Interviews

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.

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