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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

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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