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The Key to a Better City: Fill Fewer Potholes, Have More Fun

May 19, 2016  by  Josh Mahar
Category:  Government Performance Consortium

The Key to a Better City: Fill Fewer Potholes, Have More Fun

A friendly yarn bomb adds some fun to downtown Sequim. Courtesy of City of Sequim.

Ok, the title's a bit tongue-in-cheek; filling potholes is clearly an essential service. But as Peter Kageyama, author of the book For the Love of Cities, believes, “surprising and delighting” your citizens on a regular basis is another vital ingredient for making your city or town a vibrant and attractive place to be. Kageyama was the keynote speaker earlier this month at a workshop put on by our Government Performance Consortium. In front of a crowd of nearly 200 city staff and officials from across the state, Kageyama provided an inspiring overview of how cities can leverage community assets to build a better city, all without spending huge amounts of money.



Kageyama’s theory is that, while safety and functionality form the foundation of municipal services, what makes a place really stand out is it’s “fun” factor. City governments are pretty good at dealing with their mundane (but important) responsibilities - fixing street lights, processing permits, and yes, filling potholes. But these things don’t necessarily have to be dull. Adding a bit of whimsy and delight to your projects can go a long way in inspiring and engaging citizens. Government employees are often the “emotional standard-bearers” of our communities, and when people see them having a good time, and really caring about the place that they work for, it can have a huge impact on the psyche of citizens, fostering a culture of fun across the city. “Next time you are in meeting with your department, talking about a boring project, raise your hand and ask, ‘Where’s the fun?’” Kageyama advocated to the workshop attendees.


Kageyama's "nutrition pyramid" for the city. Courtesy of Peter Kageyama.


Another point Kageyama emphasized is just how simple, and cheap, these projects can be. They don’t necessarily have to be a multi-million dollar park or piece of public art. In fact, as Kageyama pointed out, it is often the small, intimate details of a neighborhood that people feel most connected to, not the big flashy stuff (although that can be fun too).

In fact, once a municipality starts to foster a culture of fun, it’s often the citizens that end up sparking the best projects. Many of the strategies that Kageyama talked about were similar to the tactical urbanism techniques I wrote about earlier this year. Municipalities can develop inexpensive, small-scale, and often temporary projects that can encourage participation and engagement from citizens. Kageyama even challenged attendees to start with a budget of just $500 and think of projects that could infuse some fun into their communities; it seemed challenging at first, but after 15 minutes of discussion, the crowd was easily able to come up with dozens of ideas.



Here are a few of my favorite projects highlighted during the workshop.

  • Greenville, South Carolina’s Mice on Main. The city partnered with a local student and sculptor (purportedly for a cost of just $1200) to hide a series of nine tiny bronze mouse sculptures along the main street in Greenville’s downtown, acting as a permanent scavenger hunt for residents and visitors alike. In the decade or so since the sculptures were put in place, the Mice on Main have become an icon of the city, greatly contributing to the transformative renewal of Greenville’s historic downtown.
  • The Yarn Bombs of Sequim. A great local example that I love is the yarn bomb project that adorns Sequim’s quaint downtown with color and whimsy (see image above). Yarn bombs, if you aren’t familiar with them, are defined by Wikipedia as “a type of graffiti or street art that employs colorful displays of knitted or crocheted yarn or fiber rather than paint or chalk.” It is often used to cover trees, benches, bike racks, or streetlights. This is a classic case of co-creation, as the city originally had no part in the endeavor. However, instead of getting upset and removing the “graffiti,” the city built a relationship with the yarn bomb group to encourage this whimsical art throughout the city.
  • Marry Durham Event. What’s the most explicit way of showing your undying love for a locale? How about marrying it. That is what a group of citizens in Durham, North Carolina have started to do at a now annual event in the Bull City. This mini-festival celebrates the community with local food vendors and music and having citizens take marriage vows in which they pledge to “keep the streets clean and safe, protect our natural resources, shop locally, support the arts and local non-profit organizations, cherish diversity, and elect responsible leaders.”
  • Grand Rapids Lip Dub. Another classic show of love and appreciation – a little song and dance. After Grand Rapids, Michigan was put onto a list of “America’s Dying Cities,” citizens came together to make a 10-minute music video in which literally hundreds of community members lip sync to the song “American Pie” as they perform a choreographed performance through the streets. Although not generated from within city government, city officials and staff embraced it wholeheartedly, not only helping manage the street permitting and safety considerations of the event but also getting involved themselves - the mayor, councilmembers, and numerous police and firefighters make cameos throughout. The video has garnered over 5.5 million views on YouTube, undoubtedly making it one of the best marketing campaigns the city has ever undertaken.
  • Hank Heron: The Soul of Kenmore. Mascots are often used by sports teams and other organizations or events to help personify a common public identity. So why not cities too? In Washington’s own Kenmore, the city’s prominent heron rookery inspired one of the city’s engineers to draw a cartoon heron he named Hank. The charming character was quickly adopted by the city and is now frequently used in city communications, including traffic and safety signs, informational bulletins, stickers and decals, and more. It is certainly a lot more fun than the antiquated seals that many cities use. 


Overall it was an inspiring day for cities and towns across Washington!


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Josh Mahar

Josh served as a Communications and Outreach Coordinator for MRSC and wrote about social media, government performance, and other local government topics. He no longer works for MRSC.



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