Only the wonkiest eyes light up when resource allocation is discussed in facts and figures, so architect Quilian Riano decided to have some fun in the Sun Belt with a game that reflects on two of the region's most pressing issues. Riano, founding principal of Brooklyn-based DSGN AGNC, created SANDBOXING, a pavilion that turns land and water scarcity into a puzzle and an urgent conversation. SANDBOXING asks players to divide the finite resources of land and water between themselves equitably—or not. Participants stake out a zone in the sandbox (a stand-in for developable land) and begin expanding their territory with the help of yellow wood dividers stacked outside the pavilion. When a player's building spree brushes up against another player's domain, the two are obligated to negotiate boundaries or fight shrewdly to get more land—a mirror of the real-time development battles that shape the Sun Belt. While these negotiations are underway, a working dew-catcher canopy collects moisture from the air, converting droplets to plentiful water for sandcastles. "The spatial regeneration in the sandbox shows how you can discuss larger issues through a game," Riano said. There are no winners, he explained, only open-ended discussions on how to share a finite resource. The pavilion was installed in November and fabricated locally by Ash studios. The pavilion debuted at Jubilee Park and Community Center in Old East Dallas, a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood, to coincide with New Cities Future Ruins' (NCFR) November conference. NCFR is a four-year initiative that invites designers, artists, and others to engage with the "extreme urbanism" of the western Sun Belt. The arid region—anchored by sprawling metropolises of Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego–Tijuana—is under ecological duress as suburban-style development devours desert ecosystems unable to support a growing population. Although the conference has wrapped, Riano said the community wanted to keep the installation close by, so Ash studios has agreed host it in a lot adjacent to its office, free and open to the public.
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What happens when you gather four tactical urbanists in one room for a "Death Match"-style debate asking, "Is Small Big Enough?" You get a choir. The panel at the Flux Factory's discussion last night was equipped with "smackdown cards" to challenge the views of their opponents, but they all agreed more often than they disagreed, that the small scale actions at the root of tactical urbanism—and this years US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Spontaneous Interventions—are just fine. What emerged from the packed house was a highly polished discussion, where minor differences were exposed, ground down, and made smooth. The panel consisted of designer and critical activist of DSGN AGNC Quilian Riano, tactical urbanism guru and Street Plans Collaborative principal Mike Lydon, Hester Street Collaborative director Anne Frederick, and planner and co-founder of Change Administration and DoTank:Brooklyn Aurash Khawarzad, who will all be participating in the Biennale next week, and was moderated by the Flux Factory's Douglas Paulson and Christina Vassallo. Each brought a nuanced perspective on the importance of small scale urban interventions. In determining how to evaluate tactical interventions, Khawarzad started the debate by suggesting that simply making an effort is a success in itself, that asking people to think or build or do something in a different way can make an action successful. "Cities are going through a discovery phase," he said. "Engaging in public space is making something happen." Others disagreed, arguing that more should be required of evaluating interventions. Frederick said that any action must be evaluated on how it responded to needs identified by the surrounding community. Others suggested that the actions must amount to or lead to something larger to be successful and criteria should be set beforehand to weigh against the results. Lydon pointed out that one of the main goals of tactical urbanism is for "small scale action to lead to long-term change," which means a strategy and goals must be considered. "Doing is good, but the action can still fail," Lydon said. All agreed, then, that failure is an important part of the small-scale process. "Failure is the game," Riano said, taking a jab at the planning failures of the past that have helped to give rise to the popularity of tactical urbanism. "Failure today is our system's inability to get over what happened in the 1950s," he said. Lydon noted that that large-scale mistakes of the past—like overbuilding the suburbs—brought horrible results that are difficult to undo, but failing with small scale actions tends not to cause harm and can serve as a learning process for adapting tactics to individual situations. While the panel delved further and sometimes disagreed on the details of meaning, gentrification, and politics, they again merged on the value of working with existing power structures such as municipal governments to affect change. The panel quipped that yarnbombing might not bring long term change, but working to change the rules can help turn pop-up parks and parklets into a lasting public space policy. As the panel packs up and prepares to leave for Venice, you can weigh in on the value of the tactical actions being presented as part of the Spontaneous Interventions pavilion at an online debate at the Philip Johnson Glass House website going on over the next 10 days.