Too often, community enhancement conversations start with a conversation about elements that are perceived to be missing. For example, discussions might center on how to fund a new pool, splash pad, bike rack or parking lots—but seldom do these conversations include an assessment of the utility of existing infrastructure: How are the existing streetscape and built infrastructure performing? What is the potential for past investments to evolve and reflect current needs? Can we get more use out of these items before we add something new?

It is all too easy to overlook the existing infrastructure, but as the examples below prove, examining it with fresh eyes can result in unexpected and impactful projects.

The first step in this type of transformation is identifying spaces that either are not used regularly or are only used during a fraction of the day, as well as user groups that are not currently being served in the downtown area. By pairing underutilized spaces with unmet needs, communities can not only better provide for the needs of residents, but also increase activity levels and the perception of safety in these areas. In some instances, an established community group may be a natural leader for change, either because it already serves a key local population, or because it is looking for a way to expand its services to a new area. Examples of effective partnerships include:

On Top of Downtown Event in Janesville

Janesville’s On Top of Downtown uses a vacant parking deck rooftop as an event venue with a view. Photo Courtesy Downtown Janesville, Inc.

  • La Crosse’s Arts Alliance, which partnered with the city to install dance steps in the sidewalk to increase awareness of the arts for all passers-by;
  • Ripon’s Library Story Walk, which hosts a weekly story walk, installing new children’s book pages in display stands along a half-mile stretch of the Northwestern Trail adjacent to downtown; and
  • Downtown Janesville’s On Top of Downtown event series, which utilizes the vacant top level of a parking structure for an evening event series, featuring concerts, yoga and other activities with a skyline view.

Underutilized spaces can be readily identified either through creative brainstorming or a physical audit. As for identifying unmet needs, this can be challenging if no advocacy group exists: the fact that needs are unmet may mean that targeted user groups are not present at all, and therefore are hard to survey. Fortunately, there are numerous creative ways to seek ideas for improving the community.

  • Going the high-tech route, Downtown Whitewater created an open Pinterest board seeking input on activation ideas for the highly trafficked, but poorly lit and litter-strewn, Forest Alley. A community clean-up day was held to clear the space and identify locations for art and other logistical opportunities, with the top ideas for transformation piloted over a series of subsequent weekends to select the best option for permanent installation.
  • A decidedly low-tech approach is reflected in the numerous SOUP (Support Our Urban Projects) events popping up around the state. These events are community dinners which incorporate a micro-funding element for locally supported projects. Attendees pay $5 for a meal and hear presentations from community members with ideas for initiatives or activities to address local challenges. After the presentations, participants vote on the idea they wish to fund, and the winning project receives the proceeds from the dinner event. Successful projects have included creative crosswalks in Green Bay, a school garden to table project in Viroqua and a bike repair station in La Crosse.

Next time you’re walking through your community, try to view it as though you are new to the area. Keep an eye out for spaces that are empty even when nearby areas are busy. What groups of people do you see in the area, and which groups are missing? What types of activities would existing groups be looking to do but cannot (i.e., eat lunch, take a walk, get a drink of water). By comparing notes on these observations, or better yet by comparing notes with others in your community, it should be possible to identify opportunities that already exist to better serve your community by enhancing existing resources rather than investing elsewhere.