Written by: Patrick McDonnell
To me, there is nothing more interesting than the city. The people, the stories, the parks, the streets, the rhythm of urban life, and the excitement of the unexpected. There is a gravity that pulls us in whether it’s love, work, or adventure. When we are in it, suddenly we feel bigger than ourselves. Cities are complicated things but we can all grasp their greatness by going out and seeing what we can see.
The essence of the city is on the streets. And now more than ever, we have the capacity to indulge in it and share our experiences through social media. Social media provides an instant connection to people that share a passion—whether it be photography, innovation, design, or pets—and provides an accessible community. As part of a project I’m working on to encourage street life activity, sharing, and social media, I recently posted a “do” on the GOOD social platform: Observe the City. Snap a Pic, and Publish it Online. Repeat. The hashtag #CityLifeObservations enables me to source and collect the photos to a Storify thread.
The project stemmed from my own discovery as an urbanist, which I realized is hugely about on-the-ground observation. For me, observation is the “let’s figure out how things work” phase where you gather insider information, pin-point how systems fit together, and tune in to the nuances that are only apparent when you’re a part of the action. It’s the foundation for creating a narrative about a solution.
Over the past year as a freelance urban planner, I’ve spent a lot of time riding my bike through the city, observing and locating examples of street life, then magnifying them through small-scale events and low-cost projects ranging from community events, small design/builds, and more recently a project to build an urban Swing Park in an empty parking lot in Dallas. Creating events and building-out projects instantly changes the city. When you’re able to physically demonstrate solutions, you take an idea from a conversation to something tangible. Introducing a new object into the environment fundamentally alters it—suddenly an empty parking lot becomes an experience, and the conversation about how we view the city changes in turn. And by photographing, and sharing these experience you can create a more engaging and meaningful story, enabling you to connect to people on a deeper level.
Most of my contemporaries work at governmental offices, private planning firms, nonprofits and other similar businesses where social media is shunned. It’s not considered part of the job—it’s considered a waste of time and a distraction from the “real work”, but the truth is that it’s integral to relaying ideas, information, and promoting the culture of the business.
The city projects that I’ve created have all come out of problems that I’ve observed and encountered in the field, or things that I’ve seen in other cities that I wish we had in Dallas. Documenting and sharing my ideas naturally turned what I liked to do into a business. I’ve realized that the only difference between brands and companies is the ability to present ideas and getting recognition for them. Over time, the more I documented and showcased what I was seeing, the more my work started to take on an identity and effectively brand itself. Here are three practices that have turned my interests in city life into a brand:
1. Document Everything
If you’re doing cool stuff, people want to know about it and they want to access you. For me, the trifecta is Facebook, Twitter, and personal website. At the very least, creating your own Facebook page, separate from your personal page, allows you to showcase your ideas, post pictures, create events, curate articles that relate to your projects, and gain a following that extends beyond your friend group. Also, take lots of pictures—Instagram is great for quick documentation. By documenting everything, you become your own journalist. Learn how spread your ideas, and define your own exposure.
2. Make it Personal
Whether getting reprimanded from trying to use chalk on sidewalks or wanting to have more public spaces to enjoy, these inconsistencies in the cityscape have turned into personal vendettas against antiquated codes and have made for great community projects. I always ask myself, “Does it tickle my fancy?” If yes, then I know it’ll be a great project, and I know it will be meaningful because I’m solving problem that I care about.
3. Get Involved, Meet People, and Interact with Them Regularly
Social relationships lead to economic ones. Find them on Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter and then engage them in those mediums too. Go to events in your city, especially ones where you know people you want to meet will be, and then arrange a coffee or lunch meeting afterwards. The face-to-face creates a foundation and social media allows you to keep up with them without always being in their face. I “Like”, “Favorite”, and “Heart” a lot of things, not because I’m trying to appease people, but because I want to support what they’re doing and find out how to interact with them. I had to learn to stop coveting my likes and stop thinking of them as gold nuggets that were only deserving of really great projects. Now, I see social media as a resource about the cool things happening in the city.
Observation is a big component of my role as an urbanist in the city, but it applies to your personal brand too. Documentation is so important! Somebody once told me “Documentation is marketing!” And it’s true. It gets at the difference between brands and companies. When you put your observations out in the world and give people a way to access them, you’re building your own brand. So go out, see what you can observe, publish it, and repeat. Find the flavor. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to create your own.
Patrick McDonnell (patrickm02L@gmail.com) is a freelance urban planner/social entrepreneur. In 2012, he was named a Next City Vanguard which recognizes the top 40 under 40 urban leaders in the country. Connect with Patrick on Facebook, Twitter: @patrickm02L, Linkedin: in/patrickm02L, and his website patrickm02L.com.