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St. Louis teams up with LA for 'Good' ideas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2011 - St. Louisans groan when local, creative 20-somethings take their talents elsewhere. But the fact that 1995 Parkway West grad Alissa Walker moved to Los Angeles may be a boost for our town.

Thanks to Walker, St. Louis has joined an impressive quartet of cities -- LA, San Francisco, New York City and Portland -- in an urban problem-solving program sponsored by the online platform and magazine, "GOOD."

Walker, a contributor to the five-year-old quarterly whose slogan is "For people who give a damn," teamed up with the magazine's co-founder three years ago to create "GOOD Ideas for Cities." The program consists of volunteer teams of creative thinkers chosen to collaborate toward solving problems identified by local leaders. Team members work together for several months, then present their ideas in a public forum.

The idea popped into Walker's mind while interviewing people for "GOOD" articles. She saw a disconnect between cities' issues and the people who might address them.

"As a journalist, I just constantly hear, on the one side, about all the things that are wrong with cities, and on the other side, all these architects who wanted to help," Walker said. "I was hoping to be like a matchmaker."

St. Louis was on Walker's short list for "GOOD Ideas" not only because it's her home town but also because of its "great urban culture."

"St. Louis has this wonderful, rich history and civic pride and a lot of people outside St. Louis don't really know about it," Walker said.

Local architectural firm HOK also had a hand in accelerating St. Louis' participation in "GOOD Ideas" through a Chicago-based urban planning group called CEOs for Cities, which is partnering with "GOOD" on the project.

In an it's-a-small-world move, HOK's Chip Crawford happened to be chatting with someone from CEOs at a conference in Denver when the concept came up, according to Jeannette Thompson of HOK's planning group. "They just got to talking about the initiative and he said, 'Count us in; St. Louis needs this. We'll be one of your first cities; we'll help you organize it, whatever you need.'" Thompson said. "It was kind of serendipitous."

'Beyond 'the Usual Suspects'

"GOOD" has hosted 10 "Ideas" events in three years, all in LA, San Francisco and New York City. Late this year, the Portland and St. Louis events were announced.

The magazine is taking applications for St. Louis creative teams only through Jan. 6. "GOOD" will pick the teams and the Contemporary Art Museum will help vet their members. Public presentations of the final five or six chosen groups will take place March 8 at the CAM.

Submission forms are on the "GOOD" website and only take about 10 minutes to complete, according to Walker. She said there's been a lot of twittering and emailing about the project but they've received only a few applications. However, in Portland, where the deadline has passed, most submissions came in during the last three days.

Prospective participants need to pair up with at least one other person; they can add more members later to teams that will hopefully represent a diverse population in terms of expertise and experience, according to Thompson.

"There are always the usual suspects, but they're trying to get a mix of people you might not expect or have even heard of before," Thompson said. "Some of the best events are with really junior people working with more practiced designers."

In Portland, the teams include writers, landscape architects and even a bike maker, all of whom may or may not work in an area familiar to them. The CAM's public programs manager Alex Elmestad and Kevin Farrell of Partnership for Downtown St. Louis both applauded the idea of collaborations among various camps.

"The more we get people networking and working creatively on solutions, the more it will be a positive for all of us," Farrell said.

"If you have a problem with plumbing, and you bring an artist in the mix they'll have a very different solution than maybe a politician would," Elmestad said.

Riding The 'St. Louis Doesn't Suck' Wave

In talking with people in St. Louis, Walker saw several topics emerge as likely challenges to be addressed by "GOOD Ideas."'

"Transportation is a huge one; education is another big one. And there are still big issues around the connection to the riverfront to East St. Louis and downtown," Walker said.

Another issue is image, specifically the ways both residents and outsiders see St. Louis. Walker said she wants to ride the positive momentum recently begun by the viral Forbes magazine opinion piece, ["St. Louis Doesn't Suck,"]  written by a St. Louis transplant who's come to appreciate the Gateway City.

"What can we do to change people's perceptions? That would be a cool challenge for someone," Walker said.

From Ideas To Action

Each city's program is not an isolated occurrence; an online tool kit still under construction will connect people in different cities to work on, say, a Portland idea in San Francisco or an LA idea in St. Louis. The online resource will also offer a how-to kit for cities who want to host "GOOD Ideas for Cities" on their own and instructions for grant-writing.

"A big component in the tool kit is teaching people how to get funding for their ideas, helping them figure out what's our next step, where can we get some money and how can we take this to the next level?'" Walker said.

Implementation is the program's ultimate goal, something that's already happening in California. To increase public transit ridership in San Francisco, one team came up with the idea to provide WiFi, work tables and even copy machines to passengers. Practical solutions were then paired with media campaigns and convincing slogans, such as:

"'You could be on your laptop instead of driving,' or 'You could be working on your way to work,'" Walker said. The program was put into place only a few months later; new ridership figures should soon indicate whether it's been a success.

A Los Angeles team concept for addressing homelessness has also been put into action. Typical of the atypical "GOOD" program, the idea came not from a social worker but a furniture designer.

"She said 'I don't know if I'm equipped for this' but in the end, she had the most amazing solution,'" Walker said.

Her idea was a board game to help volunteers expedite the 40-step process that gets people from the streets into homes.

"Now they're using it in their training sessions in LA and New York City, and it's cut the processing time in half," Walker said.

To promote local ideas, those in charge of St. Louis' Design Week will pick one concept to focus on during their next annual event in September 2012.

"We would love to have at least one project move forward in each city," Walker said. "In St. Louis, there's been so much enthusiasm that I don't doubt at least one solution will be implemented."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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