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It's No Picnic-in-the-Park...But a Picnic-in-the-Parking Space for Design Students

Architecture and planning students turned picnicking pranksters for a day – picnicking in a metered parking space on a busy downtown street, on a six-lane roadway median and on the courthouse steps. They and other students found creative ways to test and stretch the social boundaries of public spaces to find ways to improve Cincinnati’s public events.

Date: 11/17/2003 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Niehoff students

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Close to 30 students in the University of Cincinnati’s top-ranked architecture and planning programs have been giving downtown workers and residents some unconventional food for thought.  The students – all participants in a special, long-term project at UC which seeks to build a better city – have been humorously breaking social taboos regarding public space in order to determine, among other things, how large-scale, public events like Oktoberfest or Tall Stacks can better step up to the plate in drawing attention and crowds without stepping over the line. 

Students Greg Snyder and Kyle Hanigosky plunk a quarter in the meter to picnic in a parking space.

The “Oh my God!” factor greeted students Greg Snyder, Kyle Hanigosky and Chris Pohlar as they picnicked at various points in one of downtown Cincinnati’s most congested areas, Court Street.  They picnicked on the court house steps, in the median of Central Parkway and then, in a metered spot in the heavily congested area around the court house.  “We could hear one lady literally saying, ‘Oh, my God!’ as she did a double take driving by when she was looking for a space to park, and we were picnicking in the parking space,” explained Pohlar.  “We wondered if people would get upset with us for taking up a parking spot even though we’d fed the meter, but no one really seemed to be mad, but plenty were surprised,” he added.

The three students, who titled their project “Just Chill’in’ to Challenge the Boundaries” were not so much exploring the legal controls of public space so much as the social and cultural controls.  Says Snyder, an architecture student from Owensville, “There are multiple social controls on public space that are probably more powerful than legal controls.  The police were all around as we picnicked around, and we didn’t have a problem.  They had no reaction.  But, the informal, social controls were powerful.  I was nervous at first.  I found that people’s expectations can really control you.  It’s the kind of controls that affect food vendors who sell from pushcarts on the street. After all, an event is the blurring of public and private space that normally determines the right to be accepted, tolerated or rejected.”

Kyle Hanigosky and Greg Snyder also picnic in the Central Parkway median.

That’s just the kind of lesson they and their fellow students need since the class in which they’re working, The Niehoff Studio, specifically examines the use of food – retail, restaurant, and special events – as the basic ingredient in a long-term effort by University of Cincinnati students to build a better city.

Every quarter, teams of UC students gather around their design and research tables in an Over-the-Rhine studio classroom to serve up a menu of ideas that will benefit inner-city neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, East Walnut Hills, Corryville and the East End.  The effort began in the fall of 2002, and each quarter is building on the one before it.

The Niehoff Studio will last for at least six years.  In the first two years, we’ll continually focus on food in some way.  What solutions can be devised to assure that low-income areas receive the services and goods necessary?  Can we attract new residents to rundown areas with the power of vibrant food retail?  How can suburban superstores be adapted to the inner city with its dense urban context?  There are so many economic, social and cultural implications.  There’s power to be tapped in the buying and sharing of food,” explained Frank Russell, co-leader of The Niehoff Studio and director of UC’s Community Design Center

Student Steve Albert stands by the lollipop-decorated bus stop.

This quarter, other students also challenged the spatial “status quo.”  Another group of students placed colorfully wrapped lollipops into the perforated holes of the plastic bus shelter of a busy Court Street stop.  They then observed and analyzed reactions, including the change in the social atmosphere of the stop.  According to group members Steve Albert, Stephanie Kroger and Sanmati Naik, passers-by first thought the lollipops were a public-art display.  When the trio tried to sell the lollipops at a minimal price, downtowners were skeptical about the safety and cleanliness of the suckers.  When the students gave the lollipops away for free, they quickly gathered an eager crowd.

The lollipop lessons learned?  Among others, that any special event needs to build the public trust by visibly showing where a food product comes from.

Students laid out pre-packaged cakes that spell out Eat Me.

The same lesson was brought home by students who spelled out the words “EAT ME” on the downtown sidewalk, using pre-packaged cupcakes to spell out the words.  At first, very few pedestrians took a cake, but those who first dared, came back again and again for more, getting far more than their fair share. 

Trust was quickly built up by students Mathias Detamore, Frederick Spittael and Bobby Bitzenhofer who set up a “living room” on the sidewalk, with coffee table, lamp, and TV on a stand.  A few passers-by sat down with the students, sharing the offered chips and salsa and, in turn, offering the students food.   

A passerby takes advantage of the Eat Me invitation.

The students will now take what they’ve learned in challenging public-space boundaries and design creative public events for the city.  For example, one group is designing a theoretical “underground, cutting-edge” music, art and dance event, to include ethnic artists, in Cincinnati’s long-neglected subway tunnel, started in 1920 but never completed, and located under Central Parkway. 

The group planning the subway event – planning students Amanda Hernandez of Grelton, Ohio, Kathy Farro of Anderson Township, and architecture student Dan Hatch – like the idea of literally going underground to participate in the city’s underground arts scene.  In addition, the event would showcase the history of the subway tunnel as well as local architecture and transportation issues.

The students will present design drawings and details of proposed public events for the area at 5 p.m. Wednesday, December 10, in The Niehoff Studios, located downtown on the ground floor of the Emery Center, 110 East Central Parkway at Walnut Street.

In addition to Russell, others leading this quarter’s Niehoff are Michaele Pride-Wells, director of UC’s School of Architecture, Mahyar Arefi, assistant professor of planning; and Colleen McTague, adjunct instructor of geography. 

The Niehoff Studio was launched last fall with a $150,000 gift from UC alumnus and Board of Trustee member H.C. Buck Niehoff as well as additional support from the Kroger Company, UC’s Community Design Center, UC’s Institute for Community Partnerships, UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences and UC’s College of Education


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