Civic Center's James A. Reeves talks sidewalk psychiatry

New Orleans' creative studio Civic Center works to restore civic dignity with public art project toolkits.

Founded by Candy Chang and James A. Reeves in 2010, Civic Center in New Orleans takes an interdisciplinary approach to civic planning.

SmartPlanet recently asked James A. Reeves to give us a sneak peek into what it means to "make cities more comfortable for people". And we are not talking about outdoor seating and wider sidewalks - that's what makes this creative studio so unique.

"We believe that public spaces should inspire conversation, make the machinery of the city more accessible, and restore a sense of dignity to the public realm," he said.

Dignity is not a design criteria you often hear about. But ironically, a sense of public control over public space is no longer a given. We asked Reeves, "What is Civic Center doing now that reflects the way public space has changed in the past 50 years?"

"Many of today's technologies have reshaped our public spaces, allowing us to connect in new ways yet also making the city more private," he said. "In 1989, William Gibson wrote about how the Walkman reshaped the way we think about cities, allowing us to walk through them with a private soundtrack. Today we walk through them with screens, collecting badges for having a beer or scrolling through chatter on our personal feeds.

"How can we better connect the personal and public in meaningful ways?"

How about a radio station dedicated to music for walking through the city? Or a public wall dedicated to your community's hopes and dreams? Or, perhaps street art that encourages self-evaluation for pedestrians?

These are all projects Civic Center has offered the public to play with. Suddenly, connecting the personal and the public in meaningful ways doesn't seem so idealistic and trope.

Candy Chang, Reeves' partner at Civic Center, designed Sidewalk Psychiatry a few years ago in Brooklyn. The project "encourages self-evaluation in transit by posing questions on the sidewalks with temporary spray-chalk."

A look at the project:

These temporary attempts at connection could move beyond general psychology and invite communities to ask hyper-local questions.  This is exactly what Civic Center is hoping for, Reeves said.

"Now that our shop has more experience with creating and distributing stencils, we're planning to grow the Sidewalk Psychiatry project later this year by making stencils available for purchase, setting up an archive online, and encouraging others to ask their own questions," he said.

We asked what the Civic Center is planning for the coming months. For those of you in the New Orleans area, Reeves has some good news.

"We believe that the best cities are fluid and chaotic places where different ideas collide," he said. "With this in mind, we're opening up a studio and storefront in New Orleans next month where, in addition to working on design projects, we're going to play with free workshops, film screenings, and book readings.

"There will also be a Scandinavian café on the weekends selling xiaolongbao dumplings, and trading records and books. More importantly, we're going to invite other groups to use the space and we'll listen to what the community would like us to offer and respond accordingly. I'm curious to see what happens here."

So are we. The Civic Center's interdisciplinary blending of art, design, education, research, and urban planning is yielding promising results.

Images: Civic Center

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