagement between building residents and employees working downstairs. Prior to our work, then had not even been introduced.

Under its latest Urban Applications initiative which includes START SEEING UGLY!, M&A seeks to expand its activity into the larger Los Angeles area. Urban Applications is currently a finalist for an $350k ArtPlace grant from the NEA for the public art component of the Paseo and further development of its program.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

The following partners have already expressed an interest in assisting the effort to create the app, outreach campaign, and eventual site transformations:

The Council for Watershed Health (CWH) - project design, development of the website and database, and evaluation.

Councilman Eric Garcetti’s Office - shared goals: community engagement, urban acupuncture, and the streamlining of the app to be a contributor to the new L.A. Open Source Database currently in development by the City.

The L.A. Dept. of Cultural Affairs is enthusiastic about our outreach goals and the apps ability to identify those Council Districts whose constituents seek transformative art projects.

We are in communication with LACommons who would be an outreach partner.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

START SEEING UGLY! is about sensitizing the public to be aware of their environment so that they can be agents of social change as volunteers and civic participants.

It is also about empowering all citizens—including those suffering from isolation and disenfranchisement—to accept their responsibility and the opportunity to facilitate change with their neighbors. Citizens living in underserved communities DO have the power to initiate improvements in their communities that will positively affect their families. As budget cuts deepen, it is contingent upon them to step into this power, which will deepen their “ownership” in the local community, empower them, and lessen their social isolation.

As a test group under LA2050, M&A and CWH will work with middle school students near the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project whose teachers have already expressed interest to use the START SEEING UGLY tools. Success will be measured by how many of these youth and their families/ networks are using the app and website. We will measure:

-Use of the START SEEING UGLY! tools.
-Data: site traffic, the quantity of photo uploads, the number of districts with photo submissions, the quantity of user’s comments, and others.

-Participation: tracking participants who use the online tools to see if they also become active in participating in hands-on workshops to envision and create new uses for sites they have helped to identify.

As the program develops, we will track workshop attendance, the quantity of workshop attendees who used the app, the quantity of workshop attendees who were introduced to the project through the “START SEEING UGLY” campaign, the number of successful projects completed, workshop attendees’ feelings about their participation. With the help of our project partner, the Council for Watershed Health, we will also be able to track environmental impacts such as stormwater infiltration rates to sites that get a full retrofit.

As part of M&A’s Urban Applications initiative, it is clearly the intent of the project partners to grow the project into a sustainable citywide system. Thus, it will be important to know if people becoming engaged with the online tools are also becoming active in their communities. To this end, as the tools are perfected under this grant, the project team will recruit agencies and CBOs working throughout the city to generate public participation in neighborhoods throughout the city.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

The Ugly App is a tool for an ongoing program to benefit LA impacting the way the City solves problems.

First, a step beyond the Neighborhood Council system, it will provide involvement of all interested citizens–even those not currently empowered to initiate change in their communities. By inviting L.A.’s citizens to assist in mapping epidemic, interstitial or “left over” sites that are eroding the fabric of the City, the START SEEING UGLY! campaign will challenge Angelenos to engage in finding solutions. It is expected that many participating citizens will be making their first step into community involvement and a sense of ownership in their neighborhood’s surroundings. If they later engage in community meetings to advocate for site remediation and/or to participate in developing public art for public awareness, an informed and engaged citizenry is in the making for Los Angeles.

One significant impact could be the engagement of at-risk youth, in activity that guides them away from destructive acts and empowers them to be creative activists and stewards of their environment. This project will allow people who may have a history of disenfranchisement to engage with those that have the power to make change. By giving people a voice that is acknowledged and part of a larger effort to transform sites they helped select, trust will develop and encourage further volunteerism and stewardship

Second, the resulting open source database and mapping system will be available to everyone as well as to Los Angeles organizations and agencies in both the public and private sectors, from community farmers to artists to urban planners and financial investors, to be used in the development of intervention strategies for L.A. communities.
Finally, START SEEING UGLY!, by design, systematically identifies parcels that denigrate the environmental, social, and economic health of L.A. neighborhoods and provides the model process that can transform them through positive social and environmental change. After generating interest and support in the transformation of “ugly” sites, M&A will work with Council Districts, the Council for Watershed Health and organizations already connected to communities where identified sites are located to embed each place with significance. In partnership with local stakeholders and citizens, landmark works of public art that inspire residents to take pride in their neighborhoods and become creatively engaged in their surroundings will be created and installed. It is expected that this effort will lead to widespread community pride, less graffiti, more vibrant places to walk and play, more activity in common areas of the neighborhood, and, thus, greater public safety.
This project will also leave behind a methodology and tool for collaborative investment by all stakeholders, especially underserved citizens, in improving the social and physical infrastructures of Los Angeles.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Angelenos of 2050 are world leaders in the global movement towards increasing the livability of cities. The first generation born out of radically improved networks of communication and access to information, they have redefined the traditional relationship between individuals and civic organizations.

Residents are confident and connected—imbued with a sense of ownership in the future of their city. City institutions are agile bodies, reflexively contouring their expertise to nurture life and the needs of the people they serve. Unprecedented in their ability to listen to and acknowledge the daily experience of their citizens, they have constructed an infrastructure of communication and understanding that permeates relationships across sectors.

“Ugly” places are seen as opportunities to build something beautiful. Neighborhoods are no longer alienating places, but have become deeply personal with the histories of engagement reflected in a vital cityscape. Children feel deep belonging to their community and the built environments that sustain them.

In 2050, the LA River is a revitalized water system because residents understand the benefits of an EDA secured water supply, additional open park space, and a diversified ecosystem. They have effectively manifested their collective expectations in communications with both government and non-profit organizations, and those organizations set up effective two-way channels of communication. Across interest groups, common ground helps define shared points of entry into large scale, dynamic, meaningful projects that transform blight into assets. Artists and ecologists collaborate to install art on sites that have been retrofitted to recharge the groundwater and produce clean free energy.

These same technologies dismantled barriers to high art, quality education and a sense of co-ownership in the fruits of our culture. All community members have the opportunity to work with and become artists, architects, and designers – developing the embodiment of the city’s cultural future, bringing landmark art out into the streets. Students in South L.A. can access maps of environmental hazards and see how they relate to crime, obesity rates and job opportunities. Using the same tools, they can convey their experience to City Council members and join urban gardening and public art groups working to make a difference. There is open dialogue around civic priorities and more defined and community-centric policy.

How do we get there? It starts with universal access to intelligible information and pathways for action. This new found fluidity will transform the people’s ability to understand their environment—to diagnose their needs and synthesize community values and political will into effective action. This will engender a system in which people can find their own voice and trust that it is heard by public officials. People will connect to one another and their surroundings