Arian Horbovetz (Twitter: @Arianhorbovetz) is a Strong Towns member who blogs at The Urban Phoenix. This post is republished from his blog with permission. You can also check out the Urban Phoenix Podcast for more of Arian’s great work.


I leaned my bike into a turn down East Onondaga Street in downtown Syracuse when something caught my ear. It was music, coming from the crushed stone, tree-covered public space adjacent to the street. I stopped to take a closer look.

Xylophone.jpg

To my surprise, two children were playing a sort of xylophone in the park—and on further investigation, the instrument was part of the park itself, a permanent fixture along with several other community instruments, including pipes and drums, all in embedded into the fabric of this small piece of public space. They welcomed anyone to step up and play a tune, or gather a group and start a sort of spontaneous downtown orchestra.

Flash back to a few weeks ago when my wife and I were in Iceland. While walking between destinations, we came upon an area by the water filled with probably millions of various-sized volcanic rocks, perfect for stacking. And from the looks of the space, that’s exactly what people were doing: creating masterpieces of balanced, impermanent art.

Stacking Rocks.jpg

My wife and I joined in, as dozens of other people were eagerly focused on this unique act of blending creativity and igneous architecture. Honestly, one of the things I remember most about that day was stacking rocks…yet this wasn’t in any tourist map.

The Bean in Chicago is the sculpture centerpiece of the Windy City’s Millennium Park. Its giant chrome design makes it a unique draw, as millions flock to photograph the great structure every year. More than any skyscraper viewing deck, Chicago River boat tour, deep dish pizza joint or museum exhibit, The Bean hosts more tourists than any attraction in the Midwest, according to the city’s former mayor.

Bean.jpg

What do all three of these examples have in common? They all elicit a sort of free, spontaneous interaction that transcends the formalities of time and space commitments. In other words, they are the elements in our cities that we don’t have to schedule, don’t have to pay for, don’t have to script; they are the pieces that fill in the gaps between our urban attractions. They are the simple, family-friendly elements that appeal to our desire to do something we didn’t expect. They are fun to visit regularly, but ultimately they are best when we stumble upon them unexpectedly. They are the fillers that promise that our cities will never be boring, as they cater to the playful, unscripted youth in all of us.

Bike share and electric scooter share are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Whether you’re a resident of a city or a visitor exploring its midst, the ability to finish a nice meal, walk out onto the street on a beautiful summer night and say “Hey, let’s take a ride down the river” is a powerfully spontaneous option.

Bikes.jpg

When your city incorporates opportunities for residents and visitors to have scaleable, spontaneous encounters that compliment museums, breweries, attractions and shows, you give people the ability to write their own experience. The more people feel like they can have an organically beautiful interaction with the urban environment, the more they are likely to have a positive impression of that city.

My home city of Rochester is about to receive an injection of this concept when it debuts Phase 1 of its Play Walk in September of this year. The project will activate Court Street between South Ave and The Strong Museum Of Play, with instruments, games and more, in an effort to inject a dose of spontaneous fun for people of all ages. Jenn Beideman, Advocacy Manager at Common Ground Health, had this to say about the upcoming project:

“When we activate every day spaces as a community, and include youth in the design process, we not only create unique and interactive places that support the health of our communities, we also establish an approach to urban revitalization that allows everyone/anyone to be part a of the ongoing transformation of our city.”

The plan for HealthiKids/Common Ground Health Play Walk project, coming Fall 2019 to downtown Rochester

The plan for HealthiKids/Common Ground Health Play Walk project, coming Fall 2019 to downtown Rochester

Beideman touches on the importance of taking a family-friendly approach to filling in the gaps between community destinations while ensuring that the design is inclusive and creative. Without a doubt, this project will add to Rochester’s ability to appeal to our community’s youth, which is vital in the profession of our city’s image.

Cities are learning that it’s just as important to activate the spaces between our homes, destinations and public resources as it is to furnish those resources themselves. A happy, healthy and inviting urban community is one in which we can have that unexpectedly positive experience while moving about in our downtowns and neighborhoods. It might seem contradictory, but planning for spontaneous urban interaction is one of the best things a city can do.