By Ryan Sandwick, CEDIK Community Design Specialist
There is no better way to learn about a community than to immerse yourself in it, and this weekend CEDIK’s Community Design/Downtown Engagement team did just that in Whitesburg, Kentucky. If you were in Whitesburg you may have seen us there with our portable chalkboards and wondered what we were doing. If you weren’t there you may have seen us on social media and wondered the same thing. How could asking people to write on a chalkboard have any sort of impact on their downtown, especially if it’s only set up for that day? These are all valid questions, and ones that we’ve asked ourselves repeatedly. This event represented months of listening and conversations. Not regarding the boards themselves, but on how our community design and placemaking efforts can be most effective throughout the region.
The idea for the ‘Chalk and Talk’ was born while our team was touring one of the downtowns in the Promise Zone region of Southeastern Kentucky. This downtown has an impressive, yet underutilized alleyway off their main square that inspired us to imagine how the alley could become a destination itself. We brainstormed how we could help activate this inactive space using our collective arts, design and planning skills to create a safe and welcoming public place (with a minimal budget, of course). However, if we want people to use the space, we need to understand their feelings regarding that space. Throughout the Commonwealth there are downtown spaces like this, and any engagement tool that we created to understand what people wanted would need to be adaptable to these diverse spaces. Ultimately, any initiative would need to be lighter (transportable), quicker (easily accomplishable) and cheaper (the first step towards a longer term goal). This led us to develop our ‘Chalk and Talk’ program we piloted this past weekend at Whitesburg’s Oktoberfest.
Incorporating the lighter, quicker and cheaper methodology we used the familiarity of chalkboards to engage people with the prompt “Next Time I Come to Whitesburg…” on a freestanding tri-fold chalkboard that was placed in the middle of Main Street. Like any blank canvas, making the first marks are often the hardest. As people saw others writing on the board though they began to engage with both us and the board expressing their thoughts through both writing and drawings. Participants included people from across the city and region, and even included visitors from Louisville and D.C. This program isn’t just about engaging people in conversations about cities. It identifies themes that can help inform local authorities and stakeholders about people’s thoughts and feelings in a fresh and creative way. In Whitesburg, a dominant theme was the importance of the surrounding natural landscapes and the desire for increased outdoor activities, including hiking, biking and kayaking.
The ‘Chalk and Talk’ brought our work from the classroom to the crosswalk as a daylong installation on Main Street. Tiffany Craft, organizer of the Oktoberfest in Whitesburg shared “the chalkboard was a wonderful idea for our festival. It was interesting and helpful to see the unique ideas, comments and shared thoughts of those attending. There should be one at every event!” and that “It (the chalkboard) helps those of us planning these events to see what folks love and what we could possibly do to make things better every year” This program was specifically designed to work as well in any Kentucky community as it did in Whitesburg and we’re excited to see how this event is adapted in various communities. We are extremely grateful to the City of Whitesburg for allowing us to be a part of their great event, and look forward to bringing this program across the region. If you would like to discuss ‘Chalk and Talk’, or have this event brought to your community’s event please email Shane Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org.