The Urban Conga

By Roberto Roldan, NEWS EDITOR
On December 3, 2013

 

In urban cities across the world, rarely trafficked areas are being brought back to life through creative design.

The movement, called tactical urbanism, aims to make urban living more lively and enjoyable by using small, temporary installations and art projects.

A collective group of creators based in Tampa, named “Urban Conga,” has used what it learned at USF’s School of Architecture and Community Design to activate spaces in downtown Tampa, which have been abandoned or go unused, and further the tactical urbanism movement.

The group was founded by students Ryan Swanson, Mark Perrett and Brennen Huller who met while working on their individual theses in the school’s master’s program.

“I think the project kind of stemmed out of our shared interests and research,” Huller said. “We were all kind of interested in activating spaces and using design to interact with people … It was based off of the idea that you always have to have bars and restaurants and things to do in the urban setting. But in between that, from Point A to Point B, let’s see if we can slow people down and get them to stop and interact with people they normally wouldn’t.”

In November 2011, the then-graduate students sat down and decided to start a movement based on their combined interests and got others involved.

Shortly after, the group had its first event in an abandoned lot across from Fly Bar in downtown Tampa.

The first installation involved using an Xbox Kinect and projector to project an interactive image of people on the façade of a five-story building at the corner of the abandoned lot. People played around with interactive widgets on the Kinect or watched themselves dance on the building.

The group invited a few friends to come and hang out but began getting excited when passersby and people from the bar began to come out and interact with everyone.

“When we started getting people who were coming out of the bars or just walking from one destination to the next, it created a lot of fun and play in a previously dead area space,” Ryan Swanson said.

The reaction got the group thinking there might be a push for something like the Urban Conga in downtown Tampa.

Following the first event, Huller created some foam board, puzzle-piece-like installations that would interlock with one another like building blocks for individuals to create with. Swanson also got his hands on a 12-foot beach ball, which would become a staple at all of their events.

The group found a footing for its movement when it scheduled a meet-up at an Interstate 275 overpass near downtown Tampa in December 2011.

Like before, the group got about 50 people hanging out, conversing and playing with some of the installations it had set up.

After setting up, a homeless man came up to the group asking for money.

They told the man that they didn’t have any money but invited him to hang out.

Initially, the man was hesitant.

After lingering around and looking at all the installations, the man began conversing with a family who invited him to push around the large beach ball they had been playing with.

“You slowly started to see these social barriers just being broken down,” Swanson said. “All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that they had more money or that he was black and they were this white, middle-class family. None of it mattered because they were just interacting and having fun. Once I saw that, I knew I had to put everything I had into this.”

They hosted a number of small meet-ups in downtown Tampa until their graduation from USF in May 2011.

When Perrett had to leave Tampa to go to Los Angeles to get his Ph.D. in architecture, the group had the idea to take the Urban Conga on a cross-country tour.

A Kickstarter web page and a few dozen phone calls later, the group headed to Tallahassee: the first stop on its nine-city tour in July 2012.

They packed up Swanson’s Ford Taurus with the projector, beach ball, Huller’s puzzle pieces and a number of small installations. They also brought along a photographer who documented the trip.

In some cities, they would blow up the 12-foot beach ball and roll it through the streets of downtown, urban areas.

Some places they would stay for a few hours, other places they would hang out and talk to people for most of the day.

“We felt like we were limiting ourselves to just downtown Tampa when there are so many other urban cities across the U.S. with a similar need for activated spaces,” Swanson said. “Basically, we just said ‘screw it,’ and we left.”

In cities such as Tucson, Houston and El Paso, they met individuals who were interested in what they were doing and showed support for their movement.

Some meet-ups would only draw a few bystanders. Others would draw as many as 100 people.

In every city they would use social media to find parts of the city that was less used or less trafficked.

“We would put the word out like, ‘Hey, you live here. Tell us what places could really benefit from what we are doing,’” Swanson said.

They group hit a new city every day along the trip, taking turns sleeping while one of them drove.

Unanimously, the group’s favorite part of the trip was a stop they made in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.

The students met up with a man who had a large community center that the city wouldn’t allow to open because their lighting was not up to code.

“Here’s all these kids who have nowhere to go, and the one thing they do have, the city won’t open,” Swanson said.

The owner of the community center, who the group had only known for about 30 minutes, took off, leaving them with his keys. He told them “Do whatever you want with it,” they said.

The group used the vacant community center as a space for children to come out and play around with the installations it had brought.

“I hadn’t realized how much damage Katrina had done to that area and how much damage was still left,” Huller said. “It was one of the best parts of the trip, being able to see kids who are stuck in such a poor environment just enjoying themselves and interacting with one another.”

After making it to Los Angeles, Swanson flew back to Tampa and is continuing to hold meet-ups every month downtown.

With Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn pushing to make Tampa a more family-friendly, urban environment, Swanson said movements like tactical urbanism are what are going to make people want to not only work downtown but make it their home.

“Tampa is starting to have things like food truck rallies and stuff, but it’s these events where people drive there, go to the event and then get in their car and drive home,” Swanson said. “What we’re trying to spark is that randomness … We want Tampa to be like New York where every corner you turn around there is stuff happening everywhere, and it’s thriving on a street level and not just on a corporate level.”

Swanson recently quit his job at Ai Collaborative, an architecture firm in Ybor, to focus on the Urban Conga. He is currently working with a lawyer to establish the collective as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit company.

He has also began working with the Tampa Downtown Partnership to legitimize the Urban Conga events with funding and sponsorship.

He said the group hopes to have a documentary of its summer trip out by early 2014 and plans to enter it in film festivals, who have already shown interest in seeing the documentary produced.

Recently, Swanson was invited to Kathleen High School in Lakeland by a teacher he met at TEDxOrlando.

“I think that’s really where you have to start if you want to build this sense of community in urban areas,” he said. “It starts with the young people and getting them to detach themselves from all the social media and get this kind of ground-up change going on.”

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