I tell myself it's for the kids on the block. They will love it, I'm sure. But let's be real, I am having my own fun building a little pig farm in front of the house.

It all started when I saw this popular post passed around the internet about a father who has installed tiny little fairy doors around Ann Arbor. Quite adorable, yes. I thought it was a one-off until I was visiting (Strong Towns Executive Director) Jim Kumon's neighbourhood in Minneapolis where the fairies appear to vacation.

What a wonderful scene to enjoy from the sidewalk, especially for small people who see the world from 2-3 feet high. And only a few blocks later, another act of neighbourliness.

Whimsy at home

I decided that I wanted a neighbourhood like Jim's, starting with my own house. Being a renter, I don't have free reign over the property. Instead, I've been making use of the no-man's-land boulevard between the road and sidewalk (owned by the city but supposed to be maintained by the adjacent property owner) which the city calls "boulevards."

Hurricane Arthur tore us to bits last summer and many urban trees were downed. A young tree in the boulevard in front of our place was removed due to storm damage and overhead wires. That left us with only a weedy stump and a No Parking sign in front of the house.

I'm a big fan of the food-not-lawns movement so the first thing I wanted to incorporate was edible landscaping. But after seeing these fairies, a little bit of whimsy was in order too. I don't think I could pull off a believable fairy scene because fairies have never been my thing, but you know what I could pull off? Pigs. I just love 'em. So I'm hunting down miniature pigs to be the guardians of my tiny front-yard farm.

Step 1: Make a tiny farm

On a sunny Saturday, I dug up all the weedy ground around our leftover stump in the boulevard and planted some food. With some luck and sunshine, we should have chives, patty pan squash, corn mache, chard, peas, and kale available for public picking. While an improvement to neglected weeds, the goal of this pig farm is not to be beautiful so much as curious, useful, and loveable. Here's where it's at so far after a couple rainy days. Note the absence of pigs - there is only a sky-diving gnome watering spike at the moment.

Step 2: Hire some tiny pigs

The next challenge is to staff this mini farm with mini pigs. I've been searching online for collectibles that would make the cut. I know they are out there because in my life I've seen many clay pig figurines with saucy expressions on their little pig faces. The dream is to find a chef pig, a pig in overalls, a sunbathing pig, a foreman pig - I welcome pigs of all career paths. If you have these on a shelf at home and you could bear to part with them, I will give them a purposeful life and respectful future.

In my search online, I found this hilarious option with a description that may have been lost in translation. This project has been full of laughs.

I might get these and just print out this description like a placard at the zoo. Amazing.

I might get these and just print out this description like a placard at the zoo. Amazing.

Stick with me

This may seem like a ridiculous post for the Strong Towns blog. You may be losing your patience with me in a hurry. So I'll get to the point.

You are playful. Let that spill out into the world around you. Somewhere inside you is that childlike itch to make-believe or draw funny faces on things. Play is such an amazing way to engage with the city and people around us. It creates an atmosphere of light-heartedness and curiosity. It humanizes an environment instantly and can lend your city a sense of humour. It's also good for you! For example, listen to this public radio segment on how adults are going back to preschool to de-stress.

A poster I came across downtown that made my day.

A poster I came across downtown that made my day.

Creating a tiny whimsical pig farm and searching for the perfect pig farmers has been fun for me. It's ridiculous, yes, but it is also a good thing. This is a fun way to care for and improve public property, it will make my neighbours laugh, it will give grouchy people something new to grouch about, and it will delight children walking by. It reinforces that my block is a place that people inhabit and care about, and just as I was inspired by Jim's neighbours, it might spread.

Which got me thinking...

Any parent or babysitter knows the tactic: when you want kids to do something responsible that is not necessarily fun, you turn it into a game. You're not cleaning up, you're pretending to be spies that never leave a trace of their presence behind. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, right? It's not manipulative, it's just making the best of work that needs to be done.

Why don't we do that for our cities with adults? What games would we play?


GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.