Field Notes

Vibrant communities, at a small scale – an interview with Jessica Mathews

Tree Installation EpicSmall – SQ color

These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.

My name is Jessie and I am the operator of Epic Small Consulting. Epic Small is a consulting firm that works in all size communities interested in improving where they live through small-scale, placemaking projects. I work with communities putting together public art plans as well as executing “lighter, quicker, cheaper” projects that energize and build momentum in the community. 

I got into this field because of my personal experiences as a pedestrian and bike rider in Columbus, Ohio. I moved back to Columbus in 2002 from San Francisco and thought that I could live similarly in Columbus meaning walking, taking public transit, and biking; that was not the case. At the time, Columbus was neither a pedestrian nor bike-friendly place. I found and joined advocacy groups championing efforts to make our streets more inclusive and friendly for all. Additionally, I educated myself on city design, local policy, and legislation. Eventually, I began to see how we waste and underutilize our streets and public spaces, and how we as a society have been trained to think that only cars belong in certain spaces. I wanted to change that mindset so that is what I began to do, one little project at a time.

Interventions by EpicSmall

Vibrant placemaking is community engagement.

The community knows their environment best, knows the improvements that need to be made, knows the bad buildings that need revitalized, knows the streets that drivers speed through.

They are the experts. Communities are no longer settling with the “experts” coming in and planning their neighborhoods. The most important way in which neighborhoods can build a sense of place, a sense of pride, and a sense of wanting to participate is when their vision and ideas are seen and heard.

When the projects are small and doable, and can be executed within a year or less, people can be a part of the entire process and that is when you hook them. People want to see results. They don’t’ want to be part of a revolving door of talking…they want to do

Right now, I think my favorite project was the street painting project: W. Cherry St. “Re-imagined.” Our team took a two-block stretch of an underused street in downtown Columbus and transformed it into a pedestrian-preferred public space. We had 35+ volunteers help paint the street on Memorial Day weekend. This project was a two-month demonstration project that showed what could be done to under-utilized streets. Not all streets have to be driven on. I loved watching so many volunteers excited to participate and watching the progression of the street being painted.

Gay Street Parklet
Gay Street Parklet – by EpicSmall

A surprising moment working at this scale was when one evening a woman walked into a parklet our team built and installed in our downtown, and said, “ I can’t believe all of this fits into one parking space.” That has always stuck with me because our project was able to show this woman the possibility of what could be when you transform a parking space into “people” space.

We have been brainwashed into thinking that only cars belong on our streets. My passion is to chisel away at that thinking. When we think about our favorite city to visit, chances are that city has a different energy than where we live. What is that energy? Is it more opportunities to people watch? Is it friendlier, more walkable and bikeable streets? Is there more art to experience? Is it greener and calmer? All these elements create an experience that is desired by most of us, it is called livability! Some cities in America are doing it well and some are not. We must radically re-think the way we design our cities.

My favorite piece of street furniture is a tie between street trees and benches. These two welcoming elements can make a street great and get people to return to that street. Sadly, I think benches and trees are underutilized. Homelessness is the excuse for lack of benches and maintenance is the excuse for lack of street trees.

Not all cities, but many cities lack leadership and diversity within that leadership. Cities are not solely run by their Mayors – there are local city councils, department agencies, local foundations, executive boards, etc which help lead cities. These are groups that are still white dominated and male. If cities are being designed within this myopic view, the city is not for everyone. We cannot be what we cannot see. 

I want more leaders to be leaders and not followers. Too many “leaders” live in the status-quo zone because they do not want to piss anyone off. Status-quo has gotten us into this mess of car obsession, concrete jungles, and a decreased quality of life. We need more Janette-Sadik Khan’s, Elizabeth Diller, and Tamika Butler’s

EpicSmall – Playful Paracord
West Cherry Street Redesigned – by EpicSmall

My Instagram @epic_small is a collection of projects I have done, as well as projects that inspire me, and examples that I think will inspire those who follow me. I get messages all the time with people telling me how much they love my account and how colorful it is. What often isn’t spoke about is the importance of color, and how it impacts us psychologically. When we think about our surroundings we interact with every day, our surroundings are dominated by grey and concrete. Look up the meaning behind the color grey.

It is lifeless.

I feel that one of the many reasons why people like my account is because it is full of life. That is what placemaking is. If you think about the placemaking projects you have experienced or have worked on, color DOMINATES. When we experience color, we have a sensory experience, we have an emotional experience, and we have a physical experience that makes us feel energized and alive.

Thank you to Jessica Mathews for their time. To see more of their work, check out their website, epicsmall or their instagram @epic_small.

Desert quarantine: Mary and Davit rethink the village

Sonora Art Village Mary Jilavyan and Davit Jilavyan

These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.

Well I (Mary) work with my brother Davit. We’ve never thought about working together, but we’re very much alike: we have similar ideas and interests so it is easy to us work together. We even finish each other’s phrases! We always tell people our joke about being twins just with difference in age in 5 years! Now we are opening our own multifunctional studio of visual art.  

In 2019 we made a desert house concept in Mexico for our friends. We didn’t expect so many people to like it and were very surprised. A lot of people have been writing to us about their feelings, saying they’re inspired by this project, and for us it was very important and enjoyable. Maybe that confession meant we were doing something right. It’s been almost a year.

The world has changed a lot over this time; unfortunately not for the better.

We’ve been working very hard this year. Sitting in self-isolation, surrounded by four walls, it occurred to us to create a whole village from houses like Sonora House. We wanted to create a place where people can come and feel for a while in a completely different place, far from the grey reality, to feel in some bright 3D space, or even a cartoon. It’s a place free from prejudice. There’s no place for racism, sexism, humiliation. We tried to create a completely different atmosphere that would exude joy, love, and happiness. 

We were inspired by the works of great masters Ricardo Bofill and Luis Barragan. Their buildings are still very relevant: people take photos of them, shoot in the movies, do something similar, using some elements, and we are among them.

This is not just ordinary architecture, but a work of art. 

We live in a very ugly and cruel world: reality isn’t movie, isn’t picture; reality is very dull and cheerless. People are just passing around the buildings and never mention it because the most architecture is quite grey. We like to mention that we like strict architecture too, but we feel that the world needs colors. Bofill and Barragan get that long time ago and created one of most amazing buildings ever 😄 So we think that us being in self-isolation helped us to put our negative energy and sadness in something right. So we created our Sonora Art Village

Community buildings have to be comfortable for people and it have to meet the people needs. Now being the witnesses of pandemic we see that community buildings and spaces were not ready for it. Now the most important is to change architecture – making it more practical but also not a detriment to appearance. We think that there is a need to develop vertical gardening and creating parks in the cities. There is absolutely no fresh air in the cities and it’s a problem. Also we think that lot of people would love to move to suburbs so we think that that direction have to be developed too.

Village view

It’s a bit hard to answer what is typology to us, it’s definitely needful in cities but at the same time it kills the uniqueness. We fell that there’s lack of unusual buildings. By the way In Sonora Art Village there is no clear system, the houses are located chaotically, each house has its own colorful path.

We are not fans of either Christopher Alexander or Peter Eisenman. They are masters of their work, but their work does not make us feel anything. But if we had to choose one of them we’d pick Peter Eisenman. We love the project City of Culture Galicia, it’s amazing.

We like sitting furniture with some plants. The cities could look so beautiful if there were more nice street furniture with plants. Great combination.

Thank you to Mary and Davit for their time. You can see more of their work on their Behance Page.

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Carshare Parking Observed

ZipCar rideshare parking sign

NYC DOT Carshare Pilot has designated 226 on-street carshare parking spaces in 13 zones across 4 boroughs where carshare vehicles would most enhance mobility and reduce personal car ownership.

Complete streets is all about taking finite public space – street parking – and reallocating to be more equitable, balanced, and reflecting the public good that it is. This reallocation of space could be for Outdoor Dining or Bus Boarding bump-out to the Common Cone. While I now own a private vehicle (ugh), I am all for being smarter on how we use our public space.

USPS Mailboxes

USPS Snorkel Collection Box Receptacle

Mailboxes – especially the blue Mailboxes (officially called the Standard Collection Box Receptacle) – have been in the news. The new Postmaster General, a Trump appointee, fundraiser, and RNC Chairperson – has been making changes. Some of those changes have been to remove the high speed mail sorting machines in distribution centers, and other changes are to remove the USPS Standard Collection Box Receptacles you find on the street.

The United States Postal Service knits the country together, is a jewel of our country, and must be strengthened and reinforced as a bedrock of our democracy. The USPS isn’t a business, it’s a service. Much like we don’t ask for highways to make money, we shouldn’t ask the USPS to make money (run well, and not be sabotaged, yes).


A medium sized box on four thin legs, with half-round top; recessed maw opened by small handle; blue, with white markings, and individualized markings used for identification near the maw.

  • L. buxus blavus
    Standard Collection Box Receptacle (Blue Box)
  • L. buxus localis
    Local Collection Box Receptacle
  • L. buxus beccus
    Snorkel Collection Box Receptacle
  • L. buxus prioritas
    Priority Mail Express® Collection Box Receptacle
  • Littera excambio
    Relay Mailbox

Walking the city with Jennifer Micó

Jennifer Micó - Street furniture, Istanbul

These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.

I’m a linguist who travels and writes about cities and has no academic background in urbanism. During my trips, I analyze the cities’ infrastructure and functioning. I spend hours watching how people use public space. Also, I interview urbanists, University professors, activists, NGOs, and experts working in city halls. 

As a city person, I thought I liked all cities. But then I realized that wasn’t quite true. So I’d say that what got me into walkability was the question, “Why do I find some cities so exciting and others dreary?”

I read Jeff Speck’s Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. The book changed the way I relate to cities. I became aware of sidewalk’s width, public transport’s frequency, pedestrian crossings, urban trees, and other meaningful elements that have a daily impact on our lives. 

Walking and the livable city

The most powerful factor of livable communities is the sense of belonging. When citizens actually identify with the place they live in, they take care of it. Second, they are considerate of others. As a result, they create and protect public spaces. One clear symptom of healthy districts is cleanliness. If people go on a picnic, they bring garbage bags.

Also, people are more likely to choose sustainable transport. In Vienna, for instance, kids start at a very young age to learn how to ride a scooter. Neighbours can work together to beautify the streets, too. In Tokyo residents place flower pots on the sidewalks. Of course, having smart people planning and designing cities is helpful. But a group of engaged citizens is still more important. 

University of Tokyo by Jennifer Micó

Hyperwalkability and the 15 minute city concept are deeply connected. Post-COVID cities must change the design and use of space. We need to create additional places we usually go to, so that we avoid crowds. This is especially important in today’s less liveable areas. There, residents are practically forced to commute everyday. They commute to work, they commute to school, they commute to groceries. Besides the daily pain of commuting, one consequence that has became dangerous is that more and more people gather in those destinations. If we can multiply the number of places that make certain areas walkable, we’ll have to deal with fewer risky crowds. The reproduction of walkable districts leads to hyperwalkable cities.

The most interesting COVID response strategies are those that reduce car space. In Buenos Aires, they are closing roads to traffic so that people can run, bike, or walk keeping a safe distance. Something similar happens in many restaurants and cafes, where they convert parking lots into dining spaces. Fingers crossed these pro-pedestrian policies are here to stay. 

A great piece of street furniture responds to pedestrian needs. The designer has to understand the requirements pedestrians may have in a specific area. Take, for instance, a bench. Depending on where you are planning to place it, the bench will have certain characteristics. The benches at the bus stop are narrow and rather short because there’s little space and people aren’t supposed to stay there for a long time. On the contrary, park benches can be big and comfortable because there’s more space and people may sit down and relax. One of the best benches I’ve sat on was at Moscow’s Gorky Park.

I can’t call myself an expert, but cars are still a big issue, even in walkable cities. Pedestrianizing more streets, replacing parking lots with parks, closing streets to traffic: measures like these will keep enhancing our experience in the city. Vehicles might be useful for driving long distances but they aren’t needed in the downtown. 

Thank you to Jennifer Micó for taking time for this interview. You can find her on instagram @jennifermico and her Medium profile, Jennifer Micó.

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On going home: Alexander v Eisenman

Pattern Language

Sometimes it’s all about home.

There is an infamous debate from 1982 between between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman: Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture (available as a PDF download). This debate is…sizzling. Two theorists with diametrically opposed views, which somehow often agree with each other if they would just use simpler language. The debate is quite a read, although I swear there is an audio recording of this somewhere, but can’t for the life of me find it.

During university I had a professor who summed up modern post-war architectural discourse as a dialectic between: “You can go home” (Frank Lloyd Wright / Alexander) and “On no you can’t” (Eisenman). I’m not sure I believe it’s that simple, but this dialectic stayed with me and I continue to struggle with the appropriateness, or correctness of each end.

Politics, stories, and the city: Arinjoy Sen explores the space of conflict

These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.

Hi, I am Arinjoy Sen. I’m currently a student of architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I completed my undergrad in Manchester and I’m from Calcutta, India. My focus ranges from the politics and aesthetics of architecture/space to the instrumentalisation of spatial agents in socio-cultural and political phenomena. My first year of Masters focused on critically relevant political events and conditions within the Indian landscape. Namely the ongoing socio-political crisis within the highly conflicted and militarized region of Kashmir, and the demystification of a specific politico-religious movement through the spatial agents intrumentalised within it. Currently, I’m looking into subaltern studies and trying to create a dialogue between that and architecture. I’m not sure where this will go, but this is where I am currently.

Typology goes back to Aldo Rossi’s ideas of the city and I must say that, to an extent, my views and ideas of the city have been influenced by his writings.

Typology is a very important topic of discourse, in my opinion, because exploration reveals an incredible amount of history, socio-political, and cultural processes behind it. Typological studies of not only a city but even a simpler and more everyday spatial device like that of the corridor, allow for the demystification of societal and cultural processes. But when it comes to the confrontation of typology with the city, I feel like it is one of the very first steps towards understanding the urban fabric.

Typology is inextricably linked to the city and its built apparatus, but not only limited to that – I know I’m repeating myself here, but it is also inextricably linked to the socio-political and cultural processes that lead to the specific urban fabric. Typological studies help us understand and design for specific places; this is important to me because I am really interested in the idea of an architecture situated and rooted in place. This is obviously getting more and more tricky because of the global condition, but also therefore becoming more and more important in my opinion.

Why architecture?

This was actually a very strange moment for me. As a kid, I was always quite interested in gaming. I wanted to become a software developer but at the same time I had an artistic/creative inclination. This was my decision till almost the very end of school. I think midway through my final year, I don’t know why, but I really got into architecture in the most basic sense of simply looking at “pretty” buildings. But for some reason, I had a very last moment realisation that I really wanted to study architecture. It got quite radically situated in my mind in a very short period of time. I felt like I couldn’t possibly study anything else. I am extremely glad for that last moment realisation, because now I feel like I wouldn’t know what to do without it.

“Paradise on Earth” Srinagar, Kashmir

“Paradise on Earth” was one of the first drawings that I had made at the beginning of the project in a bid to explore the idea of the wall as a state of exception.

The term “Paradise on Earth” is an epithet given to Kashmir, for its natural/scenic beauty, by the Mughal rulers prior to the British colonization of the country. Now, Kashmir is one of the most militarised regions in the world and definitely the most conflicted region in India. The nature of the partition of India during its independence contributed to the rising tensions between India and Pakistan over the region of Kashmir. The tensions kept rising and there was the Kargil War as well in 1999.

But recently, a year ago now, after some events of conflict in the region which arguably almost brought the two countries at the brink of a war, the Government of India pulled out a dubious move of its own: stripping the region of Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status and militarizing the region even more. But what is missing from all these stories, are in fact the people of Kashmir who are stuck in a perpetual limbo negotiating between death and democracy, the military and militants, India and Pakistan.

Post (Post) Fordist Re-appropriation. Continuous Leviathan.

They live in a constantly precarious state with no voice of their own, precisely because the government has made sure of this. This project was a way to address this socio-political condition dealing with identity politics, cultural processes and the possibility of a form of autonomy within and against the State. Going back to the original question, the wall then became a starting point towards the exploration of a state of exception which ultimately manifested in the form of a productive landscape of common(s).

Peter Eisenman or Christopher Alexander?

Peter Eisenman. I might not always agree with his design strategies but I highly regard him more for his academic and theoretical positions. I believe that Eisenman is an incredible thinker and theorist. His deconstructionist ideas are able to question contemporary thought processes and give rise to interesting and often radical approach to architectural discourse in both built and unbuilt form.

Key reading: Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture: The 1982 Debate Between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman. Also available as a PDF download. This debate is…sizzling. I swear there is an audio recording of this somewhere, but can’t for the life of me find it.

Naming a favorite piece of public space actually a very difficult question for me. I’ve always failed to satisfactorily answer this type of questions. Difficult, firstly because I have unfortunately not visited many buildings and therefore I cannot possibly talk about a space properly or with better subjectivity without having experienced it. Secondly, because I think it is generally difficult for me to choose favorites in anything, especially due to the fleeting nature of opinions and subjectivities.

I love alleyways. I feel like alleyways reflect to an extent an uncompromising and unedited version of a city where everyday life unfolds in its innermost nuances. Alleyways for me, are a type of incubator of social processes. I appreciate that its only limited to certain types of socio-cultural processes but nonetheless, I see a very revealing characteristic/personality of the city in its alleyways.

Designing for struggle

Spatial Typologies attempts to create a new grammar for the city — one rooted in the struggles of the people of Kashmir, who are in the midst of an identity crisis. This gave rise to hybrid spatial typologies which re-interpreted local-traditional construction methods, crafts and skills in order to maximize the utilization of local skills and resources, but also provide a way to involve the community. These spatial typologies are conceived to facilitate a circular economy through their construction, maintenance, and development. The common(s) framework established within the project employs this circular economy as a way to utilise locally available skills and resources to create a state of exception within and against the State – towards a form of autonomy and sustenance.

The other aspect of the spatial typologies was to confront identity politics. The typologies are characters within a narrative; characters with personalities that develop over time. Kashmir has a deep tradition of storytelling, where the storyteller recites folk tales passed down through generations. The landscape of Kashmir is dotted with stories of streets, trees, lakes, and shrines that exist – real places animated with stories, turning them into landmarks and imbibing them with an emotion and identity. Similarly, the narrative of each typology-building-character is rooted in the struggle of the people of Kashmir. They construct an identity of a people that has forgotten its meaning; a people living in identity crisis. Buildings act as a mask in the story of the city, its narrative waiting to be activated and developed by the user.

A missing urban grammar

Cities lack a grammar rooted in its place in terms of their urban fabric, especially developing metropolises. The global aspirations of cities tend towards a generic gentrified urban fabric which only works towards the further development of capitalism. Metropolises increasingly tend to embody the kaleidoscopic forms and existential instability of capitalism as a formal apparatus. The first problem is that cities have a lack of spaces where the political proper unfolds — spaces of dissent – because these spaces are being systematically erased by the policies and regulations of the global capitalist elites.

The second problem goes back to a loss of a grammar and identity of the city; this is not an aesthetic appeal. A generic urban fabric which can plug into any space or place means that the networks and processes that the act of building do not benefit or work towards the development of local resources. Instead, buildings benefit global capitalist industries which also work against the environment. Architecture rooted in its place would tap into locally available skills and resources and work towards the development of the community as a whole. Whereas, urban built fabric and real estate are primarily looked at nowadays only in terms of financial prospects; thus, cities now, only aspire to work towards a global economic standard where the factory extends its dominion to the entirety of society. Thus reducing society (labour) and built fabric into economic devices.

Thank you to Arinjoy Sen for taking time for this conversation. You can see their work on Instagram at @arinjoy.sen.

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Context and variations: Matthew Aitken hunts fire hydrants

These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.

I’m a step-dad and a mailman, living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Some years ago, I was speaking with a friend who claimed only Winnipeg did fire hydrants correctly, by painting them red. I lived in Vancouver at the time. I thought fire hydrants in Vancouver proper were painted red, and went on a walk and took pictures of a dozen or so and sent them to her. What I realized from that little experiment was that fire hydrants are all slightly different and because of the valve placement, two on the sides like arms, one on the front like a face, they naturally anchor themselves in pictures. I travelled a lot for work in those days, to cities and small towns, so I started taking pictures. I have hundreds of images of hydrants from over the years and only started my Instagram account in 2018. 

I enjoy the ubiquitousness of fire hydrants. They’re stalwart. They hide in plain sight, begging to stand out when their moment arrives. It’s an interesting piece of street furniture in that way. It blends in because it doesn’t need to be seen all the time, and it serves a purpose at a time, not all the time.

Note the P. bolus metallum around the fire hydrant

If there were some kind of fire hydrant standard shape, I think the series would work just as well because the background always changes. It amazes me where some hydrants get placed. The uniqueness of the backgrounds is just as alluring to me as the different colours, styles, and manufacturers of hydrants. It’s almost as if it’s the same hydrant over and over, just in a different place, waiting to be noticed.

I don’t know if I have a favourite hydrant, but I like the odd ones the best. A good standard fire hydrant is good, but the age, paint colour, amount of rust, graffitti, all kinds of things can improve the hydrant’s aesthetic. 

I used to live in Vancouver and they have standard red hydrants, but there are also blue ones. The blue ones are a sea-water network of hydrants that is intended to act as a backup system to the red ones in case of emergency. Which is somewhat neat. I don’t actually learn that much about fire hydrants, I just shoot ’em.

Besides fire hydrants, I like electrical boxes. Benches can be in nice places sometimes, but electrical boxes are out there hiding, not wanting to be seen. They have warning stickers on them, this kind of thing. I was in Toronto last May and I came across an electric box under the Gardiner that was open. It had been opened like a chest that needed to be cracked to perform surgery. The things guts were all tangled, it was a rat’s nest of cords and wires. I regret not taking a picture. Seems silly, but that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen, and a crew would be sent to close that box up before too long. You have to take the picture when you see the interesting moment or you can lose it.

Adjacent species: ignem vocant

Every city has its issue, but I think the big issue facing cities right now is affordable housing. We need to build more hotels, ban AirBnB, and return the cities to working class people. Take Vancouver for example. I loved living there. But now, renting apartments is unaffordable. AirBnB has taken many suites that could belong to working families, and driven up the rents. Does Vancouver want to have people to work in its coffee shops? Is it okay that people need to work three jobs just to survive there? No, and what’s missing is rental housing. What are cities lacking these days? Ironically, homes. Cities need more hotels and more rental housing.

Photos by Matthew Aitken

Teaspoonawareness doesn’t mean anything and Firehydrantawareness would have been too on the nose. I was just riffing on awareness and something that gets taken for granted, like fire hydrants. I bake cookies quite often. Teaspoons. I don’t know. I like absurdity, okay!

Thank you to Matthew for taking time for this interview. Please check out his Instagram @teaspoonawareness. There his photos are in vibrant color.