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The Urban Conga

Former USF students use creativity to improve urban living

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 03:12


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.

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