The Story of the Mysterious Plungers

The Story of the Mysterious Plungers

We did it.

On the morning of Saturday, February 18, members of the Yellowbrick Street Team set out to draw attention to the poorly-designed intersection of 1st & Washington – notorious in the cycling community for cars improperly using the bike lane as a right turn lane, endangering and discomforting both cyclists and car drivers. We took a dozen toilet plungers wrapped with reflective tape and secured them to each side of the bike lane with masonry adhesive...

This Week's Reading List

Here's our roundup of excellent articles on urban issues from around the web, each with relevance to Wichita:

What We Lost

What We Lost is a public art installation highlighting the detrimental effect of decades of auto-oriented planning and regulation on the urban fabric by contrasting historical images of beautiful buildings downtown with their current conditions - often as surface or structured parking.

From its boom years in the 1880s through the 1920s, Wichita constructed some of the most grand and architecturally-significant buildings in the Plains. Most importantly, these buildings fit the unique context of Wichita and complemented the greater urban fabric. Wichita's downtown was dense, vibrant, and full of life through the first half of the 20th Century. 

After World War II, like in many American cities, Wichita adopted a system of laws, regulations, investments, and incentives that promoted suburban development in a car-centric model. As Wichitans became increasingly dependent on automobiles, demand for parking exploded; to accommodate this demand, the city and private property owners began demolishing smaller, "fabric" buildings to provide for car parking. 

The increased availability of parking and miles of new roadways further increased dependence on the private automobile, while dispersing growth and development further out along the urban fringe. In fact, Wichita grew much faster spatially than demographically, leaving vacant buildings and hollowing out the core city in favor of new buildings for homes and businesses in the outskirt areas; approximately 84% of Wichita's current land area was developed post-World War II - a 525% increase in developed land area, despite only a 225% increase in population.

Demolishing downtown buildings, while simultaneously tilting the playing field toward sprawl development through regulations and public investments, accelerated the flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and '70s. By the 1980s, downtown Wichita was moribund and largely disinvested, a growing haven for drugs and crime. The value of downtown buildings continued to decline, with rents no longer lucrative enough to invest in maintenance and occupancy rates too low to spur development. Many buildings, though still architecturally and historically significant, deteriorated past the point of redevelopment and many more were rendered economically obsolete, with property taxes and carrying costs of a vacant building outweighing the value of the building. Neglected buildings were demolished during Urban Renewal, which served only to accelerate decline by sapping the vibrancy and aesthetic appeal of downtown.

By the time we, like cities across the country, realized the failings of the Suburban Experiment, we had thoroughly hollowed out our downtown and surrounding commercial areas. Today, 39.6% of developable land in downtown Wichita is surface parking. 

Next time you walk past empty parking lot after empty parking lot downtown, it's worth remembering what we lost.

Now Accepting Donations & Matching Pledges for Knight Cities Challenge

We are honored to be among the top 3% of ideas submitted to the Knight Cities Challenge. Please consider helping to bolster our application for the final round. There are three ways to contribute:

  • Matching Pledge - no commitment; if we win a Knight Cities Challenge grant, we will follow up to accept your pledge. If we don't win, you don't have to donate.
  • Recurring Monthly Donation - visit our Patreon page to make a recurring monthly donation, as little as $1 a month!
  • One-Time Donation

Want to know more about how we plan to use your donation? Contact us.

The Power of Little Plans

By Alex Pemberton

Let me share a story, friends.

In 1980 at the Boston Great Cities Conference, urban theorist Jane Jacobs appeared on a panel alongside pioneering real estate developer James Rouse to discuss whether cities should develop through a focus on big plans and inspiring visions, or small steps and incremental change.

Rouse, one of the largest developers in the country at the time and the godfather of the enclosed shopping mall, spoke first. He opened with a familiar quote from architect Daniel Burnham, "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood." He went on to extol the virtues of big plans - convention centers, sports stadiums, and massive infrastructure projects.

Jacobs followed, beginning by saying, "Funny, big plans never stirred women's blood. Women have always been willing to consider little plans."

In the lingo of today, it was a mic-drop moment.

Now, I'm the first to admit I know little about women, but I do know a thing or two about the power of little plans. I see every day how the little plans of a few average people have tremendous impact on Wichita.

It's the $6,000 or so worth of paint and vision that Janelle King organizes into Avenue Art Days, beautifying the Douglas Design District and giving businesses, artists, and Wichitans dozens of points of pride.

It's the Riverside Community Garden taking an abandoned lot and turning it into a place where neighbors can get together and share a common bond.

It's Chris Callen creating a space for early-stage startups to work, sharing their struggles and successes.

It's Kevin Falting starting a speaking event to provide Wichitans a platform to tell their stories and share their passions. In fact, Wichitalks is what inspired me to organize the Yellowbrick Street Team, which is all about taking little plans to create lasting change.

The news broke today that Yellowbrick is among three finalists from Wichita with a shot at the Knight Foundation's Knight Cities Challenge. Fellow finalists Thea Pajunen and Armando Minjarez are just two more Wichitans turning grand ideas into reality by making little plans. Our little plans may not get a feature in the big media outlets, but damnit they should.

Because while a hundred-million dollar mega-project can make us proud, it's the little plans that have the power to inspire anyone toward action. Think of the power of a city full of average people with big ideas and little plans! Where one person takes their passion and applies it to improving their small section of the city, in turn showing neighbors and friends that they have the ability to do the same.

Maybe it is big plans that stir men's blood

But it's little plans that inspire us all.

Yellowbrick Street Team is a Knight Cities Challenge Finalist!

We are excited to announce that we are among 144 finalists for the Knight Cities Challenge! The annual grant competition is one of the largest and most innovative in the country, with $5 million allocated to test ideas to attract and retain talent, expand opportunity, and promote robust engagement in the 26 cities in which the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. With over 4,500 competing submissions, we are already in the top 3% of ideas!

Yellowbrick Street Team was formed in the wake of the Focus Forward initiative by the Wichita Community Foundation, in which nationally-renowned data analyst and native Wichitan James Chung diagnosed four challenges facing Wichita: Entrepreneurship, Business Cycle, Human Capital, and Perception. Our founder saw a direct link between these four challenges and Wichita's urban design, organizing the group in the summer of 2016. 

We believe we are well-suited to receive a Knight Cities Challenge grant because the work of the Knight Foundation is ingrained into our mission. We focus in particular on pushing back against the Perception Challenge, in which Chung referenced the Knight Soul of the Community study to illustrate that Wichita has a self-esteem issue and suffers from poor social capital. The Soul of the Community study remains a guiding framework for each of our projects; all projects must improve social offerings, openness, or aesthetics - the three components of city life most closely correlated with place attachment

The opportunity to be awarded a Knight Cities Challenge grant is exciting for many reasons, but most importantly because of what it will enable us to do in the city we love. Not only will we be able to expand our capacity to execute more projects that connect, engage, and inspire Wichitans, but we will be able to build out systems to better evaluate our impact and share our message. 

We could not have made it this far without the incredible support of so many Wichitans. This is a transformative opportunity for our group - and, we think, all of Wichita - and we appreciate any additional support we receive. 

Volunteer for projects by clicking here.

Make a pledge for matching donation here. Please note that there is no commitment for pledges - if we win a Knight Cities Challenge grant, we will follow up to accept your pledge; if we don't win, you are not obligated to donate.

You can also directly donate to our general fund to help support projects, or make a recurring monthly donation through our Patreon page

To learn more about the Knight Cities Challenge and view a full list of finalists, including two others from Wichita, see the press release from the Knight Foundation:

Introducing: The Civic Innovation Permit

The Need

One of the guiding tenets for Yellowbrick Street Team is the notion that the traditional planning and permitting process is inherently undemocratic. The process of obtaining a permit for grassroots projects is too lengthy, too confusing, and too costly for the everyday Wichitan. The work we are doing simply could not be accomplished without the financial means, schedule flexibility, network, and political capital of our members. These are the characteristics most often lacking in the residents of neighborhoods with the greatest need for constructive intervention. 

While we at YST are prone to carry out our interventions often with an "ask for forgiveness rather than permission" ethos, we believe a streamlined, supportive, and accessible permitting process can broaden the impact of grassroots action and catalyze lasting, positive change across all of Wichita.

With that in mind, YST will outline here a first-in-the-nation framework for creating an effective system for creative intervention permitting.

The Civic Innovation Permit

Our proposed solution, the Civic Innovation Permit (CIP), is not so much a typical permit as it is a process for handling unique requests. It should be applied only to projects for which a specific permit does not already exist, or the recommended permit is intended for dissimilar applications. The CIP shall be used primarily in contexts in which a project promoting the public good comes in conflict with existing ordinances.

The framework is as follows:

  • Creation of a "one-stop-shop" and single point of contact
    • The point of contact shall be responsible for working with the applicant to define the parameters of the request and determine which City of Wichita departments need to be advised
  • Defined, short timeline
    • The City shall have one month from the date of formal submission of the application to seek input from relevant departments and require any additional conditions for approval
    • If approval, with or without additional conditions, or outright denial of the application is not enacted by the City within the one-month timeline, the application shall receive de facto approval. 
  • Low cost
    • The cost of the application should not exceed $100 in order to remain accessible to all socioeconomic groups
    • It will almost certainly cost the City more to process such requests than will be received in application fees, however, an accurate evaluation of such a process should be holistic in nature and take into account the positive impact of projects enabled by the CIP

In the coming weeks, Yellowbrick Street Team will present this framework to Wichita City Council members and work with each councilperson to craft an actionable policy. Our goal is to have a Civic Innovation Permit system implemented by the end of Q1 2017.

Wichita's First Park(ing) Day

Yellowbrick Street Team organized Wichita's first Park(ing) Day, in collaboration with Bike Walk Wichita and made possible through the Knight Foundation Fund of the Wichita Community Foundation. The annual global event transforms on-street parking spaces for a single day from places reserved for private cars - and often sitting empty - into places where the public can connect and engage.

Local businesses and organizations each set up and programmed an individual parklet, all bringing their own unique vibe. For one day, from Delano all the way through the Douglas Design District, Douglas Avenue was transformed from a place for cars to a place for humans.

Locations included:
-Bicycle X-Change
-Bungalow 26
-ICT Pop-Up Urban Park (sponsored by Yellowbrick Street Team)
-Kansas Leadership Center
-Wichita Downtown Development Corporation
-Barleycorn's
-The Wichita Eagle
-Handpicked Los Angeles
-The Spice Merchant (in collaboration with The Workroom)
-MakeICT
-Reverie Coffee Roasters (in collaboration with Bike Walk Wichita)

The project was a tremendous success, engaging over 1,000 Wichitans with a different vision for our streets. Wichita City Council members Janet Miller and LaVonta Williams, along with Suzy Finn from Young Professionals of Wichita, served as celebrity judges and awarded the following prizes:

Best Overall: Handpicked Los Angeles

Most Creative: MakeICT

Most Wichita Pride: Spice Merchant/The Workroom

Our First Project

Yellowbrick Street Team officially launched on July 23rd with our first event, Cover Downtown in Wichita Pride. This project initially sought to carry on the momentum behind the Wichita flag and other iconic symbols to beautify one of the most ubiquitous (and ugly) pieces of the urban fabric - manhole covers. As we continued planning, we added grime-writing, a type of reverse graffiti imposed onto dirty sidewalks with a power-washer and stencils. 

A small but mighty team convened in the morning and set out spraying temporary, chalk-based paint around downtown Wichita. You can find much of our work around City Hall, the ICT Pop-Up Urban Park, Wichita Metro Area Chamber of Commerce, and Old Town Square. 

We also spread out to Delano and the Douglas Design District to impose Wichita-centric images on sidewalks through a technique known as "grime-writing" or "reverse graffiti" in which stencils are powerwashed to remove dirt and reveal phrases or imagery.

While this project was mostly a fun way to spread our love for Wichita, it also touches on a very important urban design principle related to walkability. Noted planner and urban designer Jeff Speck has determined four key factors making cities desirable for walking in his General Theory of Walkability: 

The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential an none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.

While the first three are largely beyond the scope of our abilities, each and every citizen has the capacity to make their environment more interesting. We did it by providing a pleasant surprise - something to catch the eye and swell hearts with civic pride. 

We will explore expanding the project and perhaps working with the city to use manhole covers as canvases for permanent street art. In the meantime, we want to hear from Wichitans about how we can help make your neighborhood more beautiful and interesting - contact us!

Stencils were created on plywood using the laser cutter at MakeICT, with artwork provided by LaRissa Lawrie. A special thanks to Logan Pajunen for setting up and running the grime-writing rig, Melad Stephan for allowing us to paint on the sidewalk in front of Oeno and Sabor, and the good folks at Lucinda's for the same.